In April 1501, about the time Michelangelo was returning from Rome to Florence to compete for the commission to carve a giant marble David, a very different sculptor named Tilman Riemenschneider agreed to make an altarpiece in the small German town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. Since then, things have not changed much in Rothenburg. Though battered during the war, it has been restored to postcard perfection (or rather turned into a perfect place for tourists to take selfies of themselves against a Disneyesque medieval background). And the Altar of the Holy Blood is still there, in the place for which it was made, at the west end of the church of St James or Jakobskirche.
This is a sculpted version of the Easter story both great and strange. It is concerned with the moment when the Eucharist — central mystery of Christianity — began, and also seems to contain within it the tensions that were soon to tear Christendom apart. It manages to suggest both Protestant sobriety while celebrating those very elements of Medieval religion that Luther and Calvin reacted against: miraculous shrines, worship of images, indulgences.
The Jakobskirche possessed a precious relic. Many years before, three drops of consecrated wine had fallen on an altar cloth and taken on the appearance of Christ’s blood from the Passion. Numerous miracles had been associated with this blood, which drew pilgrims from the surrounding area. Riemenschneider’s sculpture was intended as an enormous reliquary, containing and simultaneously explaining the miraculous drops, hence its name the Altar of the Holy Blood. These are preserved in a crucifix held by two angels high in the airy structure.
In many ways, the altarpiece is a very northern work. It is made of limewood — the signature material of German sculpture — and positively flaunts its woodiness. The central scene, representing the Last Supper, and two wings depicting Christ’s Entry in Jerusalem and the agony in the garden are housed in a structure like a model church whose carved wooden gothic architecture appears to be metamorphosing back into the fronds and curving branches of forest trees.
The whole thing seems on the point of bursting into leaf. And it’s transparent. It’s not just that you can see through the complex arrangements of crockets and pinnacles — just as you can, say, through the Eiffel Tower — Christ and the disciples are sitting in a little medieval room, behind them are miniature glazed windows. This is a sort of sacred doll’s house.
Otherwise, it’s oddly sober. Much northern European sculpture, including much of Riemenschneider’s own, was painted in rich colours. But this was deliberately left plain, coated only with a warm honey-toned glaze. Scholars have long debated why some early 16th-century German sculptures, like this one, were left monochrome. Perhaps, some suggest, it was to cater to a taste for art less opulent, and more dryly directed to telling the Biblical narrative. If so, this preference was expressed a few years later in the angry iconoclasm of the Reformation
Riemenschneider (c.1460–1531) lived through these turbulent times. One could imagine him as one of the burghers in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger. He was a prominent and successful man, mayor of Würzburg in 1520, and for years a member of the council.
This was his undoing. Würzburg was ruled by a prince-bishop, but in 1525, during the Peasants’ Revolt, the council defied the bishop and backed the peasants. When the latter lost, Riemenschneider was arrested, imprisoned for two months, tortured and fined. It was not the end of his life, but little more was heard of him. In any case, the bottom had probably fallen out of the market for religious sculpture.
A year ago, the Altar of the Holy Blood was the object of a pilgrimage for me: not a religious but an artistic one. On the lengthy list of books that changed my life is a work by the art historian Michael Baxandall entitled The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. This revealed a whole genre of art of which I had never heard; and also that to look at Riemenschneider’s masterpiece properly requires — in a way — an act of devotion.
Part of the point of Riemenschneider’s masterpiece, Baxandall argued, was the way the light on it constantly changes. In the morning it comes from the south windows, spotlighting Judas. By the evening, it is streaming through the windows behind, haloing the head of Christ. Ideally, therefore, one should look at it at intervals over a whole day. I intended to do just that, but somehow we got distracted. A second pilgrimage may be required.