ALTHOUGH TILMAN RIEMENSCHNEIDER (c. 1460-1531) was a contemporary of Michelangelo -- albeit an elder one -- he was through and through an artist of the Late Gothic North in contrast to the Renaissance South. There's not a hint of the classical in his remarkable carvings, no more than in the work of his German contemporaries, with the arguable exception of the painter, Albrecht Durer -- no sense, that is, of the nobility of the human form that the Italian Renaissance made the lingua franca of art in Europe after about 1500. In the Rhineland, Late Gothic was a late blossom, a hold-over; it coincided with the High Renaissance in Italy and hence with Leonardo, Raphael, and the aforementioned Michelangelo.
The difference between gothic North and humanist South in this era has often been noted -- emphatically and famously by Thomas Mann in The Magic Mountain, but also with penetrating insight by Wilhelm Worringer, Heinrich Wolfflin, and more recently Michael Baxandall. In Riemenschneider's own time this art was referred to as 'altfrankisch': the word, as Theodor Muller puts it, "a nicely ambiguous term, meaning... both ancient Franconian and old-fashioned." This altfrankischness is compounded by the relation of this sculpture to the emerging pictorial art of the time, especially from the Low Countries.
A striking character of northern art is its disavowal of the nude. The idealized nude, one of the cornerstones of humanist painting and sculpture, is rare in Northern art before the Reformation. Riemenschneider's figures are nearly always clothed, their bodies hidden and withdrawn, subject to angular rhythms more in keeping with folds and angles of drapery than with bones and flesh. The figures seldom seem supported through a central core, as with Donatello, but derive support from their contours. In the image above of a female saint, there's little sense of a central spine or natural distribution of weight: head and neck appear to be centered above the left knee which isn't the weight-bearing leg; a kind of tense stability is provided by the sculpture's vertical right side which contracts with a curving opposite side. This produces a sense of disquiet, but by no means a Mannerist disquiet: that always has in it a hint of disaffection. This fundamental disequilibrium is a characteristic of Riemenschneider's art; his figures tend to be slightly off balance, out of kilter. Is this why the sculptures seem so German?
This disequilibrium is reflected in their facial expressions. These differ strikingly from the classical humanism that one so often finds in Italy: in Donatello or Michelangelo, but it differs equally from the bourgeois worldliness of 15th century Flanders. Riemenschneider's figures often appear troubled, or at best reflective. Their inwardness differs markedly from humanist expression which tends to be responsive and reactive or sereenely accepting. In comparison, Riemenschneider's figures seem sealed off from the world.
Saint Matthias, c. 1500-1505
After about 1500, Riemenschneider worked in a kind of shallow relief -- even his free-standing sculptures became somewhat flattened. These sculptures are quasi-pictorial -- even more so than the sculptures of their Flemish forbears. I suspect that this reflects Riemenshneider's response to the growing pressure from pictorial art in the North -- which had been affected in its own turn in the previous century by carving. Apparently Riemenschneider was influenced in particular by Martin Schongauer's prints (and via them by Roger van der Weyden's paintings.)
The Gothic North, seems almost a different civilization (let alone culture) from the Italian /Mediterranean (shades of Braudel, shades of Pirenne.) The development of visual art in the North occurred apart from the monuments and visual traditions of classical culture. I suspect that the visual culture of the North relied more on manuscript illuminations, pattern books, and of course the long traditions of Gothic sculpture that led through painting to the widely-disseminated prints which developed into the very sophisticated works of Schongauer and Durer. Its sculptural heritage began not so much in Italy as in the distinctive Romanesque carving of Spain and Southern France. This art spread into northern France and Flanders in the 15th Century and reached a kind of climax in the Rhineland on the eve of the Reformation with geniuses like Riemenschneider and Grünewald. After that came the deluge -- German Gothic was killed by the Peasants Revolt and eviscerated by the Reformation. Late Gothic expressionism gave way to a kind of flamboyant Humanism, inwardness to empty outwardness.
My account my not be entirely accurate -- I don't profess to be a historian. In any event, many questions remain: how and why did the high accomplishment of Northern sculpture pass from the Low Countries to the upper Rhine around the turn of the 16th century? and how and why did it take up such a Germanic character? Here we're faced with the idea of nationality in art, the province of Worringer and Wolfflin. This peculiar character seems bound up with the coming of the Reformation, too. Was this no more than a coincidence? Is there something prophetic of Reformation unrest in the work of Riemenschneider and his contemporaries? His contemporaries were illustrious: Grünewald, Stoss, Durer, Vischer, Kraft, etc. Why are the sculptors so seemingly neglected among these? Why, for example, are not Riemenschneider, Stoss, and Vischer mentioned alongside Grünewald and Durer? Was there in fact a common culture?
The reputation of these sculptors suffers, I suspect, from the post Renaissance ascendancy of painting. All of these artists provide some insight--in their lives as well as their works--into the schism afforded by Luther and the Reformation, and moreover reveal it in their lives. The Peasants' Revolt was a crisis for several of the artists: it cost Grünewald his patron; one of his followers was even drawn and quartered; Riemenschneider was imprisoned. Stoss had his own problems with authority, having been branded earlier on both cheeks. One senses in these artists a disquiet that was captured in this last century by Thomas Mann:
But in the corner... stood a work of art, a large painted wood-carving, mounted on a red-covered dais: a pieta, profoundly startling, artlessly effective to the point of being grotesque. The Madonna, in a cap, with gathered brows and wry, wailing mouth, with the Man of Sorrows on her lap -- considered as a work of art it was primitive and faulty, with crudely emphasized and ignorant anatomy, the hanging head bristling with thorns, face and limbs blood-besprinkled, great blobs of blood welling from the wound in the side and from the nail-prints in hand.
[Settembrini]... confined himself to pointing out certain defects in the physical proportions of the work, offences against nature, which were far from working upon his emotions, because they did not spring from archaic ineptitude, but from deliberate bad intent -- a fundamentally opposed principle.... He characterized as absurd the formlessness to which the Middle Ages and all periods like them had been a prey, and began, in sounding words, to exalt the Greco-Roman heritage, classicism, form, and beauty, reason, the pagan joy of life.
-- Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
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This essay was prompted by a visit to the exhibition Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages at the Metropolitan Museum, February 10, 2000May 14, 2000. To see this and other virtual exhibitions at the Met web site, click here: MET
Also: Don't miss the Walker Evans and Roman Funerary Portraits exhibitions at the same site, & check the big Vuillard painting in the Paris exhibition. Wow!