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WOOD SCULPTURE IN GERMANY IN THE FIFTEENTH AND EARLY SIXTEENTH CENTURIES
'I AHE flourishing period of German art in wood
carving extends from about the middle of the
-*~ fifteenth, to the middle of the sixteenth, centuries. If.duringthis period, it cannot be said thatGermany took the lead, at any rate it was conspicuously in the forefront, and the output of figure work for the adornment of altarpieces and shrines, for choirs and choir-stalls, was nothing less than prodigious. But the extent of the empire was great, and we have to consider the reciprocal influences exercised on its various constituent parts, its commercial position on the main route between the Alps and the north, between Venice and the Flemish and Dutch capitals; on the other hand, internal conditions of government, the absence of centralization, the existence of several Free towns, and the restricted means of communication between the provinces, making, for example, Saxony and Thuringia dependent on Franconian schools of art—all these things combining to produce a complication so diverse that it is impossible to treat the subject comprehensively as a whole within reasonable limits. Nor can we forget also that the period with which we shall be most concerned is precisely the one when there was almost a general upheaval in everything connected with the arts, resulting partly from the advancing religious changes, but above all from the strides which the principles of the Renaissance were making. It is true that Germany remained steadfastly faithful to Gothic ideas until close on the end of the fifteenth century, and resisted the Italian invasion longer than other countries. All art continued to be exclusively religious. Even when the enthusiasm for antique styles had established itself in the German Renaissance, still, more than with other peoples, Gothic methods of treatment, in the ornament derived from natural forms, predominated. The ideas of the transitional period found in Germany a favourable soil for their development. Gothic here, modern framing there, with old models revived and adapted, we find greater independence in the design and construction of separate ornaments, less subordination to the general architectural motive, more freedom and an increased intelligence of the individual artist resulting from the extensive travels in other countries which were the rule in his wander-years, before he set up for himself with the grade of master. Remains of earlier art in wood are, as elsewhere, scarce. There are a few—for example the doors of St. Maria im Kapitol at Cologne—but we shall not stay to consider these. There are also a certain number of twelfth-century Madonna figures and colossal crucifixes which may find brief mention in the section devoted to early figure work of this kind. And certainly, if in wood we can advance absolutely nothing to form a link between this archaic figure work and the newly awakened realism which characterizes the prolific period of the decline of Gothic ideas, it must not be forgotten that in the thirteenth century the great cathedrals of Bamberg, of Naumberg, and of Strassburg, were adorned with statuary which vied with, even if it were derived from, that of Chartres or of Reims. The earliest impulse towards naturalism in German wood-carving was undoubtedly from the Netherlands. Reaching first the neighbouring provinces, the new system spread rapidly throughout the empire, and in those more distant from its source would seem to have been adopted with more freedom than in the north-west, where we find very numerous importations of the most imposing of Flemish retables and the like. Indeed, these are more numerously represented in North Germany and in Sweden at the present day than in their country of origin. We shall be particularly occupied with the retables and the single figures made to adorn them, of that part of the empire in the district of the Upper Rhine comprising the Franconian and Suabian schools. There will be found, of course, a general character which, while strongly allied to that of Flanders from which it sprung, possesses its own distinctive, absolutely German type. The faces of the women are rounder and more of a simple peasant order, those of the men bony, haggard, and ascetic in the case of the older ones; the hands have peculiarly long and knotted fingers; the hair of the men is of a uniformly adopted fashion of masses of thick curls, so uniform as to become monotonous. The draperies, especially towards the end of the period in question, carry to the utmost extravagance the complications and angularities of folds, breaking up into innumerable crooked tucks and pleats, which, far from being suggestive of reality, present, on the contrary, an appearance unlike anything which ordinary stuffs could assume. The inclination towards naturalism becomes more and more pronounced until it develops into attempts at reproducing realities in the human form, regardless of beauty for its own sake, which are almost revolting. It is the cult of the ugly, which, from time to time in all arts and in all periods, seems to exercise such a strange fascination. It will be necessary to confine our attention almost entirely to the most important of the two great districts or groups, which may be distinguished roughly as North German, with the Lower Rhenish provinces around the centre of the wood-carving industry at Calcar, and the South German, with which are associated the Franconian and Suabian schools and their far-spreading spheres of influence. In the South German area, in contradistinction to the sway still held elsewhere by painting over the plastic arts, it will be found that sculpture took the lead and imposed its influence, whether for good or bad, upon the art of the painter.
It would not be possible, in a work of a general character, to examine minutely the differences which may exist in the character of German wood sculpture throughout the various divisions of the empire. To do so would involve a study of German art not only in sculpture generally, but also in painting; a consideration of the various influences at work during the period of less than a century, with which we shall principally deal, and these also with relation to their evolution in previous times. As already remarked, the quantity of wood-carving still existing in the shape of retables and single figures, in addition to decorative panel and architectural work for the adornment and accessories of choirs, is prodigious. Museums and every village church possess examples of altarpieces and statuary. But although so numerous, these adornments of the altar, as we find them in the churches, are by no means universally of a high artistic character or of more than local interest. As, then, we are not engaged in a general study of the art of the empire, or even proposing to attempt a comprehensive account of its sculpture in wood, our attention will be confined to a certain number of examples, for the most part selected from the second of the two great districts or groups before mentioned. In general it will be sufficiently accurate to assume that during the period in question— that is, roughly speaking, from the first half of the fifteenth to the second half of the sixteenth centuries— the character of the retable art and of its accompanying figures has a generic similarity throughout the empire. A marked characteristic is the indebtedness to the art of the Netherlands, to the great masters of painting of the Flemish, Dutch, and Suabian schools, and to the direct or indirect influence of the contemporary German engravers and etchers. This influence may indeed from time to time be called, rather, collaboration. In certain cases—for example in that of Veit Stoss—the artist will be considered by some to have been more distinguished as an etcher than as a sculptor. That the wood-carver was very often a painter also, is of importance from another point of view: that is to say, with regard to the actual colouring of the sculpture.
If we should look around such a fairly representative collection as is to be found in the department devoted to wood in the Bavarian National Museum at Munich, the general similarity just alluded to can hardly be disputed. It is not always easy, even for an expert, to distinguish the productions of the Franconian, Suabian, Westphalian, High German, Low German, Rhenish, Bavarian, or Tyrolese schools: and experts themselves will differ considerably in their ascriptions. It is not, of course, intended to assert that we should have any difficulties with regard, say, to distinguishing characteristics of a Liibeck school of the fifteenth century or others which we associate with Rhineland work, but it will be unnecessary to concern ourselves with minute territorial distinctions. Nor does it follow that because we find such and such an example in such and such a neighbourhood that the latter is necessarily the place of origin. Artists themselves moved about a good deal. Amongst the finest, if not the finest, work of Veit Stoss is the altarpiece at Cracow several hundred miles from the town of his adoption and the school with which he is identified. Further than this, our information concerning the sculptors themselves and anything positive to guide us in the ascription to them of any definite piece is, as elsewhere