Touched by an Angel
The components from the Münnerstadt altarpiece, like those from the Holy Blood Altarpiece in Rothenburg, are carved of limewood, and this raises a question to which no one, so far as I know, has found a compelling answer. Since it was the practice in Germany to cover sculpture with polychrome paint, the question is why Riemenschneider's figures are palpably carved wood, natural rather than painted and gilded. The wood is not raw, of course. It is stained and polished, but its wooden substance has something like the warmth and smoothness of flesh, and we can imagine it reflecting candlelight like beautifully polished furniture. All this would be submerged under gesso if the figures were painted to look like, well, real people with pink faces and blond hair and rich garments. There is a paradox in the fact that they look more real, though visibly carved from wood, than had they been painted to look more realistic. Their unembellished woodenness did not in any case immunize viewers against the toxin that images were believed to carry. Fidelity to the medium, of course, was ideologized in modernist times, so that painting wooden sculpture was considered an aesthetic crime. But it is probably a mistake to project aesthetic theories very far back in time. Riemenschneider's contemporary Veit Stoss was in fact commissioned to paint the Münnerstadt altarpiece. But Stoss specified that one of his own altarpieces should not be painted, leaving us to ponder what the reasons could have been.
He was, the catalogue speculates, "keenly aware that layers of ground and paint would conceal the fineness of carving." But who would be interested in fine carving except fellow members of the sculptors' guild? Those who knelt before the altar were put in the presence of a vision and were hardly interested, caught up as they were in prayer, in the craftsmanship of the figures. Much of the writing on Riemenschneider--about whom not a lot is known--uses concepts from modern art criticism, when the whole institutional structure of presenting art resembles nothing in the world of the limewood sculptors. Baxandall, whose scholarship is indispensable, finds that Riemenschneider's work, seen from a close view, is disappointing: "The figures are grotesquely proportioned with big heads and even larger noses" and "The more carvings by Riemenschneider one sees, the more repetitive and mechanical the cutting of such detail as eyes and hair can appear." But the images were not intended to be seen close up. Nor were they meant to be shown together, as in a retrospective exhibition, in which a modern critic might complain that his figures were much alike--that the artist was "repeating himself." People did not move from church to church, as they do in Chelsea from one gallery to another. Much of the critical literature, if less outspoken than Baxandall, is equally anachronistic. Which leaves in the dark the fact that Riemenschneider and Stoss and so many of the limewood sculptors of Germany quite evidently cherished the fact that their great works were seen to be made of grained and knotted wood, minimally enhanced with stain.
The figures were for the most part meant to be seen from below--the curators have installed the carvings at the high angle from which they would have been seen by worshipers. The disproportion Baxandall deplores might, from that perspective, simply have disappeared. The heads of Greek sculptures were deliberately enlarged in order that they look normal when the statue is displayed on columns. This was one of the illusions that Plato held against the visual artists of his time. The largeness of heads in retables contributed to the illusion so central to religious experience in Franconian churches, which would differ completely from the experience of a scholar examining them objectively with magnifying glasses.
In any case, unless one is looking with a connoisseur's eye at the pieces installed in the exhibition, one will not have a sense, let alone a strong sense, that the work is repetitive. We may not be able to see the figures with the eye of faith, the way Riemenschneider's contemporaries did, but we cannot but respond to the intense feelings his figures express--cannot fail to note the way the calmness of the Virgin, for example, is made transparent by the visual excitement of the angel's garment. Many of the pieces, of course, refer to some lost altarpiece; but even without the context in which a figure's expression would be explained by showing its object, we get a pretty good sense of what Riemenschneider is attempting to tell us. We know, for example, through the effect the sober figure of Saint Matthew makes on us, what it would contribute as part of an altarpiece. Matthew has been distracted by something momentous. He was fiddling with his robe when the revelation came, and his hands seem arrested in whatever gesture he was performing. His eyes look steadily away, his expression is resolute, he is prepared for the terrible events that lie ahead. Connoisseurship is probably indispensable in deciding matters bearing on the physical statue, but has little to do with the calling of a saint. Riemenschneider was not carving for experts but for the most ordinary of persons. His means--and meanings--are almost transparent.
Matthew is as upright as a pillar. As such, the statue contrasts with the amazing image of Tobias and the Archangel Raphael, carved by Veit Stoss, and placed next to Matthew to show the strong differences between these two masters. The story is from the Old Testament: Tobias's father, Tobit, has gone blind and become poor. The devoted son sets out to collect money owed Tobit and meets a stranger, who instructs him to catch a fish, remove its gall and use this to restore the father's sight. Raphael is measurably taller than Tobias in Stoss's piece, and characteristically, his garment seems blown about by the winds that proclaim his angelic identity. It is easy to suppose that he moves without touching the ground--every inch an archangel. Tobias is dressed like the Jack of Hearts, with a felt hat and what may be an ermine tippet. His feet seem to execute a dance step, and indeed his contrapposto posture is that of a dancer. But he also seems, in contrast with the effortlessness with which Raphael moves, to be feeling his way along the ground, unsure of his footing. In an odd way, Tobias seems, like a good son, to have taken on his father's blindness. He is clutching the angel's arm and being led. His head is tilted upward, and he has no expression to speak of.
The archangel wears a smile of cosmic superiority. There are no smiles as such on Riemenschneider's faces. Stoss belonged to the archetype of the rebellious artist, in trouble with the law, often on the lam. Riemenschneider was as upright as his Saint Matthew, which could be a moral self-portrait. He was a pillar of the community, a magistrate as well as the master of a busy workshop, Kantian in his devotion to duty (for reasons of political conviction, he too got into hot water). He gave his patrons images they understood, since the expressions they wear are like the expressions through which we all read one another's feelings. In this respect, there is little difference between their psychology and our own. The figures suffer and show tenderness, in just the way people everywhere do. The retables show ordinary humans caught up in superhuman happenings. Their readability has to have lent conviction to the images, and possibly it explains something about the use of wood. This too may be a modern attitude, projected back into an artistic period very different from ours, but we are made of the same emotional substance as those first affected by his figures, which they saw as made of the same emotional substance as themselves.