Born circa 1460 in Heiligenstadt (Thuringia), Tilman Riemenschneider grew up in Osterode but spent most of his life as a sculptor and citizen in Würzburg (Franconia). He played a pioneering role in introducing unpolychromed wood sculpture for major altarpiece commissions. He is known for a type of subtly idealized figure with sensitive, expressive hands, conveying a mood of gentle, slightly melancholy contemplation.
The place where Riemenschneider was trained and the identity of his teachers remain uncertain. Erfurt has been proposed as the locale of his apprenticeship in stonecarving. His early works suggest familiarity with the styles of Thuringia, Ulm (Michel Erhart), the Netherlands, and the Upper Rhine, including Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden's work at Strasbourg and the prints and drawings of Martin Schongauer.
An uncle who held several offices under the Bishop in Würzburg probably helped to establish Riemenschneider in that city, where he took his journeyman's oath on 7 December 1483. He is recorded as a citizen and master in 1485, a status made possible by his marriage to the widow of a Würzburg goldsmith early in that year. His first dated work, the altarpiece undertaken in 1490 for the parish church at Münnerstadt, was followed by commissions from many towns around Würzburg, including Creglingen, Dettwang, and Maidbronn. He worked prolifically in stone and linden wood, employing some dozen apprentices between 1501 and 1517. Surviving dated works besides the Münnerstadt altarpiece include the Monument of Rudolph von Scherenberg, Würzburg Cathedral, 1496-1499; the altar of the Holy Blood, Jakobskirche, Rothenburg, 1501-1505; the monument of Heinrich II and Kunigunde, Bamberg Catherdral, 1499-1513; and the Monument of Lorenz von Bibra, Würzburg Cathedral, c. 1519-1522.
Riemenschneider held several offices on the Würzburg city council, and between 1520 and 1521 served as bürgermeister (mayor). Implicated in 1525 in the Franconian peasants' revolt as one of the burghers who refused to support the prince-bishop in military action against the peasants, he was imprisoned for two months. His last documented commission before his death in 1531 was repair work in 1527 on an altarpiece belonging to Benedictine nuns in Kitzingen and damaged in the revolt. His sons Jörg and Hans were sculptors, while two other sons, Bartholomäus and Tilmann, became painters in Tirol. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Baxandall, Michael. The Limewood Sculptors of Germany. New Haven and London, 1980: especially 259-265.