Seated Bishop

Artist: Tilman Riemenschneider (German, 1460–1531)

Date: ca. 1495

Geography: Made in Würzburg, Lower Franconia

Culture: German

Medium: Limewood and gray-black stain

Dimensions: 35 1/2 x 14 x 5 7/8 in. (90.2 x 35.6 x 14.9 cm)

Classification: Sculpture-Wood

Credit Line: The Cloisters Collection, 1970

Accession Number: 1970.137.1


Late medieval lindenwood sculptors in South Germany, among whom Tilman Riemenschneider was one of the most gifted, adopted the practice of not painting the sculptures of large altarpieces. They chose instead to stain in black a few details, such as the eyes in this figure, and then to finish the surface with a clear glaze. Here Riemenschneider achieves a sensitive treatment of the aged, pensive face. Through delicate carving, he describes the structure of the skull and the jowly flesh of the bishop. Although actually a high relief, this sculpture conveys a striking sense of volume and depth through a rich play of interconnecting curves. The right knee, pressing against the garment, is the center of a vortex of deep folds, while the twisting motion at the waist adds to the sense of volume.

The lack of attributes makes the identification of this bishop uncertain. The pose of the figure suggests that it might be a church father—Saint Augustine, bishop of Hippo, or Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan—and might have been part of a Church Fathers altarpiece. Their iconography derives from classical authors' portraits, and they were often depicted sitting at a desk or lectern, surrounded by scholars' attributes, and reading or writing in a book.