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Saturday, June 16, 2012

Tilman Riemenschneider

Tilman Riemenschneider self-portrait
Here's a quick quiz. Who was Charles Daubigny? Who was Alfred Sisley? Who was Maurice Prendergast? Who was Armand Guillaumin? Very good, you said they were all Impressionist painters. Now, who was Tilman Riemenschneider? Whoa! Got ya there, right? Strange, you should recognize the names of the relatively minor Impressionists and not know the name of the greatest sculptor on the Northern Renaissance. Why is that? Well, it's really not too surprising. German art is not a big mainstay in American museums and for many, the study of sculpture in art begins with Michelangelo and ends with Rodin. Riemenschneider (pronounced RHEE-men-SHNIED-er) was a contemporary of Michelangelo and very much his equal (though bearing remnants of the Gothic style), while Rodin seems cloddish and exhibitionist in contrast to the Northern Renaissance master.
Holy Blood Altarpiece, Rothenberg ob Tauber, Tilman Riemenschneider, 1495-99

Riemenschneider was born in 1460 near Osterode, Germany. He grew up influenced by Durer and Roger van der Weyden. His earliest work is a tombstone of the Ritter von Grumbach it which the old Gothic style predominates. However work in wood, stone, and alabaster from just a few years later bears a remarkable Renaissance style--not that of Michelangelo (of whom he was probably unaware) but that of Northern Renaissance painters. Frankly, he had no peers in sculpture to emulate. His work seems to be three-dimensional renderings of what his fellow artists were doing in paint at the time, and is all the more remarkable for capturing much of what they could not--a sense of humanity imbued into his religious figures.

Standing Virgin and Child, 1460-73
Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden
Curators go to some lengths to underline the importance of Riemenschneider's religious works by boldly comparing them side by side with those of other German sculptors of his time. Though quite beautiful, the work of sculptors such as Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden, for instance, seems static and stoic. Riemenschneider's work is gentle, melancholic, and pious while being infinitely fascinating in its complex details. One is conscious of the physical yet entranced by his work's spiritual presence. So, next time you think sculpture, don't forget that German guy with the name that's hard to pronounce and impossible to spell.
Madonna and Child, 1495
Tilman Riemenschneider


  1. You've provided an incorrect pronunciation guide for Tilman Riemanschneider.

    The correct pronunciation is "Rhee (rhymes with "flee")-men-schnid (rhymes with "hide")-er," i.e., the first syllable is a long "e" sound, the second is sounded as written, the third is a long "i" sound ending with a soft "d" sound that blends with the fourth syllable.

  2. Cavan--

    Thanks for bringing the error to my attention. I've tried to correct it. I hope I've succeeded. In the third syllable I was treating the "Y" as a long "I" sound, but your rendering is probably better.