The Limewood Master and the Female Saint

In late 2010 Andrew Graham-Dixon introduced his BBC4 series on The Art of Germany thus, “Maybe I am wrong, but how many people watching at home will already be aware of the great limewood carvings of Tilman Riemenschneider (the greatest artist who ever set out to carve a piece of wood)…?”

Those of us who know Compton Verney can allow ourselves a little smug satisfaction here, and admit that we are indeed aware, for Riemenschneider’s glorious Female Saint has stood at the heart of Compton Verney’s permanent collection since its foundation ten years ago.

Tilman Riemenschneider  A Female Saint © Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider
A Female Saint
© Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531), was arguably the finest medieval German sculptor, and the leading proponent of the Late Gothic style in Germany. His name first appears in the Würzburg town records before 1479. He married there in 1483, and around the same time achieved the status of Meister. Riemenschneider established himself as a prominent and respected member of the town’s elite, and was subsequently elected to the City and then Upper Council in Würzburg, eventually attaining the position of the town’s mayor in 1520-21.

His carving of a Female Saint sits proudly at the core of Compton Verney’s permanent collection. The sculpture, carved from limewood in around 1515-20, is an outstanding example of his later, and more naturalistic style. Sadly we are unable to identify her with any certainty, as her attribute (formerly held in her right hand) is now missing. Some scholars claim, however, that she is a portrayal of St. Barbara, who traditionally carried a book, symbolic of her study of the scriptures when she was confined to the tower by her father.

What strikes the visitor most, especially on first viewing, is the ethereal grace and serenity of the figure. This sculpture, whilst undoubtedly a religious icon, is imbued with an overwhelming human presence. Sotheby’s sale catalogue describes this beautifully:

“The Female Saint’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 hair falling in long tresses down her right shoulder, the swathe of drapery from her turban curving outward from that same side and the shift of weight from her left leg and hip to the right. Her facial features with almond-shaped, downturned 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 signatures of Riemenschneider’s distinctive style of carving.”

Signatures, certainly, of Riemenschneider’s later sculptural style; one that evolved out of “the lyrical Schöne Madonnen (beautiful Madonna) style, popular in the early 15th century” where we witness a shift of emphasis to “a distinct natural observation of the body and a decreased idealism.”

This “humanist” approach to his carving lends Riemenschneider’s later pieces a simplicity of form that exudes an almost transcendental serenity. His use of elaborate punched decoration to enhance the sculpture’s surfaces is also evidence that he may have intended this piece to remain monochromatic, unlike many painted pieces of the time.

Some years earlier, in 1495, Riemenschneider had created the statue of Mary with Child which now resides in the Pfarrkirche St Bernard in Würzburg. The writer Hermann Hesse described it as follows:

Dreamily she gazes out from her glass case, far away from our world [...] in her gracefulness and distinction she is refined to a degree of perfection far above that of mankind today

In much the same way the Compton Verney Female Saint’s appearance is transcendent. In her serenity she wears an expression peculiarly of her time, and yet of all time. Hers is a face that speaks to us of a faded history, of experience teased over time into indistinguishable strands, and yet she looks out beyond past experience, and offers us a deeper understanding of the contemporary human condition.

Tilman Riemenschneider  A Female Saint © Compton Verney

Tilman Riemenschneider
A Female Saint
© Compton Verney

As a student I remember reading Herman Hesse’s novel Narziss and Goldmund, where the character Goldmund, having left the sanctuary of his monastery, travels far and wide across Germany on a fugitive pilgrimage of the senses. At a crucial point in his wanderings Goldmund first sees the statue of the Blessed Mother of God,

Then a shaft of sunlight streamed through the window into a side-chapel, and he saw a statue, which seemed to speak to his heart and call him to it, that he turned as though to greet a love, and stood, struck to the heart, and full of reverence.”

He subsequently speaks to the Pater, and enquires of the master who carved her. The priest tells him that Master Nicholas is “… a carver in wood, who lives in our bishop’s city [...] and has great fame at his craft [...] certainly a fine and gifted man.

Goldmund’s quest subsequently refocuses on a search for this Master. He eventually becomes informally apprenticed to Master Nicholas, a master wood carver and sculptor who is socially prominent in the town where he worked, and whose character appears to be loosely based on that of Riemenschneider. Hesse uses Master Nicholas as a source of artistic inspiration for Goldmund, but also as foil for the younger man’s wayward temperament.

When Goldmund comes to ponder on what uniquely differentiates Master Nicholas’ work from that of other masters, whose works, though clearly faultless, utterly displeased him, we read that:

Their bitterest deception lay in this: that they roused men’s longing for beauty, and left it unsatisfied, since in themselves, they lacked its essence – a secret. Dreams and the greatest works both had their mystery.”

Riemenschneider’s Female Saint exudes that elusive, quintessential mystery; she holds unfathomable secrets to her heart, and as a consequence beguiles and delights. She stands unwittingly, almost unnervingly, as the very embodiment of beauty in both mind and soul, not least in body.

When I look upon the Female Saint I sense an almost tangible presence. Standing before her is, for me, existing for a moment in her consciousness. Her contemplation becomes my own, and together we seem to experience a singular state of calm. And in that calm it is painful to ponder on Riemenschneider’s ultimate fate. In 1525, during Germany’s own Peasant’s Revolt, he and fellow Council members refused to vote in support of military force against the peasants. On brutal suppression of the revolt he, along with the rest of the Council, was imprisoned and tortured by supporters of the Prince-Bishop. Although he returned to Würzburg the same year, he was a greatly impoverished man and produced little work during the remaining six years of his life. Legend has it that during his incarceration he had both his hands broken, effectively ending his artistic career. If it were true, then what a bitter irony that the Master who created such a personification of grace should suffer such violent indifference to his craft. But what better legacy could this Master of Limewood have left us to ponder, than Compton Verney’s Female Saint, this indelible embodiment of peace.

Notes

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I am grateful to Flora Cranmer-Perrier and Annelise Hone of Compton Verney for their kind assistance during my research for this piece.