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  • Meirion Harries

DAY NINETY TWO The Stony Miracle

'How do you know that?' is an interesting game to play. In the age of misinformation and false news, the game is pertinent and especially so in the matter of medieval history – particularly here in Naumburg, where we are having a glass of elderflower spritzer in the lee of the cathedral.


In England, we believe that the statues in the cathedral are among the greatest art to have come down to us from the medieval period. We believe it because Nikolaus Pevsner has told us. And he believed it partly through his own aesthetic sensibility and partly because he attended lectures in Leipzig given by Wilhelm Pinder – who had been a pupil of August Schmarsow, the art historian who did so much to ‘discover’ and introduce early sculpture to a wider public in Germany.

August Schmarsow (c)wikicommons


Schmarsow, who was born in 1853 in the north-east of Germany, had taught art history in Göttingen, Breslau, Florence in 1892 and Leipzig - where Pinder heard him lecture. He founded the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz (Institute for the History of Art) - these days part of the Max Planck empire, but still conducting original research on Italian art.


Schmarsow's sensibilities, honed in Florence, convinced him of the worth of the Naumburg statues – an idea he passed to Pinder, who passed it to Pevsner, who brought it to England for us. And when you look at these magnificent thirteenth-century statues, you may agree.


Margrave Ekkehard II and his wife, Uta (c)wikicommons


The sculptor was the mysterious Naumburger Meister who, rather like dark matter, the main concern of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, is something real but unidentifiable. Whoever he might have been, the Meister had a profound influence on stone carving in Germany.


His two works in Naumburg Cathedral - the Westlettner (a rood screen portraying the Passion of Christ) and the twelve founder figures (two are free standing while ten are still emerging from their sandstone blocks) - are perhaps the most important works of Gothic art in Germany. The figures are completely realistic and are remarkable - in fact unique, because they are not of saints or clerics, but of lay people.



In Nikolaus Pevsner - The Life, the Race Marshal writes about Naumburg:


“All around the figures, which stand against the shafts running up the walls between the windows of the west choir, were scenes of the judgement to come, surrounded by exquisite foliage. So the founders – Margrave Eckhart and his wife Uta, Margrave Hermann and his wife Reglindis, and companion knights – both embodied human chivalry and set it in the context of the will of God.


Pinder was studying Naumburg, along with the cathedrals at Bamberg and Strassburg, and persuaded Pevsner, then his student at Leipzig, that these were the finest works of art of their time in Europe. In the statues of Eckhart, Uta, Hermann, Reglindis and the others, Pevsner saw the embodiment of his own view of the German spirit: intense emotion expressed with strict formal control.


He found in them what he found in Lutheranism: spiritual fervour contained within a framework of responsibility and self-discipline. Like the works of Bach, they were for him the perfect synthesis of form and content, mind and soul, and they contained within them the dualities he found intriguing in himself – austerity and sensuality, masculinity and femininity, duty and instinct at war.


Uta (c)wikicommons


He was particularly enraptured by the figure of Uta, ‘the stony miracle’, gazing into the far distance over the high upturned collar of her robe – offered to generations of little girls as the archetype of German femininity.


‘Naumburg’ became a code word for all the qualities and values he admired, not only the qualities expressed in the actual sculptures, but also the values embodied in their making. ‘The most affecting thing is the unity between art and life,’ he wrote. ‘Art was at one with its own time and life then in the most beautiful way ... The architects and sculptors were craftsmen, nothing more – and yet they were the greatest artists of Western culture.’


Pevsner seems to have worked in Leipzig throughout the spring and summer of 1922, both inspired and intimidated by Pinder’s apparently effortless brilliance, beside which he felt himself pedestrian and laboured. ‘My admiration for Pinder may be excessive,’ he noted, but it had served to give direction to his own natural drive.


Pevsner had a clear picture of himself during his university years: ‘austere, proper, pedantic, diligent, serious-minded, indifferent to comfort, preferring to have a goal to strive towards’. The austerity was in part a reaction against his background and all that his parents had done to make things easy – ‘I find any kind of luxury embarrassing, in dress as well as living conditions’ – but it was also part of his temperament, something he could not help.


Diligence, on the other hand, he saw as a positive virtue to be cultivated, the engine of his future success. Carefully he copied into the Heftchen (his daily diaries) a pronouncement of Theodor Fontane: ‘Gifts - who hasn’t got them? Talents - children’s playthings. It takes earnestness to make a man, and diligence to make a genius'.


The idea became a manifesto for his career in art history. ‘Hasn’t Goethe said somewhere that man achieves what he sets out to achieve?’ he wrote. ‘That is my motto. I am going to achieve what I want to. To fall short would just be a failure of will.’ All his reflections on life led him to the same conclusion: ‘I must just carry on working, with no pleasures – gloomy, but the truth, because my whole vision of the future depends on success in my work.’



A four minute tour of the town of Naumburg (you might want to turn off the sound) - https://youtu.be/t1QthixJK44


A nice, rather earnest tour of the Cathedral - https://youtu.be/pyaA0nQ0WHc


A public service film of the cathedral with detailed images (commentary in German) and a choir at 11 minutes 30 seconds in - https://youtu.be/PaNokoH4RSc


The famous 'Hildebrandt Organ' (1746) in St. Wenzel’s Church in Naumburg - https://youtu.be/IKgvT_vpgwA


Documentary about Nikolaus Pevsner by Jonathan Meades - https://youtu.be/wdErHitpBXM



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