The Carved Altarpiece
Although Riemenschneider produced numerous altarpieces, or retables, between 1485 and 1525, only two have survived intact. Neglect, fire, changes in taste, and the nineteenth-century secularization of many ecclesiastic institutions account for the loss of the others. Many figures and reliefs in this exhibition are fragments of such elaborate structures, which served as a focus for liturgy, veneration, and pilgrimage.
Carved altarpieces, which had been produced since the late thirteenth century, were in great demand in Germany in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries: they combined sculpted figures with an architectural encasement. The altarpiece traditionally consisted of four main elements. The central section, or corpus, housed figures arranged either side by side or in a unified composition. The corpus was flanked by hinged wings, normally decorated with reliefs, which were open on Sundays and most holy days. The base, or predella, which often contained sculpture, raised the corpus above the altar and gave it greater prominence. A tall superstructure with intricate tracery and additional figures surmounted the corpus.
Retables were costly undertakings that often resulted from the collaboration of several individuals: a sculptor, a joiner, an iron monger, and, in the case of a polychrome altarpiece, a painter. Documents reveal that Riemenschneider could either be entrusted with only the sculptural decoration or be charged with the entire enterprise, as he was with the Münnerstadt altarpiece.
The Münnerstadt Altarpiece
Riemenschneiders retable for the parish church of Mary Magdalen in Münnerstadt, made between 1490 and 1492, serves as a touchstone for understanding his early oeuvre. It was one of the earliest carved altarpieces to be delivered uncolored, but the absence of color apparently proved disturbing, and in 1504-1505 the Nuremberg sculptor Veit Stoss painted and gilded it. The retable was dismantled between 1649 and 1653, and several sculptural elements, eventually found their way into public collections. In the early 1980s the parts of the altarpiece that remained in Münnerstadt were installed in a modern encasement to present them at the proper height and in the proper light. Copies of the dispersed sculpture were later added to the ensemble.
The composition centered on Mary Magdalen. A repentant harlot who had turned to Christ, she served as an example that even sinners can become saints, extending the hope of salvation to everyone. In the Münnerstadt altarpiece she was shown surrounded by angels and flanked by Saints Kilian and Elizabeth of Hungary. In the superstructure the Virgin and John the Evangelist stood at either side of the Trinity, with John the Baptist at the top. The predella contained the four evangelists. The wings had four reliefs with scenes from the life of Mary Magdalen: on the left, Christ in the House of Simon above Christ Appearing to Mary Magdalen; and on the right, the Magdalens last communion above a scene of her burial. The elaborate tracery surrounding the figures rose to a height of nearly fifty feet.