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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Late Medieval German Sculpture: Polychromy and Monochromy

Many medieval figures that were originally polychromed fell victim to the nineteenth-century antipathy to color in sculpture, and were stripped of their decoration to reveal the bare wood. The polychromy of wood sculpture, which was often not carried out in the sculptor’s workshop but left to painters, relied on much the same techniques as panel painting. A glue sizing was applied to the wood to close the pores and prevent the absorption of paint media, and knots and joints were covered with textile or plant fibers. The figure then received several layers of a chalk-based ground, which served as a support for metal leaf and for opaque and translucent layers of pigment. The painter could achieve highly illusionistic effects, especially in the rendering of textiles and the treatment of flesh tones, which greatly enhanced the immediacy of the sculpture. In the Baptism of Christ (12.130.1) by a pupil of Veit Stoss, different types of gilding clarify the distinction between Christ’s loincloth and his tunic, and between the angel’s tunic and wings. On the Saint Barbara (55.166), the blush on the cheeks, the red lips, and pensive eyes all add dramatically to the sense of life.

The development of the graphic arts in Germany in the fifteenth century contributed to the acceptance of uncolored sculpture. The final appearance of a commissioned sculpture was specified in a contract, and the abandonment of polychromy cannot be attributed to artistic license alone; economic factors (the application of paint and gilding was sometimes more expensive than the carving itself) must also have informed a commissioner’s decision. A master such as Tilman Riemenschneider transcended the limitation of monochromy, relying exclusively on his carving skills to achieve direct emotional appeal. The pensive face of his Seated Bishop (1970.137.1) at once commands respect and conveys the wisdom of old age. The drapery contains rich contrasts between florid and quiet passages, which create a complex play of light and dark. Their broad tonal range brings to mind the subtleties of Martin Schongauer’s engravings, which Riemenschneider often took as a point of departure for his own compositions.