Tilman Riemenschneider may not have had the full complement of five talents, but however many he was given, none did he bury. Father, master sculptor, entrepreneur, civic leader: his was the busy life of the successful late-medieval artisan. Yet for all of his immersion in the affairs of this world, his sculpture remains as a powerful testimony to his faith in the next.
Born about the year 1460 to a prosperous family in central Germany, Riemenschneider enjoyed the revenues from a minor benefice and seems even to have completed some of the studies needed for a clerical life before opting for the lay estate. He served an apprenticeship to a sculptor in Erfurt, worked as a journeyman in Strasbourg and Ulm, and finally settled in Wurzburg, in 1483, where he joined the glaziers, panel-painters, and sculptors of the town in their Guild of St. Luke. Within two years he had married the widow of a local goldsmith and gained his mastership in the guild and with it the privilege of opening his own workshop. Soon he had a thriving concern on his hands, with apprentices of his own and, at times, numerous journeymen helping him to complete large commissions such as the winged altarpieces of Munnerstadt, Rothenburg-ob-der-Tauber, and Creglingen for which he is best known.
He was a versatile sculptor, very much at home in sandstone and alabaster, but known especially for setting his chisels and gouges into the soft wood of the lindens that abound in that part of Christendom. He was the first of the limewood sculptors to eschew the gesso fill—akin to a thick base-layer of makeup—that sculptors used as a platform for dramatic expressions in brightly-colored paint. By substituting a simple brown glaze which preserved the wood and evened out its natural blemishes while allowing its native warmth to be perceived, Riemenscheider in effect created for himself almost a new medium, one that he exploited with considerable craft and thoughtfulness.
His table-top statue of St. Jerome and the Lion, from the 1490s, shows him already as a young man producing works remarkable for a certain contemplative air. With his heavy, almost dreamy lids, his firm but delicate grip upon the lion’s arm, and his balanced posture, St. Jerome shares in the stillness that characterizes much Gothic sculpture. When compared to the courtly elegance of the Sainte-Chapelle apostles from thirteenth-century Paris, however, St. Jerome’s visage suggests that Riemenschneider was attempting to express a different sort of character. He seems to have been less concerned to give us an image of human nature that has achieved an ideal perfection than to invite us to contemplate a face made dignified by long suffering and noble labors.
In the age of St. Louis and St. Thomas Aquinas, monumental images of Christ more often than not showed him as a just judge, or, if wounded or on the Cross, then as a suffering king. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries had seen the continued spread of St. Francis of Assisi’s great devotion to the Passion, and accordingly Christ slowly became more likely to be depicted as a man of sorrows or a suffering servant.
In his large ensemble of the preparation of the dead Christ for burial—the figures are about 2/3 life-size—Riemenschneider evoked a spirit of compassion typical of the devotional climate of his day. In his meditations on the Passion, the fifteenth-century Dutch spiritual writer Thomas à Kempis uttered this mournful prayer: “I praise and glorify you for the pallid expression on your face at the approach of death, your final last-minute agony, your total loss of bodily strength, and the bitter breaking of your love-filled heart . . . I praise you for the sad and sorrowful separation of your noble soul from your beloved body.”
If Christ is to be shown suffering, then it stands to reason that the apostles who followed him should be similarly depicted. Riemenschneider’s image of St. Luke from the Munnerstadt altar is indeed marked by a mysterious pathos: certainly his Gospel is anything but dour. The saint’s posture indicates his inwardness; the slight tilt of his head to his left not only accentuates the triangular symmetry of the piece, it also communicates the Evangelist’s understanding that the kingdom of God lies within (Lk 17:21). Here, again, is Thomas à Kempis, from the same meditation on the Passion: “And you, my soul, enter into your most inner self and mourn with those who mourn and weep with those who weep for Christ, lest you be found harder than a rock and more faithless than that crowd of observers. Blessed are the tears shed out of love for the Crucified.”
It would be strikingly inaccurate to suppose that the mood of his sculpture—certainly somber when compared to the vigorous Bernini—indicates that Riemenschneider was the victim of melancholia, as if he were a sort of precursor to those, like Albrecht Dürer, whose preoccupation with self typified their work. Although there are no documents that remain to allow his portrait to be drawn in his own words, Riemenschneider’s actions speak for themselves. He was an immensely energetic and enterprising fellow, followed in his own trade by his sons, whom he enriched with the handsome bequest of many acres of vineyards. His contract with the city fathers of Rothenburg-of-der-Tauber may merely have been cast in conventional terms when it addressed him as “the prudent and wise Till Riemenschneider,” but its provision that his compensation be tied to performance is unequivocal. A full sixth of his remuneration was to come in the form of a bonus, should a jury of the “venerable, prudent, honorable, and wise gentlemen” of Rothenburg determine that his altar piece were to merit it. Here is ambition rightfully prompted: a suitable reminder that the guilds of old were not only compatible with but reposed upon individual creativity and the seeking of profit.
It would, however, be just as significant a mistake to cast Riemenschneider as some sort of an individualist. Throughout his long career in Wurzburg, he devoted himself to civic affairs, serving again and again on the town’s two councils and even taking a turn as mayor. It is likely that his participation in city life came with its share of tensions, for the city was ruled over by a prince-bishop, and the incumbents of that office had not been uniformly popular with the burghers in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. In 1525, when the Peasant’s Revolt broke out in the wake of the preaching of the early Lutherans, Riemenschneider joined his fellow citizen-leaders in welcoming the rebels into their town. When the prince-bishop defeated the rising and regained control of his city, he imprisoned the town leaders in the imposing fortress that still broods over the town today, and exacted upon them stern penalties: death for some, torture for others (including, apparently, Riemenschneider), and for all of them, the confiscation of property. Some have wanted the thoughtful sculptor’s participation in this opposition movement to be a sign of his allegiance to Luther’s new gospel, but it was not so. After his death on July 7, 1531, he was duly buried in the Catholic cemetery, and his son’s relief carving on the tombstone shows him holding a rosary and notes that he died on the eve of the feast of Wurzburg’s patron, Saint Killian.
What can be said with great confidence about Riemenschneider is that he knew that the hurly-burly of outward affairs must ultimately give way before the tribune of the soul, and that our best preparation both for right action in this life and happiness in the next is to attend to the life of the spirit. The worn, prayerful faces of the apostles and the gracious bearing of Our Lady from his altarpiece at Creglingen testify to the truth so fittingly expressed by Thomas à Kempis: “All true glory and beauty is within, and there Christ delights to dwell.”