Tilman Riemenschneider

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For the Bach scholar, see Albert Riemenschneider. For the asteroid, see 6145 Riemenschneider.
Self-portrait of Tilman Riemenschneider.

Tilman Riemenschneider (c. 1460 – 7 July 1531) was a German sculptor and woodcarver active in Würzburg from 1483. He was one of the most prolific and versatile sculptors of the transition period between late Gothic and Renaissance, a master in stone and limewood.

Biography[edit]

The Lamentation of Christ, Maidbronn
Detail of stone tomb of Rudolf von Scherenberg in Würzburg Cathedral, (1496-1499).

Tilman Riemenschneider was born between 1459 and 1462 in Heiligenstadt im Eichsfeld in present-day Thuringia. When Riemenschneider was about five years old, his father lost his possessions and had to leave Heiligenstadt due to his involvement in a violent political conflict, the Mainzer Stiftsfehde (de). The family resettled in Osterode, where Tilman's father became Master of the Mint (A good position at that time) and where Riemenschneider spent his childhood years.

Riemenschneider is said to have come to Würzburg for the first time at the age of 18, his Uncle served as notary and financial advisor to the Bishop there, but he did not stay for long at that time. Around 1473 Riemenschneider learned the trade of sculpting and woodcarving throughout the areas of Swabia and the upper Rhine—possibly in Strasbourg and Ulm. At that time the statutes of the guild of sculptors required that an apprentice travel to many different workshops to gain experience. Very little is known about this period of his life but it is likely that he came in contact with the work of Martin Schongauer, whose copper engravings served him later as examples.

In 1483 he settled in Würzburg where, on December 7 of 1483, he joined the Saint Luke's Guild of painters, sculptors and glass workers as a painter's assistant. On February 28, 1485, he married Anna Schmidt, a widow of a master goldsmith with three sons. This marriage not only brought him property but it also meant that he could end his apprenticeship and become a master craftsman. She died, after nearly ten years of marriage, leaving him with a daughter. Tilman would marry another three times after this. While his successive wives were directing the large household, Tilman developed both the artistic and business side of his work. His earliest confirmed work is the Gravestone of Eberhard von Grumbach in the Pfarrkirche at Rimpar. This may be the type of work he started out with before obtaining large Church commissions. He started to receive numerous orders from the town councils of Würzburg and neighboring towns. The earliest large work attributed to him is the Franziskusaltar in the St Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber which is described in the church guide book as 'about 1490', but its style compared to other works of that date is rather primitive, suggesting it may be an earlier work. The town council of Münnerstadt ordered in 1490 an altarpiece for the altar of St Maria Magdalena, the parish church, which included a carving of St Mary Magdalene with Six Angels. In 1491, the town council of Würzburg ordered two life-size stone figures of Adam and Eve for the south portal of the council’s church, the Marienkapelle.

In 1494 his first wife died, leaving him with three stepsons and a daughter. In keeping with the times and his status he remarried in 1497, his second wife bore him two daughters and three sons, all of whom seem to have inherited their father's artistic talent. In 1495, he created the statue of Mary with child which resides in the Pfarrkirche St Bernard in Würzburg. The writer Hermann Hesse described it as follows:

"Dreamily she gazes out from her glass case, far away from our world... in her gracefulness and distinction she is refined to a degree of perfunction far above that of mankind today"

By 1500, he had developed an outstanding reputation as an artist and had become a wealthy Würzburg citizen. Not only did he own a number of houses but he also was a landowner with his own vineyards. His flourishing workshop provided work for as many as forty apprentices doing woodcarving, sculpting and painting. In November 1504, Riemenschneider became councilman of the city of Würzburg, an office he would fulfill for the next twenty years. This office not only brought him social status but it also helped him obtain many large and profitable orders. Between 1520 and 1524 he even was Mayor of Würzburg.

During the German Peasants' War, the city council formed an alliance with peasants who were in revolt across Germany and came into conflict with Konrad von Thüngen, the Prince-Bishop of Würzburg, whose residence, the Marienberg Fortress, overlooks the city. On June 4 of 1525, the peasant's army was destroyed, with 8,000 killed, just outside Würzburg by the troops of Georg, Steward of Waldburg-Zeil and the Bishop. After the city surrendered, the full city council, including Riemenschneider, was incarcerated and tortured in the Marienberg citadel. According to legend, both of his hands were broken during the torturing, which ended his artistic career. Together with the rest of the council, Tilman was set free after two months, with loss of most of his property. He received no more major orders and, until his death in 1531 at Würzburg, led a retired life with his fourth wife. His son Jörg from his second marriage continued the workshop after his death.

Art[edit]

The sculptures and woodcarvings of Tilman Riemenschneider are in the late Gothic style, although his later work show mannerism characteristics. His work is characterized by the expressiveness of their faces (often shown with an inward look, as in the self-portrait) and by their detailed and richly folded clothing. The emphasis on expression of inner emotions sets Riemenschneider's work apart from that of his immediate predecessors. Souren Melikian places his best work, such as the Virgin listening to the Annunciation, in the same league as the oil paintings of Albrecht Dürer. Kenneth Clark views the Riemenschneider figures as showing the serious personal piety in Germany in the late fifteenth century and as harbingers of the coming Reformation. Among his successors and/or pupils were Peter Breuer and Philipp Koch.

Major works[edit]

Holy Blood Altar by Tilman Riemenschneider in Rothenburg ob der Tauber
Last Supper detail fromHoly Blood Altar in Rothenburg ob der Tauber

The largest collection of his work, 81 pieces, can be found in the Mainfränkisches Museum in the Marienberg citadel in Würzburg.

Notes[edit]

References[edit]

Literature[edit]

Altar of Maria in Creglingen

The character Goldmund in the book Narcissus and Goldmund by Hermann Hesse serves as an apprentice with a master sculptor who is socially prominent in the town where he worked and whose character appears to be loosely based on that of Riemenschneider. He serves both as an artistic inspiration for Goldmund and as a foil for the less restrained temperament of Goldmund.

The plot of Elizabeth Peters's first Vicky Bliss mystery novel, "Borrower of the Night" (1973) centers around the search for a missing Riemenschneider sculpture. Most of the action takes place in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

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