National Gallery of Art - EXHIBITIONS

Tilman Riemenschneider: Master of Sculpture of the Late Middle Ages

Introduction | Style | The Münnerstadt Altarpiece | Chronology | Images

A Word about Style
Riemenschneider belonged to the first generation of sculptors who occasionally abandoned the customary practice of decorating their works with pigments and metal foil, producing instead uncolored sculpture. The development of monochromy, in which the wood is visible through a translucent glaze, imposed new demands on the artist, since he had to rely on sculptural means alone to reach the desired level of expressiveness. The popularity of the graphic arts in Germany in the fifteenth century contributed to the acceptance of uncolored sculpture. Riemenschneider’s figures contain rich contrasts between florid and quiet passages, which create a complex play of light and dark. Their broad tonal range brings to mind the subtleties of Martin Schongauer’s engravings, which Riemenschneider often took as a point of departure for his own compositions.

 Riemenschneider’s few securely dated works allow the following generalizations about the evolution of his style. The early works are strongly three-dimensional and invite approach from a variety of viewpoints. His mature works are characterized by a relative loss of mass, with more planar forms and a simplified treatment of drapery. The late works of about 1515-1525 show an even greater simplification and flattening of forms. Riemenschneider’s many assistants produced works in his style, often repeating his compositional formulas. The collaborative workshop structure thus compounds the difficulty of dating his work precisely. In addition, because medieval patrons and artists understood works of art to result from the joint effort of a master and his assistants, it is often futile to draw too strict a distinction between Riemenschneider’s work and that of his workshop.



Although Riemenschneider was among the first sculptors to produce monochrome sculpture, a large portion of his oeuvre was originally brightly colored or polychrome. Much of it fell victim to the nineteenth-century antipathy toward color in sculpture and was stripped of its decoration to reveal the bare wood. The polychromy of wood sculpture, which was often not carried out in the sculptor’s workshop but left to painters, relied on much the same technique as panel painting. A glue sizing was applied to the wood to close the pores and prevent the absorption of paint media, and knots and joints were covered with textile or plant fibers. The figure then received several layers of a chalk-based ground, which served as a support for metal leaf and for opaque and translucent layers of pigment. The painter could achieve highly illusionistic effects, especially in the rendering of textiles and the treatment of flesh tones, which greatly enhanced the immediacy of sculpture. In the figures above the use of gold and silver leaf clarifies the distinction between the interior and the exterior of the male saints’ vestments, while it marks the border of one female saint’s mantle. The robes of Saints Stephen and Lawrence are rendered in a matte white to suggest the quality of the cloth. The blush on the cheeks, the red lips, the pensive eyes, even the locks of hair painted on the foreheads, all add dramatically to the sense of life.

The Technique of Wood Carving
 Riemenschneider’s favored material, limewood, or linden, is especially suitable for sculpture, since it has a homogeneous texture, making it easier to carve than oak and other woods with a pronounced ray structure. A standing figure was typically carved from a halved section of a tree trunk, clamped horizontally in an adjustable workbench that allowed the block to be rotated.Working from this angle, the sculptor saw the figure in strong foreshortening, much as the viewer would when the finished work was installed above eye level, thus he could compensate for visual distortions by adjusting the proportions and modeling.

The sculptor roughed out the form with a variety of tools after marking the contours of the figure on the block with calipers and compasses: two types of axes, curved and straight adzes used in an overhand chopping motion, broad chisels, and mallets. Various chisels and gouges were used for the elaboration of forms. Certain parts of a figure, such as hands, attributes, and protruding folds of a drapery were carved separately and attached to the figure with dowels. The backs of figures were normally hollowed out to prevent the wood’s cracking as it aged. The carvings were meticulously finished with knives and scrapers, exploiting the contrast between broad, smooth areas and incised details. Last, decorative patterns were either appliquéd or were cut or pressed into the surface with punches. Before a figure left the sculptor’s workshop, the eyes and lips were often tinted.

Given the sensitivity of an organic material such as wood, it is not surprising to find a wide range of conditions for the objects in the exhibition. Changes in light, temperature, and relative humidity as well as wood-eating insects and misguided restorations have all influenced the surfaces that we see today. Contemporary conservators attempt to unify the damaged surface without compromising the integrity of the historical object.

Stone Carving
 While Riemenschneider is best known for his carved altarpieces and other works in wood, he also created several virtuoso stone ensembles. Equal mastery of wood and stone sculpture is a technical achievement, since the two materials present different qualities. Stone is brittle because of its crystalline structure, while wood is tougher because of its cellular structure. Although stone breaks easily if dropped or struck, it offers greater resistance to precision cutting with a chisel than wood does. The sculptor must therefore combine physical strength with a steady hand, removing material little by little toward the intended form. Riemenschneider’s sandstone sculpture is distinguished by a subtle, sensual treatment of surfaces, especially of exposed flesh, that achieves astounding naturalistic effects. His virtuosity as a stone carver is manifest in his ability, despite the fragility and intractability of the material, to achieve areas of deep undercutting. Riemenschneider possibly received his training in stone carving in Strasbourg.

Introduction | Style | The Münnerstadt Altarpiece | Chronology | Images | Purchase the Catalogue