Pious Medieval Sculptures Land in Fallen New York

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art who approach the current Tilman Riemenschneider exhibition by way of the Greek sculpture

Visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art who approach the current Tilman Riemenschneider exhibition by way of the Greek sculpture galleries–the most likely route to the show within the museum–are in for something of a shock. The spirit of classical humanism that we encounter in the Greek sculpture galleries transports us to a realm of heroic earthly life in which the human physique is exalted as an object to be admired and idealized. In the galleries devoted to Riemenschneider’s sculptures, however, we find ourselves immersed in the shrouded interior world of medieval Christian piety. The one is a realm of light and worldly aspiration; the other plunges us into the shadows of religious agony and the ordeals of redemption. Both embody ideas that have shaped our own civilization, yet the stark polarities of mind and material circumstance which they represent remain difficult to reconcile.

Even the characteristic materials employed by these sculptors–the radiant white marble of the Greeks and the more subdued tonalities of Riemenschneider’s carved limewood figures–denote radically different worlds of feeling. So do their respective attitudes toward their human subjects. About the high place occupied by man in the natural world the Greek sculptors seemed to entertain no doubts or anxieties. Hence the untroubled priority accorded to an idealized nudity. In Riemenschneider’s sculpture, only the Christ child is allowed complete nudity, and it is anything but idealized. Even in the sculptures of Adam and the crucified Christ, the depiction of the male genitals is disallowed. The saints must be fully clothed, lest we are tempted to take unwarranted pleasure in their depiction as human subjects. Every care must be taken to remind us of man’s fallen state.

In an essay for the catalogue of the Met exhibition, Julien Chapuis reminds us of the strict theological code that governed the depiction of the sculptor’s human subjects. “Riemenschneider was certainly aware of contemporary concerns within the church on the abuse of images,” he writes. “Both Erasmus and Luther, for example, acknowledged the usefulness of images in teaching the illiterate, but they warned against the inherent danger of idolatry: Pious veneration gave way to idolatry when images ceased to function as aids toward a higher form of spirituality and became themselves objects of adoration.” From the perspective of these theological restrictions, writes Mr. Chapuis, “it is tempting to see Riemenschneider’s increasing flattening of forms as an attempt to reduce the corporeality–and thus the presence–of his figures and to emphasize their character as man-made images.”

Coming to these extraordinary carvings today, half a millennium after their creation, we can no longer be in any doubt about their status as man-made images. That is precisely what we most admire about them. Our own form of idolatry, if it can be called that, is to see such man-made images as pure esthetic objects, and this tends either to empty them of their spiritual significance or, perhaps, to shift the very idea of spiritual significance to the realm of esthetic delight–an approach to art that is utterly alien to a sensibility as intensely religious as Riemenschneider’s. As another contributor to the catalogue, Michael Baxandall, correctly observes: “We may see the statues here as art before we see them as religious images, but in their own culture they were devotional instruments first–which is not to say their artifice would not have been observed and valued.”

Our response to Riemenschneider’s sculpture is bound, then, to be somewhat paradoxical. This is, in fact, the subject of Mr. Baxandall’s essay, which is called “The Perception of Riemenschneider” and attempts to combine a formalistic analysis of the sculpture with an historical account of the ways in which the sculptures were perceived in their own period. That we cannot hope to replicate that mode of perception in our own period goes without saying. What Mr. Baxandall offers as an alternative is a lesson in modern esthetics–and a quite brilliant lesson it is, too. But it doesn’t do much to lessen the paradoxical character of our experience of the work.

“In Riemenschneider’s culture,” he writes, “an important aspect of sculpture is what one may call the ‘arc of address.’ Statues were not usually truly freestanding but stood in niches in shrines. They were designed to present themselves toward the front, but not to a single point in front. Most of them do not have just one optimum angle of view–which would make them less effective as devotional objects (and as sculpture)–but offer themselves over a sector, the arc of address. They do this by representing poses with implications of address in more than one direction.” Which, alas, might also be said of certain Cubist sculptures or the figures of Alberto Giacometti.

The fact is, it diminishes Riemenschneider’s art when we attempt to secularize its essential character. And the problem is compounded by another fact of cultural life: that the religious milieu of the German Middle Ages remains a more distant and a more alien subject for most of us than either the Greeks who preceded Riemenschneider or the great Italians who were his contemporaries. When we exit this exhibition and retrace our course through the Greek sculpture galleries on our way out of the museum, we are bound to feel a sense of release and exhilaration. For we have passed out of the shadows into the light.

Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages was organized by Julien Chapuis, and remains on view at the Met through May 14. It has already been seen at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and at the Met it has been given a handsome and appropriately tenebrous installation designed by Daniel Bradley Kershaw.

Pious Medieval Sculptures Land in Fallen New York