• Meirion Harries

DAY TWENTY The Greatest Sculptor?

Updated: Apr 21

Tilman Riemenschneider was born in Heiligenstadt, probably in 1460, and moved at the age of five to Osterode am Harz because his father got a job carving dies for the coins produced at the Mint there. In the Bode, my favourite museum in Berlin, they have a significant numismatic collection. The first time I went there – after, in the Bode's elegant restaurant, a modest lunch of potato soup and sausage and a bottle of Berliner – I contentedly studied the stellar displays of coins and medals and was gripped by the precision of the carving. It is no great leap to think that Riemenschneider Jr. learned from his father fine skills that he would later use on his large form sculptures to create intensity and detail.

Ascension of Mary Magdalene (Magdalena Altarpiece, Münnerstadt) (1490–92) [Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich]

Riemenschneider lived in the age of the Guilds and you needed to be a member of a guild to find work. As an apprentice sculptor, he was obliged to study in several Guild members' workshops - and it is thought that he studied in Ulm and in Strasbourg, before finally settling in the Imperial City of Wurzburg in 1473 to begin his professional life.

High Priest Caiaphas with Four Soldiers (made from a single lime tree)

[Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich]

Riemenschneider built a huge reputation in Germany in his lifetime and had an workshop with 40 apprentices and workmen. His output included some 150 altarpieces, though relatively few now survive. The four Evangelists, part of one notable work, were acquired by the Bode after the altarpiece of which they formed part was broken up.

The Four Evangelists from the Munnerstadt Retable [Bode]

To Thomas Mann, writing in 1945, Tilman Riemenschneider was a 'good' German. Mann explained this by describing Riemenschneider's role in the Great Peasant Rebellion of 1524 – 25. We will at some point on this bike ride visit the town where the leader of the rebellion was hanged and there will be more - but suffice it to say here that an army of Protestants threatened the Roman Catholic town of Wurzburg. At the time, Riemenschneider was the mayor of Wurzburg and he presided over a town council meeting at which they sided with the peasants against the Catholic Bishop Prince. To Thomas Mann, this decision showed that Riemenschneider's “heart beat warmly for the poor and oppressed … he felt compelled to emerge from his sphere of purely spiritual and aesthetic artistic life and to become a fighter for liberty and justice.” Riemenschneider paid a very high price: the Peasants Revolt was put down savagely – eight thousand men were killed outside the walls of Wurzburg - and the town councillors who had sided with them were all imprisoned in the Marienberg Fortress and tortured. Thomas Mann said they broke Riemenschneider's hands – as, in our day, the Chilean theatre director, guitarist and communist agitator, Víctor Jara, had his fingers crushed by Pinochet's soldiers before they executed him. (Jara's execution drew from Martin Luther King the words: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”). Riemenschneider was not executed, but he was finished. His reputation was ruined among those with money to commission him and he died six years later, in Thomas Mann's words, “a broken man”. But what makes his work so special? In art historical terms, he stands at the hinge between the Gothic and the Renaissance and his tomb for Lorenz von Bibra (carved in stone, the medium in which he generally created tombs) is regarded as a transition piece. In the fifteenth century, once Gutenberg's technique of printing became an open secret, the growth of book printing in Germany spread everywhere - so it is likely that Riemenschneider knew of the Renaissance currents flowing through the humanities. He also would have been familiar with the work in Nuremberg of Albrecht Durer, who had studied in Bologna and was the most significant Renaissance artist and theorist in Germany.

But I am not sure that Riemenschneider would have accepted being classified. To my mind, he was an independent artist and thinker. He was not one to gaze in wonder at the creativity along the Arno. Unlike Durer and others, he did not travel to the main Renaissance centres in the Netherlands, or even Italy. I think he might have been opposed to the Catholic Renaissance: why should he enthuse over the rediscovery of the classical world when he lived just a few leagues from the Teutoburg Forest where Hermann had repulsed the Roman Army.

After his early years, he rejected the polychromy he had used in his High Priest Caiaphas with Four Soldiers. He worked in natural wood and did not, in his mature years, paint his sculptures – except, occasionally, the lips and a dot on the eye. By abandoning paint, he committed himself to achieving his aim through the genius of his art. Lime wood, his chosen medium, is fine-grained and will take subtlety in carving - which is why he could achieve the extraordinary degree of expression and inner emotion in his sculptures. For Neil MacGregor, he is 'one of the most powerful and moving of all European sculptors'. I remember the shock I felt when I first saw his statues in the Bode. They have a human presence: the intention with Four Evangelists was to make them so real that worshippers at the altar could communicate directly with them - and six hundred years later, I felt as if I was in the living presence of medieval men.

detail of Michelangelo's Pieta, St Peter's Basilica, Vatican City

So is Tilman Riemenschneider truly the greatest sculptor? Style necessarily distinguishes him from the Florentines – for example, Michelangelo's Pieta (above) is considered the greatest sculpture in the world. Riemanschneider, though technically as well-equipped, would never sculpt with the bravura of Michelangelo. As Neil MacGregor points out: “the inwardness of Riemenschneider's art still speaks with the quiet force which has marked much of German spirituality for centuries, strikingly evident in the Pietistic movement in Lutheranism, and still perceptible today in the deep-seated German admiration for modesty and reticence”.

Der Marienaltar [Herrgottskirche Creglingen]

This modest artist who never strayed from the deep forests of medieval Germany is nevertheless “comparable to Donatello” according to Neil MacGregor - and, as you stand before his work, you might agree. You might, with me, even think he is greater.

Here is a link to a virtual tour of the Bode Museum -

Here is Neil MacGregor with the director of the Bode Museum in the podcast Riemenschneider: Sculpting the Spirit -