Sunday, January 16, 2022

Tilman Riemenschneider

The Marienaltar of the Herrgottskirche just outside of Creglingen in south central Germany is a major work of Northern Renaissance sculpture by the prolific Tilman Riemenschneider.  Riemenschneider and his large workshop carved the sculptures and shrine-work from limewood (wood from linden trees), and the basic framework of the altarpiece from pine in about 1494 - 1499.

This altar stands on the site where a plowman discovered an undamaged and unsullied communion host on the ground in 1384.  The local lords built the Herrgottskirche on the site in 1386 as a pilgrimage church when the recovered host began working miracles.  The nearby town of Creglingen went over to the Reformation in 1530.  Luther opposed iconoclasm, so all the altars and their artworks remained in the church.  Soon after the church became Protestant, church officials closed the wings not to reopen them again until 1832.  As a result, the interior sculptures are very well preserved.

Critical opinion of Riemenschneider's work was always very mixed.  He was very famous and his work widely in demand in his lifetime, but his fame waned very quickly after his death.  Romantic taste of the early 19th century rediscovered his work and he was famous within the German-speaking world once again.  Outside that world, he remains not quite so well known beyond circles of scholars and admirers.
The art historian Michael Baxandall who remains the major authority on late medieval/Renaissance limewood sculpture in English thought very little of his work, a set of formulas and stereotypes recycled over and over again.  Kenneth Clark thought more highly of Riemenschneider's work, that at is best it has a seriousness of purpose and depth of feeling not seen in the work of other artists of the time such as Veit Stoss or Michel Erhart.

I've never been to Creglingen or seen this enormous altarpiece in person.  I'm familiar with it, but until recently I've only known it from small and poor black and white photos in art history survey books.  Seeing the altarpiece in these photos -- some by professionals and others by tourists -- is a revelation.  A majestic and sober Virgin Mary triumphantly ascends from her tomb above surprised and dazzled Apostles.

All these photos are courtesy of Wikimedia Commons as are most of my photos on this blog these days.


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