An image, Albrecht Dürer said, is “no more responsible for superstitious abuse than a weapon is responsible for a murder.” It is somewhat startling to find, in the controversy over the power of images in the early years of the Reformation in Germany, the familiar argumentation of the National Rifle Association.

Admittedly, Dürer had the same vested interest as a purveyor of images that a manufacturer of handguns has in arguing that the point is not to control weapons but to re-educate their users. The analogy nevertheless stands as evidence for the felt danger of images in Dürer’s world. Indeed, the image would be far more dangerous than a mere weapon, since it exposes worshipers to the danger of eternal punishment in case they find themselves, as often happened, worshiping the image instead of whatever the image represents. Better to rid the churches of images altogether than to trust the pious not to believe that Jesus or Mary, or a particularly well-disposed saint, was mysteriously present in their effigies. The power of the image was in effect the power of the being that occupied it–which struck the enemies of the image as idolatry, or the worship of finite things. This had the consequence of driving images underground, in the form of doll-sized objects of private adoration. Even today, after all, lovers kiss the snapshots of their beloveds, as though the relationship between the two were metaphysically intimate. Iconoclasm did not always entail that images (read: “idols”) should be burned like heretics. They could be shrouded or stored in cellars or otherwise quarantined. But image control was the order of the day under militant Lutheranism–not least of all because the church issued indulgences to those who prayed to particularly powerful images, like the Virgin of the Apocalypse, or the Virgin of the Rosary. Protestants could do little better to register doctrinal difference than to purge their churches of likenesses. Catholicism retaliated by crowding its churches with images for the benefit of those who sought the concrete presence of the beings they worshiped. Aesthetic contemplation was not really a concept in the sixteenth century. Churches were not museums of fine art.

It is ironic that iconoclasm should have erupted with such virulence in the golden age of German sculpture, bringing it in effect to an end. The great achievement of the so-called limewood sculptors of the late Gothic period was the elaborate altarpiece, or retable, which served to render visible the object of devotions enacted on the altar just below. It was very much as if the saint conferred upon her celebrants the immense benefit of her virtual presence in the charged space where masses were performed. The architecture of the retable contributed to the awe in which the image was held. It was, for example, equipped with doors, which would be opened only on auspicious religious occasions but otherwise were kept closed. It had to have been a pretty powerful experience to behold one’s special saint under candlelight, as the priests in elaborate robes intoned indispensable prayers in a language farmers and merchants no longer understood (conducting services in the vernacular belonged to the same agenda as iconoclasm). The space of the retable was a space within the space of the church, and when the doors stood open, an extraordinary bond united the persons within and without that encapsulated space. It would have been difficult to believe with Dürer that the images were merely neutral. Everything in the setting cried out against such a reduction.

The Franconian sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider was the great master of the pre-Reformation retable. There is an astonishingly complete altarpiece in the Jacobskirche in Rothenburg, executed around 1502, which must have seemed miraculous in its own right because of the skill with which it was carved. It is known as the Holy Blood Altarpiece, containing what was believed to be Christ’s very blood as a relic. My own view is that images were felt more or less to have the status of relics, and one’s relationship to them was entirely parallel to that with such awesome things as pieces of the true cross, or drops of the Virgin’s milk, or whatever. There is a large photograph of the Holy Blood Altarpiece in the exhibition devoted to Riemenschneider at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (until May 14), and it is worth a moment’s examination if one wishes to get a sense of the context for which so much of the artist’s work was designed. The retable consists of three zones. In the lowest zone, which in effect is the altarpiece’s predella, angels on either side of the crucified Christ display some of the emblems of his redemptive suffering–the whipping post on one side, the cross on the other. The topmost zone is a flamboyant superstructure, as intricate and lacelike as a Gothic spire, which gives the sense of being made of the thorned branches with which Christ was flogged and crowned. This shrine holds the relic that refers to and is explained through the suffering represented in the predella. The midzone shows Christ and his disciples taking their last meal together, the weight of the event inscribed in the seriousness of their expressions. The inner surfaces of the doors, visible only when they are opened, show scenes from the life of Christ, carved in an astonishingly low relief–Christ’s fateful entry into Jerusalem on the altar’s right, and on its left Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying not to have to undergo the tortures shown in the predella or spill the blood believed actually present at the apex of the tower. The whole piece is, as one of the specialists writes in the catalogue, “an intense reflection on the nature of representation.”

Not long ago, a distinguished novelist volunteered, in a panel in which I participated, a comparison between literary and visual art. The difference, he said, is that because novels are made of language, they express thought–whereas pictures are just pictures. This is hardly a judgment that can survive the experience of a work like the Holy Blood Altarpiece, if it is even possible to think of it as a “reflection on the nature of representation.” The truth, which would be amazing if it were not so commonplace, is that visual artists express thoughts, and often very complex thoughts, by sensuous means so compelling that even the illiterate can grasp their meaning. In the eighteenth century, pictures and sculptures underwent transformation into aesthetic objects, to be addressed through a kind of disinterested contemplation. They were put on pedestals, so to speak, the way women once were, to be admired as decorative trophies. I have often thought that the aestheticization of images and of women was an ingenious response to the perceived danger of both. In any case, from my fellow symposiast’s point of view, a visual artwork is simply something good to look at, perhaps an embodiment of beauty. But aestheticization was a defensive measure against the fear that images would penetrate consciousness and cast us into sin. Words, by contrast, were relatively harmless. “The whole direction of early Lutheran piety,” Michael Baxandall writes, “was away from the image, indeed away from the altar, and towards the word and the pulpit.”

Fortunately for us, Riemenschneider produced his great work before retables stopped being commissioned, leaving sculptors with no way to earn their livelihoods. Something like this happened, incidentally, in late medieval philosophy as well. It became more and more intricately architectonic–until, through Lutheranism, thinkers all at once lost interest in abstruse distinctions and ramified argumentation. “The wretched Luther has emptied the lecture halls,” a sixteenth-century philosopher said. What philosophy and art would have been like had the Reformation never taken place is impossible to imagine.

There is no integral altarpiece in the Metropolitan exhibition, but there is a wall installation made up of six components–four figures from the predella and two carved door panels–from a magnificent retable, originally in the Church of Mary Magdalen in the town of Münnerstadt. The predella figures are the four evangelists, each holding the Gospel with which he is credited, and each represented in a posture of complete inwardness, as if reflecting on the meanings of the events he has narrated. They seem to represent four stages of writing. Matthew is looking upward, as if waiting for a revelation to transcribe in the book in his lap; Mark, with his lion, doglike on the floor beside him, is intensely reading what he has written; Luke has closed his book and is reflecting on its incredible narrative; John appears to be interpreting a difficult passage, perhaps for himself, holding up the fingers of his right hand like a scholarly explainer. Or perhaps he is editing. The four figures together form a frieze of intense intellectual concentration. They originally populated the lower zone of the Münnerstadt retable.

The middle zone reveals the ascension of the Magdalen, accompanied by angels and wearing a penitential garment. The doors show scenes from the Magdalen’s life when she was still a harlot, paying tribute to Jesus in ways that may have occurred to a woman of her calling–laving Christ’s feet with her luxuriant tresses in the house of Simon, reaching out to touch the resurrected Christ with one hand and holding her jar of ointment with the other, as if to comfort him in the only way she knows. Christ repulses the gesture, telling her not to touch him–Noli me tangere. The garments of both figures–and Christ’s banner as well–seem whipped by a strong wind, to my mind always the emblem of invisible powers. In Counter-Reformation Rome, the furled, blown garment expresses the situation of celestial beings–saints, martyrs, angels–caught up in a world of fierce invisible forces. In an early Annunciation, which Riemenschneider carved in alabaster, the angel’s robe is agitated as if the angel had been blown into the Virgin’s presence. Interrupted by this astonishing occurrence, the Virgin looks calmly up from her book, but in contrast with the angel, her robe falls in deep, gentle curves to the floor. They belong to different orders of being.

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.