By Gerhard Lutz, Robert P. Bergman Curator of Medieval Art
Around 1490, the young, ambitious artist Tilman Riemenschneider was commissioned to make several sculptures for the Benedictine monastery of Saint Peter in Erfurt, Germany. Riemenschneider’s workshop was in the episcopal city of Würzburg in Franconia (present-day Bavaria). The finished sculptures had to be transported across the Thuringian Forest, a low mountain range, to Erfurt, then the second-largest city in Germany and a thriving commercial metropolis. Two pieces from this commission have survived: the Virgin of the Annunciation is in the Louvre in Paris, and Saint Jerome is in the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Both form the core of the exhibition currently on view in the Julia and Larry Pollock Focus Gallery, which combines Riemenschneider’s alabaster sculptures with other contemporary works in alabaster (fig. 1). To this day, these works of art are shrouded in numerous mysteries. One reason is that the ensemble is no longer preserved in its original context. Were they intended for the monastery church? They could have adorned an altar. Or were they to be placed in the monastic buildings? While parts of the church have been preserved, the cloister buildings no longer remain (fig. 2).
We do not know how Riemenschneider was chosen by the monks. From Erfurt there was an important trade route south to Würzburg; thus, the reputation of the young artist could have quickly spread to Erfurt. Did the monks specifically request alabaster figures? Unfortunately, there is no contract for or other written sources on the sculptures.
From the surviving artworks of this period, however, it can be concluded that alabaster was popular mainly for smaller, particularly detailed and precious sculptures, but overall played a lesser role compared to wood and stone. There are several alabaster figures from the 1400s in Erfurt, so there was certainly sufficient illustrative material for the monks. For Riemenschneider himself it was obvious to take advantage of it because alabaster deposits were located near Würzburg. Two quarries were widely known in the 1400s and from there blocks were shipped for further treatment via the Main and Rhine Rivers as far as Bruges in the southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium).
To understand the figures more accurately, we must study them in detail and, as in a detective game, try to match the information with what we know about the period (figs. 3 and 4). For example, given the excellent availability of the material, we would expect alabaster to have been particularly important to Riemenschneider. This would also be supported by the fact that alabaster is exceptionally soft and easy to work with. The reason for this is that it is actually a variety of gypsum and not a stone. However, we only know of five sculptures that can be assigned with some certainty to Riemenschneider’s early work. He does not seem to have made use of it later in his career.
The answer is probably to be realized in the material itself. It is found in deposits only in layers, which allow block sizes of 40 to 45 centimeters, and in some cases up to more than 60 centimeters. However, most sculptures of the 1400s were used for altarpieces and had to be much larger. For the most part, different types of wood were used for this purpose, because these were not only much lighter, especially since they were usually hollowed out on the back, but also much less sensitive. Alabaster is very fragile. As soon as such a figure falls to the ground, it breaks or at least is significantly damaged. In addition, the surface of alabaster is very sensitive, like to moisture; therefore, this material is not suitable for sculptures on exteriors. So, if we disregard the ease of processing, alabaster was considered suboptimal for most contexts.
If we look closely at the delicacy of the two Riemenschneider sculptures, we realize that they must have been a special commission (figs. 5 and 6). The refinement with which the artist worked the figures is extraordinary, and we can assume that the viewer was supposed to get very close to the sculptures — as we can experience today in the exhibition — in order to study the subtleties and to engage with the figures and their Christian topics. This was not uncommon throughout the Middle Ages. But we do not know for sure that they were designed for the same location. Indeed, if we examine the sculptures in the round, we note that Mary is partially unfinished on the back, while Jerome, in somewhat simpler forms, was also carved there.
So far, the different conditions of the figures are also puzzling: while Mary has a somewhat darker tone due to a coating, there is the characteristic bright surface of alabaster on Jerome, as well as the veins and irregularities that are typical of the material and that give it a varied appearance (fig. 7).
In Jerome’s case, numerous remnants of a colored surface are still visible, especially in the joints and corners. Mary, on the other hand, shows remains of a gilding. So was Jerome, in contrast to Mary, colored from the beginning? This cannot be said with certainty, because with alabaster, the color was applied directly to the material without preparatory layers. Therefore, it could well be that Jerome had a polychrome surface from the beginning. On the other hand, the details on the figure are so finely carved that any kind of paint overlay would at least have partially obscured them. In this case, Riemenschneider would have made the effort partly for nothing.
Thus, we are still faced with many unanswered questions when we approach such works of art. With the help of new technical methods, perhaps some can be answered in the future.