Gothic Sculpture in Germany
History, Characteristics of Cathedral Statues, Religious Reliefs, Wood-Carvings.

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Cologne Cathedral, Germany, is
the largest Gothic-style cathedral
of Northern Europe, and the apogee
of German Gothic art.

German Gothic Sculpture (c.1150-1400)


German Gothic Sculpture: A Late Developer
St Michael's Church, Hildesheim
Golden Door of Freiberg
Strasbourg Cathedral
Bamberg Cathedral
German Gothic Sculpture compared to French Sculpture
Polychrome Sculpture


One of the Five Foolish Virgins
Protestant Cathedral of Magdeburg.
Among the oldest Gothic column
statues in Germany.

See: Gothic Architecture.
For architectural terms, see:
Architecture Glossary.

High Cross Sculptures (c.750-1150 CE)
Medieval Sculpture (c.400-1000)
Romanesque Sculpture (1000-1200)
Gothic Sculpture (1150-1280)
English Gothc Sculpture

German Gothic 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.

St Michael's Church, Hildesheim

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.

Gothic statue at Freiburg Minster.
A typical example of German
medieval art.

Gislebertus (12th century)
Master of Cabestany (12th century)
Master Mateo (12th century)
Benedetto Antelami (active 1178-1196)
Nicola Pisano (c.1206-1278)
Giovanni Pisano (c.1250-1314)
Arnolfo di Cambio (c.1240–1310)

For another decorative skill used
in German Gothic cathedrals, see:
Stained Glass Art.

RENAISSANCE (1400-1600)
Renaissance Sculptors

For a guide to the origins and
development of 3-D art, including
major achitectural movements,
see: Sculpture History.

For a list of the top 100 3-D artists
(500 BCE - 2009), please see:
Greatest Sculptors.

For another type of carving,
and modelling media, see:
Marble Sculpture
Pentelic, Carrara, Parian marbles.

See: Bronze Sculpture.
See: Stone Sculpture.

For a list of the world's finest
works of three-dimensional art
see: Greatest Sculptures Ever.

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.

Golden Door of Freiberg

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.


Strasbourg Cathedral

One of the most famous Gothic cathedrals that benefitted from its privileged geographic situation on the periphery of the Holy Roman Empire and its proximity to northern France, Strasbourg Cathedral was an original and autonomous artistic centre. Indeed, the place that this building occupies in the latest contemporary history is not unconnected with the numerous studies it has inspired which seek to define its individuality between Germany and France. Reconstruction of the cathedral was begun in late Romanesque style with the eastern parts after the fire of 1176; and continued with the choir and the crossing around 1200. The north transept was finished between 1210 and 1225, about the time of the arrival on the worksite of one of the most brilliant Gothic masters, responsible for the sculptured masterpieces in the south arm of the transept: the Angel Pillar and the portals. These works have been dated towards the middle of the 13th century, but since a conference held at Strasbourg in 1968, there has been a tendency to push this date back to 1225-1235. That is when work began on the Rayonnant Gothic architecture of the nave that differs so clearly from the choir and transept. The west front belongs to a completely different moment in Gothic art, for the first stone was not laid until 1277 and its construction covered the whole of the 14th century.

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.

The iconographic program of the pillar is very unified. In contrast, the coherence of that of the portals has often been called into question. The existence of several successive stages has been suggested. On this supposition, the statues of the twelve apostles would form part of an original christological program, while the Marian tympana and the lintels would belong to a modification to which the statues of the Church (New Law) and the Synagogue (Old Law awaiting Salvation) were added. For other scholars, the program of the ensemble is homogeneous and incorporates those of the rose window and the pillar in the framework of an interpretation that is both Marian and eschatological, and might even include the slightly earlier north portal of the transept, which represents the Adoration of the Magi. In reality, the program as a whole could have taken shape in successive stages, especially if we take into consideration the architectural alterations (south tympana not adapted to the arch moulding) and additions (bases and dies of the statues of Church and Synagogue).

If the iconographic conception takes local traditions very much into account, the stylistic interpretation incorporates many artistic concepts that come from outside. Indeed, before 1220, no creation from the Upper Rhine could be regarded as a signpost leading to the style of the sculptures considered here, as is demonstrated by the badly damaged statues of the north portal of the transept of Strasbourg or those slightly more recent and in better condition on the portal of the church of Eguisheim. In the sculpture of the pillar and the tympana art historians have seen echoes of Chartres (north porch, rood screen) and Burgundy (Dijon, Beaune, Besancon). These they have explained by the existence of a common denominator which was elaborated around 1200 at Sens Cathedral. But relations with the latter ensemble also exist without any intermediate stage, as is proved for example by comparisons between the head of St Stephen on the Sens trumeau and the heads of certain angels on the Strasbourg pillar, statues which, moreover, clearly reflect the art of Chartres. Born of these constant exchanges, the art of Strasbourg, characterized equally by the statues of the Angel Pillar and by the treatment of the drapery folds of the figures, the composition of the tympana and the statue of the Synagogue, has a most original quality which is also reflected in the positioning of the statuary in relation to the architecture. The inner evolution of the artists working on this ensemble of the south transept places the statues of Church and Synagogue among the most recent works. The basic artistic ideas were to be partly renewed by contributions from Reims when work on the rood screen began towards the mid-century.

Note: For pre-Gothic sculptors, see: Medieval Artists.

Bamberg Cathedral

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.

The building, with a nave and two aisles, a transept and a choir with two facing sections, has several sculptured portals on its exterior. On either side of the cast apse open the portals known as the Adam Portal and the Portal of Mercy. The former presents some beautiful Gothic statues surmounted by baldachins added to the splays of an already finished pottal which is wholly Romanesque. They comprise King Henry II, Queen Kunigunde and St Stephen on the left, and St Peter, Adam and Eve on the right. On the other side of the apse, to the north, is the Portal of Mercy, also with a Romanesque air, its tympanum being carved with a Virgin and Child accompanied by Saints Peter and George, and Henry II and Kunigunde once again. The style of this tympanum belongs to currents parallel to those of the Saxon stucco works already mentioned, although the relief is more assertive, as befitting sculptures executed in stone. It is the earlier style, from the first cathedral workshop, the one which was responsible for the original structure of the Adam Portal before the addition of the splay figures; consequently the latter illustrate the second stage in the sculpture of Bamberg. The first workshop adopted the local tradition wholesale, whereas the second partakes to the full in the international exchanges.

On the north side aisle the Princes' Portal forms a strongly projecting structure forming an avant-corps. On either side of the portal, on the outside wall. were the seductive statues of the Church and the Synagogue (today inside), whose feminine forms are subtly evident beneath their clothing. An original composition of prophets surmounted by apostles figures on the splays. The Last Judgment stands out on the tympanum. The sculpture of this tympanum, especially the heads of the figures, is derived directly from that of Reims Cathedral.

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.

The second workshop of Bamberg Cathedral is partially defined purely in relation to the sculpture of Reims Cathedral. However what is at stake is important for the chronology of the two cathedrals. Architectural analysis has shown that the tympanum of the Princes' Portal, partly influenced by Reims, is not later than 1225. No additional archeological evidence can be relied on for the other sculptures of the cathedral, which are mostly statues independent of the masonry and the execution of which extends until 1237 at least. As far as this tympanum is concerned, most of the models of heads that one might call of Reims origin are found in the zone of the high windows of Reims. Moreover, many Reims sculptures comparable to those of Bamberg are located in the east parts of the cathedral, with the exception of some statues on the west front possibly coming from an initial project, which certainly poses chronological problems. Comparison of these two monuments involves a thorough rethinking of the relation which exists between the progress of the architectural works, the date of the execution of the sculpture and that of their actual putting in place.

Note About Sculpture Appreciation
To learn how to evaluate German Gothic sculpture, see: How to Appreciate Sculpture. For later works, please see: How to Appreciate Modern Sculpture.

German Gothic Sculpture compared to French Sculpture

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.

It is in that spirit that we must tackle the exceptional Saxon ensemble of Naumburg. The west choir of the cathedral contains twelve statues with heavy accents, backed against supports, not representing apostles or saints as one might expect, but the twelve founders of the building. Their clothing and attitudes relate to their rank in each case and the style betrays the hand of several artists; the two best known statues represent Count Eckehard and Uta. The style of this statuary (which recalls the rood screen of Mainz Cathedral) draws on the repertory developed by Parisian sculpture of the 1240s, translated here with special individualized accents, thanks to which the impressive masses are treated with delicacy. The date of this group, frequently disputed, cannot be earlier than the middle of the century, judging by the episcopal letter which mentions the founders in 1249.

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.

It would also be desirable to mention many other groups, such as that of the west choir of Mainz Cathedral. Unconnected with the latter, the work of the Erminold Master, who takes his name from the tomb of the first abbot of the Benedictine abbey of Prufening near Regensburg and with whom other ensembles are associated, includes the carved arch mouldings of the west portal of Basel Minster, the Annunciation group arranged on the transept pillars of Regensburg Cathedral, and the seated St Peter from the choir of the same cathedral today in the Regensburg museum. Among the sculpture of the last quarter of the century, we should mention the porch and main portal of the cathedral of Freiburg im Breisgau and especially the west front of Strasbourg Cathedral. We should also describe the influence that German groups (Bamberg) or Saxon sculpture (Naumburg, Meissen) had in countries like Hungary, where it was felt during the 13th century (Jak), replacing the tendency which French Gothic forms had hitherto imported into Central Europe (Esztergom).

Polychrome Sculpture

The importance and significance of polychromy in stone statuary cannot be overemphasized. The polychromy found on the Regensburg sculptures tends to show that the range of colours during the 13th century in Germany was restricted. They were apparently applied on broad surfaces and matched the arrangement of the drapery and the modelling, with only a few special accents, on the lips and eyes, for example. If we generalize from the example of Regensburg, this polychromy would contrast strongly with that of earlier or later centuries which was closer to the use of colour on woodcarvings characterized by the highlights of superadded details which sometimes even ran counter to the sculpted form. That would call in question a number of 19th century restorations which did not grasp this subtlety. Meanwhile, the study of polychromy needs to be undertaken at the regional level. Among the most important works of recent years figure the researches on the architectural polychromy of the church of St Elizabeth at Marburg (1235-1283) and its relations with the furnishings (stained glass windows, rood screen, funerary monuments). The original colours, executed during the last architectural stage (1265 and 1283) were distributed as follows: the walls, vaults, pillars, shafts and capitals were painted pink, with white joints, except on the capitals. The profiles of transverse ribs and arcades were painted alternately in white and yellow ochre, a colour also used for the ribs, and the tracery of bays was sometimes emphasized in white.

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 a look ahead to the great sculptors of the quattrocento and cinquecento, see Italian Renaissance Sculpture.

We gratefully acknowledge the use of material from the seminal work on early European Sculpture, namely Sculpture: From Antiquity to the Middle Ages, Edited by G. Duby and J-L Daval (1989-91) (published by Taschen GmbH), a book we strongly recommend for any serious students of German Gothic sculpture and architecture.


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