Tilman Riemenschneider (1468-1531) was the most famous of all German late-Gothic sculptors. His style of carving is beautifully refined, with nervous, crackling drapery folds and superb surface finish of the alabaster, sandstone, or lindenwood with which he worked.
Tilman Riemenschneider was born in Osterode, Saxony. After traveling in the Rhineland and Swabia, he settled in the prince-bishopric of Würzburg in 1483. He became a citizen 2 years later and was mayor of the city in 1520-1521. As a Würzburg councilor, in 1525 he came into conflict with the Church authorities during the Peasants' War—an expression of the Reformation—and was imprisoned and tortured. He died in Würzburg on July 7, 1531.
Like his contemporaries at Nuremberg, notably Veit Stoss, Riemenschneider combined realism with picturesqueness. The figure groups on his altarpieces are crowded and expressively posed, and the folds of their garments are deep-cut and crisp. He developed a highly individual style characterized by a high-pitched sensibility and an intense seriousness. His figures are carefully posed and often seem to affect ungainly attitudes; their expressions are somewhat more restrained than the figures by Stoss.
Riemenschneider's chief early works are the wooden altarpiece of the parish church of Münnerstadt (1490-1492; portions are in Berlin and Munich, the rest are in situ); the stone figures of Adam and Eve carved for the portal of the Marienkapelle in Würzburg (1491-1493), which are among the earliest known realistically treated nude figure sculptures in Germany; and a sandstone Virgin for the Marienkapelle (all three in the Mainfränkisches Museum, Würzburg), of which many variations, generally in wood, made Riemenschneider the most famous sculptor of his day.
Between 1500 and 1520 Riemenschneider carved the superb Assumption of the Virgin wooden altarpiece for the little country church at Creglingen, the stone tomb of Bishop Rudolph von Scherenberg in the Cathedral of Würzburg, and the wooden Altar of the Holy Blood in the Jakobskirche in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (1501-1505). In the center of the Rothenburg altar is the Last Supper; on the wings are the Entry of Christ into Jerusalem and Christ in Gethsemane, brilliantly executed in low relief. Sensing the beauty of the wood itself, Riemenschneider frequently did not polychrome his altarpieces, a novelty at this time.
Riemenschneider's masterpiece of funerary sculpture is the monumental memorial of the emperor Henry II and his wife, Kunigunde, in Bamberg Cathedral (1499-1513), executed in marble. Relief carvings on the sides of the tomb depict legendary events from their lives in a style that reveals a new human understanding.
There is no monograph on Riemenschneider in English. Bernd Lohse and others, eds., Art Treasures of Germany (1958), contains some biographical information on Riemenschneider and reproductions of his works. See also Clara Waters, Painters, Sculptors, Architects, Engravers and Their Works (1899).
Bier, Justus, Tilmann Riemenschneider, his life and work, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1982. □