Tilman Riemenschneider's Saint Catherine, virtually unknown since its appearance in the 1931 Hannover exhibition celebrating the sculptor's oeuvre, is a testament to his lifetime achievements and mastery of his beloved medium, limewood. One of two sculptures by Riemenschneider in private hands in the United States and only the second by the master himself to come to auction in the United States and Great Britain, this sculpture is a major work of Riemenschneider's late style.
A great deal has been written about the superior work of Tilman Riemenschneider, arguably the preeminent Medieval German sculptor and greatest proponent of the Late Gothic style in Germany. In 2001, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., produced a pivotal exhibition, led by Julien Chapuis, Tilman Riemenschneider. Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages which was followed by several exhibitions and publications in recent years. The 2001 exhibition magnificently illustrated Riemenschneider's achievements in wood, alabaster and sandstone and his ability to balance his late Gothic traditions, expressive technique and humanistic concerns. The present figure of Saint Catherine was considered "...among the great discoveries of this exhibition..." (Chapuis (ed.), op.cit., p. 329) and was discussed in detail in the exhibition catalogue. New information was brought to light concerning both the relationship of the present figure to other autograph pieces by Riemenschneider and the sculptor's use of punched decoration and tooling to enhance his monochrome surfaces.
In The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition catalogue and in various recent articles concerning Riemenschneider, the Museum's Associate Conservator, Michele Marincola, discussed the sculptor's technique and the details revealed by the Saint Catherine. Observing the elaborate ornamentation embellishing the sculpture's surface, she suggests that this figure was meant to remain unpainted. In fact Riemenschneider was among "the first sculptors to reject the painted surface and leave the fine carving visible to the viewer". Nine distinct tool marks are found on this sculpture, combined with traces of gilding and a red glaze, consistent with many of the master's monochromatic works.
These same details are found on the related figure of a Female Saint(fig.1), circa 1515, sold in these rooms May 22, 2001, lot 32, and now in Compton Verney, Warwickshire, England, and also included in The Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibition (Chapuis (ed.), op.cit.,cat no.43a). Marincola further develops the long held assumption by scholars that the present Saint Catherine and the figure of a Female Saint, noted above, originally belonged to the same altarpiece. She compares the delicate punch work on the garments and attributes of the figures with three of the most important monochromatic works by Riemenschneider (the Münnerstadt altarpiece in the Church of Mary Magdalene, the Altar of the Holy Blood, Rothenburg, the Altar of the Assumption, Creglingen), revealing comparable areas of surface treatment. This attention to the minute details and variation of textures, further supports Marincola's hypothesis that each of these works were indeed intended to remain unpolychromed.
Saint Catherine's posture is elegant, enhanced by the elongated s-curve of her stance created by her slender limbs and by the balance of a variety of compositional details including her long tresses falling down her shoulders, the diagonals created by the folds of her mantle and skirt, the elongated neck and tilt of the head and the shift of weight from her left leg and hip to the right. Her facial features with almond-shaped, downward turned eyes, straight nose, diminutive, pursed lips and dimpled, pointed chin combined with the precise and authentic treatment of the skin on her neck and hands are all a leitmotif of Riemenschneider's distinctive style of carving. A more frenetic articulation of sharp-edged drapery with dense folds which masks the figure beneath it is found in the sculptor's earlier works; a style that demonstrates his accomplished hand and passion for the engraver's art of his time. In the present figure, however, the sculptor has created a sense of calm in the use of larger curves and simplified drapery patterns, typical of his later works. The very similar treatment of drapery forms is seen in another of his masterpieces, the Virgin and Child on Crescent Moon, circa 1503-1505 in Hamburg (fig.3).
The size of the present figure, the overall figure style and details in the carving together with the method of attachment to its lost surround have led scholars to believe that the Saint Catherine belonged to the same ensemble as both the aforementioned Female Saint and the Saint Elizabeth of Hungary, circa 1510-1515 (fig.2)(Chapuis (ed.), op.cit., cat. no. 43b), in the Germanisches National Museum, Nuremburg. Marincola notes that a rectangular groove in the back of this figure is also seen on the other two and is not seen on any other works by Riemenschneider (Chapuis (ed.), op.cit., p. 326). Chapuis (op.cit., pp. 329-40) goes on to suggest that all three figures, which complement one another in stance, were made for the central section of a carved retable or altar, two figures on each side flanking a central group. The similar elongation of forms in all three also suggests that they were meant to be placed on an altar at eye level. The fact that the three female saints were probably carved over a period of 15 years is not unusual with Riemenschneider and his workshop. Documents indicate that he often worked on commissions over a long span of time (Chapuis (ed.), op.cit. p.331).
Riemenschneider produced altarpieces, smaller sculptures for private devotion and some secular works, competing with and learning from other accomplished German sculptors such as Niclaus Gerhaert von Leiden, Veit Stoss and Michel Erhart. The master from Würzburg also received commissions beyond the boundaries of his home. His unique style was famous in his day but politics, the Reformation, and changes in taste left the memory of Riemenschneider and the art of the Middle Ages behind. A revival in interest in Riemenschneider's work came in the 19th century but by that time almost all of his works were destroyed, altered or removed from their original settings.
With the 1931 Hannover exhibition of Riemenschneider's oeuvre on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of his death, which followed the publication of the first volume of Justus Bier's monograph on the sculptor, interest in Riemenschneider's brilliance continued its revival. At this time, his popularity in Germany was only surpassed by Albrecht Dürer's (Chapuis (ed.), op.cit. p.20) and the renewed interested in German art and the early 20th century dispersal of prestigious private collections containing important works by Riemenschneider, spurred museums such as Berlin and Munich to purchase his works. Wixom (Chapuis (ed.), op.cit.,p 149) explains that the great European collections (including that of Georg Schuster in Munich) influenced the tastes of foreign collectors and museums, particularly in America, who sought out German masterpieces.
Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531) was born in Heiligenstadt in Thuringia and moved with his family to Osterode in the Harz Mountains. He may have trained as a stone mason in Erfurt, specializing in alabaster. He settled in Ulm for a time where he may have worked as an apprentice to Michel Erhart. A "Tilman Riemenschneider" appears in the Würzburg town records before 1479 where he turned down a commission for an altarpiece. Settling and marrying there in 1483, he became a citizen and a member of the painter's Guild of Saint Luke, achieving the status of 'Meister'. His new wife's wealth provided a large house with sufficient space for workshops and quarters for assistants, apprentices and his family. He subsequently received numerous commissions from various town councils, including one in 1490 from the town council of Münnerstadt for an altarpiece for the high altar of St. Maria Magdalene, the parish church. The elements of that altarpiece are now dispersed. Further major commissions were executed by Riemenschneider's workshop for local patrons as well as for clients in Franconia and Saxony. In 1504, he was elected to the city council and in 1509 was the first artist to be elected to the Upper Council in Würzburg. He was elected mayor of the town in 1520-21, by which time he had married for the fourth time. In 1525, when the Peasant's Revolt swept through Germany, Riemenschneider and other council members opposed the demands of the Prince-Bishop, Conrad von Thüngen, and attempted to assist the peasants in their struggle for freedom against serfdom. The sculptor died in 1531 and was buried in the cemetery next to the Würzburg Cathedral.
Founded in 1941 by Harry Scherman, founder of the Book-of-the-Month Club, the Scherman Foundation has made grants totaling more than $100 million to non-profit organizations that promote the arts, advance social justice, protect the environment, uphold women's reproductive rights, defend human and civil rights, and work for peace.
Riemenschneider Gedächtnis-Ausstellung 1931: des Museums für Kunst und Landesgeschichte im Provinzial-Museum, Hannover, 1931, no. 17
Height 41 1/4 in.; width 12 1/2 in.; depth 7 1/2 in.; 104.7 by 31.8 by 10cm
J. Bier, Tilmann Riemenschneider. Die späten Werke in Holtz, Vienna, 1978, no. 31
D. Finn, 'A Sculpture by Tilmann Riemenschneider' in Sculpture Review 46 (1997), pp.22-25
J. Chapuis(ed.), Tilman Riemenschneider. Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC/ The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Washington and New Haven, 1999, cat.no.43
M. Marincola, 'Tilman Riemenschneider: New Thoughts on a Late Medieval Sculptor's Techniques' in Met Objectives, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fall 2000, vol. 2, no. 1, pp. 1-4
M. Marincola, 'A Technical Investigation of the Dumbarton Oaks Virgin and Child by Tilman Riemenschneider,' in The Sculpture Journal 4 (2000), pp. 24-34, illus. figs. 11 and 12
F. M. Kammel, 'Das Germanisches Nationalmuseum und Tilman Riemenschneider. Beiträge zu einer Erwerbungsund Forschungsgeschichte' in: Anzeiger des Germanisches Nationalmuseums , 2003, S. 152-154
J. Chapuis(ed.), " Tilman Riemenschneider c.1460-1531," Studies in the History of Art 65, Center for Advanced Study in the Visual Arts, Symposium Papers XLII, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., New Haven and London, 2004
Tilman Reimenschneider-Werke seiner Blütezeit (exh.cat.), Mainfränkischen Museum Würzburg, 24 March to 13 June 2004, no. 1, pp.341-343, no. 71, p.342, figs.106, 296, 297.
J. Bier, Tilmann Riemenschneider.Die Frühen Werke, Würzburg, 1925
J. Bier, The Sculptures of Tilmann Riemenschneider, The North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, 1962
M. Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptures of Germany, New Haven and London, 1980
J. Bier, Tilmann Riemenschneider. His Life and Work, Kentucky, 1982
George Schuster, Munich
Acquired in 1927, thence by descent