Image-Makers and Image-Buyers

Bob Scribner

  • The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany by Michael Baxandall
    Yale, 420 pp, £25.00, May 1980, ISBN 0 300 02423 1

The half-century before 1525 saw the blossoming in south Germany of a remarkable school of limewood sculpture, largely devoted to the retable altarpiece, which is an altarpiece placed behind the altar. It encompassed around two dozen artists spread over three generations, and is associated with such great names as Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stoss and Hans Leinberger. It was a characteristic product of south German urban culture, manifesting many of the distinctive, and often contradictory, traits of the early Renaissance in Germany. Michael Baxandall’s excellent book continually reminds us that a school of this kind cannot be separated from the social context in which it flourished. It was an age of demographic growth and commercial expansion which saw the emergence of early capitalist relations of production in the metal industry and the putting-out system. All this brought rapid wealth and sharp social polarisation which was to culminate in the Peasants’War of 1525.

There were many social and economic preconditions for this kind of sculpture. It required towns, such as Ulm, Augsburg or Nuremberg, large enough to support the high degree of craft specialisation involved. The sculptors were masters of independent urban workshops, operating within the restrictions of the guild system, but striving against its limitations towards a new commercial basis for their work. They sought to achieve a monopoly of production by uniting all processes under their own control, putting out the stages they could not bring under their own roof in a manner that made them, in one of Baxandall’s many telling phrases, ‘the Fug-gers of art’.

The sculptors required above all a wealthy clientele, able to afford the considerable outlay involved in commissioning a retable altarpiece. Their patrons were drawn, in fact, from a minute proportion of the well-to-do of southern Germany – Baxandall rightly speaks of the ‘image-buying classes’. Here the outlook of the age is notably reflected in the sculpture. There was a growth of side altars designed to serve not the religious interests of the community as a whole, as did high altars, but the sectional interest of the wealthy, whether acting as family or as fraternity. It was an age when altarpieces were referred to as much by the name of the donor as by the name of the saint to whom they were dedicated. The donors retained a proprietal interest in their altars, recognised during the Reformation dismantling of images, which were often seen as private property to be returned to their donors.

Throughout the book Baxandall shows a shrewd perception of social context which situates his sculptors in the bustling urban environment in which they grew up and with which they interacted. There are two fine chapters on the functions of limewood sculpture and its market, which cast a searching light on the more mundane circumstances of artistic production. At the same time, he never forgets that these represent opportunities offered to the artist by his environment, against which he works out his individual style.

Indeed, the emergence of individual style is one of the major cultural characteristics of the age. This is well recorded in the 1516 statute of the Strasbourg painters’ guild, which stipulated that a masterpiece should show, not the ability to imitate traditional models, but an originality founded in the intelligence and skill of the artist. This sense of individual creativity is well captured by Baxandall’s perceptive treatment of four of the outstanding individuals of the school, Michael Erhart, Riemenschneider, Voss and Leinberger. But almost all the limewood sculptors were distinguished by a personal sense of style, the more remarkable in that it developed out of the tension between two emerging collective styles, the Italianate influence deprecatingly called Welsch, and the stripling national awareness of being Deutsch.

Throughout his study, Baxandall applies a fine sense of the practical and material conditions of art. This is nowhere more evident than in his very clear exposition of the nature of the raw material and the tools with which the sculptors worked. Limewood was as much a natural product of south Germany as was urban culture. It was a relatively valuable timber with qualities ideal for the kind of style which Baxandall labels the Florid: the controlled flourishes so distinctive of the limewood sculptors. Limewood was a hardwood with pliability and elasticity, whose maturing process lent itself to the carving of hollow curvilinear forms. Part of the skill of the limewood sculptors was their ability to accommodate their carved figures to the lines of force within the timber. With the same eye for practical detail, Baxandall shows the possibilities for the limewood carver of the tools available, pointing out the interplay between the wood and the tool that was used to achieve various effects.

Limewood sculpture was also painted sculpture, first polychrome, then increasingly monochrome. Again, Baxandall explains lucidly the peculiar blend of materials and artistry, showing in a number of fascinating examples throughout the book the importance of the changing light in which the sculpture was viewed, and the position of the viewer within an are of vision from which the work might have been looked at.

Despite his sense of practicality and of social context, Baxandall has not dispensed with aesthetic theory. He is hampered by the fact that the period left few theoretical reflections on which to build contemporary standards of aesthetic judgment. However, with characteristic initiative and imagination, Baxandall constructs a number of guide-lines drawn from the wider culture of the time which illuminate what its implicit artistic theory may well have been. For the sculptors’ attitude towards the qualities inherent in the wood with which they were to contend, and whose qualities they were to elicit by their skill, Baxandall turns to Paracelsus’s notion of chiromancy – the art of reading the inner character of things from their external character – and gives a fine example of how it might be applied by his own ‘chiromancy’ of the qualities of limewood.

For a standard against which to measure the sculptors’ sense of line and style, he turns to the Meistersinger and the Modists, contemporary schoolmasters who taught the elements of calligraphy. Baxandall’s own chosen term for the sculpture, the Florid, derives from the bravura flourish common to both Meister-singer and Modists. For descriptions of gestural and emotional styles, he turns to the descriptions of emotional attitudes used in mystery plays.

These are useful heuristic devices to explain the techniques used by the sculptors to achieve their aesthetic effects, to represent, so to speak, the vision which inspired their work. He applies them, however, with such skill that one too easily forgets that they are only useful analogies culled from the mental apparatus of the time which might elucidate like attitudes among the artists. Perhaps the only directly relevant device of this kind are the six attitudes Dürer took to sum up the principal poses of the human figure.

The most relevant late medieval theory that Baxendall applies to the sculptures may be that on the use of images. Here he opens up another fertile field of thought, developing from both the material and the functions of the sculpture. Limewood was a timber with strong folkloric traditions, the limetree or Linden often serving as a focal point of community activity and an object of magico-religious interest, associated with sacred groves and places of pilgrimage. It was, as Baxendall puts it, a material to be respected. In the context of pre-Reformation veneration of images and the Reformation attack on image-worship a limewood altarpiece must have been charged with many kinds of significance.

Baxandall is not led into idle speculation here about whether any of these magical overtones were seen to cohere around the sculptures. He is interested, rather, in the problem of how far they conform to an acceptable view of images as aids to devotion, and how far they lapse into abuse. Again, it is his admirable awareness of style as practical artistic achievement which comes to his assistance in dealing with this problem. It is easy enough to point to altars with many saints as verging on the polytheistic, to the lack of decorum which dressed religious figures in the clothing of the dance-hall, or to the suppressed elements of eroticism in the religious art of the period. It is more difficult to describe, as Baxandall does so convincingly, the emotions aroused by the different arcs of address or lines of attention demanded by images in a church, which, together with the effects of changing light and polychrome or monochrome colouring, establish the impact on a pious viewer. In this way, Baxandall evolves a standard of artistic judgment for the religious impact of images, such that he is able to declare that a work by Riemenschneider would have met Zwingli’s early standard of acceptability. There is much in this approach that will be of value to the historian of popular belief when consistently applied to wider questions of Reformation history.

When one adds together all these aspects of the book, it is abundantly clear that it provides far more than a survey of German limewood sculpture as an art in and for itself. Baxandall uses the theme, as he states in his preface, as a lens with which to bring into focus many of the distinctive features of the society and culture. In doing so, he shows how works of art and artistic styles can be extraordinarily rich documents which the historian may use alongside more traditional sources to illuminate cultural production and its material conditions. In this regard, this book is more than a work of art criticism or art history: it is a contribution to the broader social and cultural history of the German Renaissance.