Saturday, August 20, 2016

Veit Stoss of Nuremberg

It is a commonplace of art history these days to reduce the role of the artist in his/her own work, to discuss the artist as if he/she were but the passive and transparent vessel of larger structural forces that shape their art.  Indeed, it seems at times that academics deny the artist agency all together these days.  What was once a necessary correction to the 19th century Great Man view of history has gone the other extreme into a Michel Foucault inspired dystopia where no one acts, but people only behave according to predetermined patterns.  Our understanding of our own time colors our view of the past, as is true of every period and culture that ever looked back.  Perhaps we project our own immensely expanded and interconnected world governed by large impersonal economic and political forces back into a much smaller and more local world of the past.  In our world, the individual is both an insignificant cipher and an almost mythically inflated figure.  The individual in a Renaissance city state like Nuremberg certainly had a very different meaning.
We assume that artists before the advent of the Modern Era were largely integrated into their societies and played their roles without question or self-consciousness.  We presume that the popular conception of the artist as a visionary set in opposition to his/her own society is entirely a creation of early 19th century Romanticism that has no relevance to earlier art.  I think it is possible to question this conventional academic presumption without trying to make Donatello into Van Gogh's twin brother.  Sketchy and fragmentary historical records suggest that the reality of artists' lives was much more complex and richer than the current anthropological model would indicate, that artists sometimes did indeed consciously try to make or break their assigned roles and conventional aesthetics long before Romanticism made that part of the job description.

One such artist was the great Nuremberg sculptor Veit Stoss, an artist praised internationally, even by that great Italo-centric writer Giorgio Vasari (though he misattributes Stoss' sculpture of Saint Roch in the church of Santissima Annunziata in Florence to a French sculptor).  Veit Stoss was the most famous sculptor to come out of Nuremberg, and yet the details of his life are sketchy and fragmentary.  Little is known for certain about his origins, including the exact year and place of his birth.  Veit Stoss bursts into the historical record with a major masterpiece of Renaissance sculpture, a huge altarpiece for Saint Mary's Church in Cracow, Poland, the church of the German mercantile community in the Polish royal city.  It was the largest and most ambitious such altarpiece in Europe at the time, and still celebrated as Stoss's masterpiece.  He employed scores of specialists -- woodcarvers, painters, gilders, etc. -- to help him make this altarpiece.  It took Stoss about a dozen years to complete this work, during which time he renounced his citizenship in Nuremberg.  Some kind of fame or reputation must have preceded Stoss to Cracow for him to have gained so important (and probably much sought after) a commission, though this is lost in the surviving records.
Veit Stoss returned to Nuremberg in 1496 an internationally celebrated sculptor and regained his citizenship.  Ever after, the records indicate a very troubled relationship with his home city.  Soon after he returned, he lost his savings through fraud.  In 1503, Stoss was arrested for forging an official seal used by the man who swindled him in a attempt to recover his money.  Stoss was sentenced to be branded on both cheeks and prohibited from leaving Nuremberg without official permission.  The Emperor Maximilian I pardoned him three years later and restored his civil rights.  The whole episode -- and Stoss' permanently branded cheeks -- embittered his relations with his fellow citizens in Nuremberg.  That alienation only deepened when Nuremberg's city council voted to join the Reformation in 1525 while Stoss decided to remain Catholic.  The commissions for large work stopped coming, partly because of his strained relations with the city, and also partly because the Reformation dried up demand for the large-scale public religious work that were the bread and butter of artists of that time, even of those who supported the Reformation (such as that other great Nuremberg artist Albrecht Dürer).   Veit Stoss died in 1533 and is buried in the Johannesfriedhof in Nuremberg not far from Dürer's grave.
These biographical fragments suggest a proud, very difficult, and temperamental man jealous for his independence.  Today, and in his lifetime, Stoss' work is celebrated for its virtuosity, its drama, and for its originality.  I certainly would never make Stoss into some kind of modern revolutionary out to fight for a new way of seeing the world.   But, I would make him into that kind of independent and original artist that the literature of the Renaissance and ever after describes, an artist who  defies convention and completely remakes it; as did the pioneering Italians of the 15th century such as Donatello and Masaccio; a conception largely rejected by academics these days, but that I would argue is still true to experience, our experience of the artist's work and to the artist's experience of making it.
Pardon my inner socialist, but I always suspect these academic models denying agency to the artist as being another plot by management to keep labor costs down.

While Veit Stoss' greatest work remains on the high altar of Saint Mary's in Cracow, there is still a lot of his work to be seen in Nuremberg, including major projects.

Pardon me for returning from a second trip to Nuremberg smitten with this artist's work.

Unless otherwise noted, all of the photographs in this post are mine and are freely available, especially to educators.

Veit Stoss' Work in Sankt Lorenz in Nuremberg

The great church of Sankt Lorenz is always worth another visit and another.

The west front of Sankt Lorenz

The main portal on the west front where tourists and locals together like to rest their tired feet by sitting on the steps.  In Stoss' day, those steps were probably occupied by beggars and vendors.

The 14th century tympanum sculpture of the whole scheme of salvation from The Incarnation through the Passion to the Last Judgement.

The view east through the 14th century nave to the 15th century choir.

Sankt Lorenz was never a cathedral church.  Like the Marienkirche in Lübeck, it was the church of the ruling mercantile oligarchy.  Nuremberg, like Hanseatic Lübeck, grew rich off foreign trade; in this case by overland trade between Italy and Flanders, and cross continental trade routes from east to west.  A large splendid church like Sankt Lorenz proclaimed the power and success of the ruling mercantile oligarchy as well as glorified God.

Looking west back though the 14th century nave

The 14th century rose window

Looking east to the choir.

The 15th century choir designed by Mathes Roriczer with vault tracery designed by Jacob Grimm.

Christ Crucified on the Tree of Life on the rood beam.

This may well be a post War reconstruction of Grimm's tracery, but it is still amazing.

Hanging from that reconstructed tracery vault is one of Veit Stoss' most celebrated works, The Annunciation.

This hanging sculpture is huge.  The figures of Mary and Gabriel are life sized.  The whole thing is made from polychromed limewood.
This huge sculpture was commissioned by the wealthy merchant and city councilor Anton Tucher in 1517 to be a focus for Marian devotions centering on the rosary (and yet Tucher voted with the rest of the city council in 1525 to join the Reformation).

A woodcut from about 1510 by Wolf Taub of the Rosary with the Joyful and Sorrowful Mysteries of the Virgin Mary.  Scanned from my copy of Michael Baxandall's The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany.

This great sculpture is a very original conception based on popular woodcuts of the rosary.  It was a real stroke of imagination to recreate a flat graphic conception in three dimensional sculpture using the actual space of the church as the background.  The hanging sculpture floats in the middle of the air like an apparition, a kind of miraculous visionary experience for all who look at it.  As in the prints, the Annunciation is framed by a garland of golden roses that represent the beads on the rosary.  Five Medallions between the golden roses show the Joyful Mysteries of the Virgin Mary (The Visitation, The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi,  The Resurrection, and Pentecost).  The Annunciation is one of those Joyful Mysteries and is the centerpiece, probably because it is most appropriate for altars ("the word became flesh;" the Real Presence of Christ invoked on the altar in the choir during Mass).
Veit Stoss added two more medallions at the top showing the Dormition and Coronation of the Virgin Mary; Mary as the First Christian whose reward in Heaven is promised to every believer in the next life.

This great work was completed on the eve of the Reformation, and post-Reformation Nuremberg had difficulty with this large prominent work proclaiming Marian devotion in the middle of one of their greatest churches.  For a long time, it was grist for preachers assailing popery and the expenditures "wasted" on maintaining this sculpture instead of being spent on charity.  As late as the 18th century, this sculpture still incurred the wrath of preachers like Andreas Osiander who referred to the Virgin Mary as looking like a "golden milkmaid."

Gabriel greets Mary as the small prayer book drops from her hand.  The Dove of the Holy Spirit lands upon her head.  Small angels surround them ringing handbells.

Veit Stoss used drapery in his sculptures very expressively in a way that went beyond his contemporaries and anticipated Baroque art (especially Bernini).  The little angel ringing a bell on the right holds up part of her drapery.  As Peter Meyer points out, that drapery takes on the shape of an ear, a shape echoed throughout the folds of the drapery.  Mary hears the Word that becomes flesh in her womb.  This sculpture is full of the noise of ringing bells and musical instruments.  It is all about hearing and listening.

The top of the rosary showing the Resurrection of Christ, and the Coronation of the Virgin.

The medallion showing The Nativity.

 A photo that I took in 2014 of the present high altar with a crucifix by Veit Stoss

Another photo from 2014

My photo from this year of the Veit Stoss Crucifix.
Standing behind the altar of Sankt Lorenz is a life sized crucifix that is in the unpainted style made popular by the sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider.

Veit Stoss's Work in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nuremberg

A stone Virgin and Child on the crescent moon.  As in the best of Veit Stoss' work, the flowing drapery forms a counterpoint that complements the pose of the body.  The mantle seems to rise up in an arc from her feet to help support the Child.

Tobias and the Angel done in the unpainted manner.  The angel's swirling drapery is a triumph of virtuosity and form.

Veit Stoss' Work in Sankt Sebaldus, Nuremberg

Veit Stoss carved the Crucifixion group that dominates the terminus of the choir of Sankt Sebaldus.

In Veit Stoss' work, the crucified Christ is always tightly stretched out and pinned to the cross like a frog on a dissecting plate.  That effect is always enhanced by the contrasting liveliness of the drapery of the loincloth.  The great painter Roger Van Der Weyden created the Crucifix with the tightly stretched out body and windblown loincloth.  Stoss' created his crucifixions to be his own variation of that suffering Christ on the Cross that is a German invention.  The image of the crucifixion emerges suddenly and fully formed in Germany in the 10th century in one of the enduring mysteries of art history; a decisive break with the triumphalism of early Christian art that minimized the shame and suffering of the Cross.

Only Christ's head seems to move in Veit Stoss' crucifixions.  The windblown drapery against the immobile body becomes a specialty for Stoss.  In this case, the loincloth blowing in the wind is its own amazing work of sculpture, as free and lively as Christ's body is bound and motionless.

The Virgin Mother by Stoss, one of the few from the Renaissance to show her as age appropriate to be the mother of a 30 to 33 year old son.  As in the best of Stoss' work, the drapery forms its own drama, a counterpoint to the still or slowly moving figure who wears it.  The swirling dark blue mantle with flickers of gold leaf seems to express her inner turmoil.

The figure of John from the Crucifixion group.

As always, the hands and feet on Veit Stoss' Crucifixions are amazing and painful to look at.

The agonized face of Christ with a shank of sweat-soaked hair hanging down to the left of his face.

These polychromed figures made the Crucified Christ seem vividly real and present to worshippers.  Like most Renaissance religious art in Northern Europe and in Italy, the convincing verisimilitude is meant to appeal to our sense of empathy and to our sympathies.

I have a special fondness for Veit Stoss' Crucifixes.  They have all the tragic grandeur and suffering of Grünewald's famous Isenheim Altarpiece without the lurid sensationalism.

The Volckamer Monument, 1499, commissioned by the prominent merchant Thomas Volckamer.

I've never seen another version of the Last Supper quite like this.  Instead of a solemn dignified First Mass, this is a crowded chaotic drunken boys' night out.  The figures barely fit into this square format.   Instead of playing the role of First Celebrant in the center as is customary, Christ sits down on the lower left with a drunken Peter almost audibly saying in Christ's ear, "You know I love you man."  John doesn't so much faint in grief and horror as sleep it off on Christ's arm.  Judas with his money bag recoils from the gathering in disgust as much as in remorse.  Another apostle on the right cheerfully offers us a mug of ale from the tankard he holds loosely in his left hand.  There is a lot of pouring and drinking going on throughout this Last Supper set in a Nuremberg tavern.

Peter drunkenly assuring Christ of his fidelity echoes Judas' kiss in the last panel.

John is still fast asleep as his Master prays for his life in the Garden of Gethsemane.

In the last panel, the violence of Christ's arrest replaces the drunken gemütlichkeit of the Last Supper.  Instead of fellowship, there is anger, fear, and hatred as Judas plants the most famous kiss of death on Christ's cheek.  Here, the rope used to bind Christ is held above His head in a premonition of the Crown of Thorns.

More of Veit Stoss' Work in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum

Another remarkable Crucifix by Veit Stoss in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg that partially occupies the remains of a Carthusian monastery.

I have no idea where this life sized Crucifix is from.  I can't find any information along those lines on the Germanisches Nationalmuseum website.  It is an amazing example of Stoss' stretched out and immobile figure of Christ beautifully polychromed.

According to Gerrit, this crucifix is from the Heiliggeist Spital (Hospital of the Holy Spirit) in Nuremberg, and has been officially on loan to the museum since the 19th century.  The fervent prayers of desperate people would probably explain the paint loss on the shins of this sculpture.

Splendid dying head and gaping wound in the side.

Amazing and convincing hands.

The feet with the hands are always the most remarkable and expressive parts of Veit Stoss' Crucifixions.  On this one, the color on the shins has worn away, I presume from generations of being touched and venerated.

One final elegant Virgin and Child in unpainted wood.


Gerrit said...

Excellent work, Doug, as usual. Or ever.
The Crucifix in the Germanisches Reichsmuseum (that sounds like the Führer himself opened it in 1936) was donated by the city council in the 1890's as a permanent loan. Before that it was comforting the old and sick in the Heiliggeist Spital or Hospital of the Holy Ghost. No surprise that it suffered heavily in WW II, but it was reconstructed in the early '50s. The crypt of the Imperial Chapel in Nürnberg houses another Veit Stoss Crucifix, that is quite comparable.


Counterlight said...

Thanks Gerrit.
I'm familiar with the Heiliggeist Spital (is that the one that spans the Pegnitz River?), though I've never visited there. I'm very gratified to hear that the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Crucifix is from there. That would explain the worn off pigment on the shins.