German Gothic Sculpture (c.1150-1400)
Sculpture: A Late Developer
The persistence of late Romanesque art of considerable renown delayed the full adoption of Gothic art in the Germanic regions of the Holy Roman Empire. (See also: German Medieval Art c.800-1250.) At first, penetration by the new plastic values of the Gothic style came up against a strong local tradition which drew on Byzantine art in the fields of wall painting and illumination. In only a few exceptional cases were facades receptive to the great sculptured programs, although impressive decorative schemes of Christian art were employed inside churches, especially on choir screens. Wood carving of statuary, too, quickly adopted the innovations of the Gothic style.
It is with this in mind that the interior stucco decoration of St Michael's, Hildesheim, should be understood; the figures in the south side aisle are a little earlier (c.1190) than the reliefs on the choir screen. The influence of tradition appears there very strongly in the use of stucco reliefs on stone arches, The latter form an architectural background reminiscent not only of similar older works (Gernrode), but also of the successful achievements of contemporary goldsmithery, which reached supreme heights at this moment in the region between the Rhine and the Meuse. Nevertheless, the relief, although pronounced, does not achieve the amplitude of contemporary sculpture in northern France.
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In fact, the sculpture of Saxony developed its own way of assimilating Gothic. It followed a linear path, whose continuity is ensured by another choir screen at Halberstadt (Liebfrauenkirche), slightly later than the preceding one. Transposing the concept of a shrine or reliquary on to the monumental level, but still in stucco, the extremely natural figures are seated under arches, in draperies with an ample movement. The setting is close to that applied to tympana (St Godehard, Hildesheim). But this predilection for decoration of the interior led the master masons of Magdeburg Cathedral to reuse in the choir some statues and reliefs intended for an unfinished portal. The autonomy of the statue in the round was expressed in groups carved in wood, such as that around the great triumphal cross in Halberstadt Cathedral.
If we were to linger on a regional history of sculpture, we should have to take into consideration the part played in Saxony by the Golden Door of Freiberg which is possibly the best regional synthesis of the elaboration of the style around 1225. The general arrangement of the portal with sculptured splays and arch mouldings derives from the late Romanesque portals in southern Germany and northern Italy, but the iconographic synthesis presented on it seems to be attempting a summation of everything the great Gothic facades introduced. Thus, the Epiphany occupies the tympanum, while the Coronation of the Virgin is represented above, in the centre of the first arch moulding. The Last Judgment figures on the other arch mouldings, which appear only at this late date in the Gothic of these parts. The Resurrection on the outer arch moulding has been compared, perhaps rather extravagantly, to contemporary French works. The originality of the style, fluid and baroque at the same time, in the elaboration of which the bronze-founders' art probably had something to do, is apparent in the great statues on the splays which do not stand out from their framework nor become incorporated in the column, but are presented as movable statues placed on a base and virtually lodged in niches.
The interior of the south transept contains
the Angel Pillar and. outside, two symmetrical portals with splaying which,
since the Revolution, no longer retain their original appearance, when
they were adorned with twelve apostle statues. The left-hand portal comprises
a tympanum with the Dormition of the Virgin and a lintel (restored in
the 19th century) with her burial. The tympanum of the right-hand portal,
which is original, is carved with the Coronation of the Virgin; the lintel
expresses the fanciful 19th century vision of the original theme of the
Assumption. Between these two portals, the statue of King Solomon seated
is modern, like its whole setting. The originals of the statues of the
Church and the Synagogue from either side of the portals are preserved
in the Musee de l'Oeuvre at Notre-Dame
Cathedral, Paris. In the interior of the transept, the famous Angel
Pillar illustrates all the freshness of 13th-century sculpture. Three
levels of four figures, which form part of the colonettes of the pillar
which correspond to the ribs, are backed against the central core and
define an iconography of the Last Judgment. Below, the four evangelists
are placed on bases representing their symbols; at the intermediate level,
four angels are sounding trumpets; above, three angels bear the instruments
of the Passion and Christ as Merciful Judge shows his wounds, seated on
a throne whose base represents the Resurrection of the Dead.
Probably the most important ensemble of
13th-century plastic art
in the northern countries, Bamberg Cathedral is at the heart of discussions
about Gothic art, chronological polemics and studies of the exchanges
with French cathedral sculpture. The present-day basilica, in which one
can assess the full architectural influence of the Romanesque past, is
no earlier than 1185. The beginning of the works cannot be very far from
that date, because the worksite had already made rapid progress by 1225.
The most reliable date is that of the building's consecration in 1237.
It will be understood from the outset that the essential problem is to
know whether the whole of the important sculptured program of the cathedral
was already completed at that date.
Several groups of equally famous sculptures
are preserved in the interior of the building. In the first place, the
reliefs of the old choir screen which exhibits pairs of apostles (south)
and prophets (north) in conversation. Their original arrangement and the
style which belong to the first sculpture workshop denote artistic progress,
possibly stemming from contact with goldsmiths, culminating in the most
recent reliefs of the prophets and the Annunciation, in spite of the general
features of the group common to all, such as the arrangement of the figures
and the curvilinear movement of the drapery folds. One of the most famous
figures is the Jonah with bared breast, the power of whose drapery is
accentuated by the relief. Among the masterpieces inside the cathedral
are the various statues, and especially the Visitation group executed
by the second workshop. Recently it has been suggested that this Visitation
couple should be separated, the theory being that the Virgin probably
came from an Annunciation or might be Elizabeth, while the said Elizabeth
could be a Sibyl or the Prophetess Hannah from the Presentation in the
Temple. The universally famous Horseman on one of the piers of the nave
facing the Princes' Portal was probably originally integrated with a broader
iconographic program possibly in relation with the other statues (Epiphany'),
unless it should be considered as an isolated statue at the very moment
when royal and princely iconography was monopolizing the Gothic building.
Its style is directly inspired by the head of "Philip Augustus"
in Reims Cathedral.
When art historians have engaged in controversy
in an attempt to understand how receptive German worksites were to French
creations, they have sometimes forgotten the features peculiar to German
sculpture, primarily the growing independence of the statue in relation
to the architecture, which very soon led it to win autonomy in space for
itself. Owing to the persistence of Romanesque
architecture, the early Gothic statues were posed against a backdrop,
so to speak, on the exterior, and even more in the interior, of buildings
which as yet did not present all the advantages of the new architecture.
This line of thought shows that French influence was primarily propagated
in the small figures on the arch mouldings, for example, rather than in
the big statues.
If Naumburg and Reims illustrate an identical
stage of development in relation to Parisian sculpture, the Naumburg statues
cannot be as late as 1270-1275, as has sometimes been suggested. Moreover,
the output of this workshop continued, still in the west choir, with the
reliefs which crown the screen and represent Passion scenes, distributed
in groups of figures separated by colonnettes. The dense crowding of the
figures, the depth of the relief and the baroque air of the groups derive
from contemporary works in Germanic circles, especially the art of altarpieces.
The polychromy on the outside of the building was enhanced by a deep red to accentuate the profile of the cornices. Without attempting to be exhaustive, we may recall that the interior of Amiens Cathedral was painted grey on walls and pillars, and yellow ochre on the vaults, while the joints of the masonry were painted white. A harmony of yellow ochre and white also adorned the interior of Chartres Cathedral in the 13th century. For the later style of Gothic design, see: Flamboyant Gothic Architecture (1375-1500).
For Late Gothic German painters, see: Stefan Lochner (1400-51) and the Swiss artist Konrad Witz (1400-46); for Late Gothic German sculptors and wood-carvers, see: Hans Multscher (1400-1467), Veit Stoss (c.1447-1533), Adam Kraft (c.1455-1509), Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531), and Gregor Erhart (c.1460-1540).
For more facts about Gothic stone and wood carving, see: Homepage.
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