Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Late Medieval German Sculpture: Images for the Cult and for Private Devotion

The Carved Altarpiece
Although in great demand in Central Europe in the late fifteenth to early sixteenth century, very few carved altarpieces have survived intact. The destruction of religious images during the Protestant Reformation, along with neglect, changes in taste, fire, and the secularization of ecclesiastic institutions account for this loss. Many figures and reliefs in museum collections are merely fragments of elaborate, monstrance-like structures, which served as a focus for liturgy, veneration, and pilgrimage.

The altarpiece, which traditionally combined sculpted figures with an architectural encasement, consisted of four main elements. The central section, or corpus, housed figures arranged either side by side or in a unified composition. It was flanked by hinged wings, decorated with reliefs, which were open on Sundays and most holy days. The predella, or base, which often contained sculpture, raised the corpus above the altar and gave it greater prominence. A tall superstructure with intricate tracery and additional figures surmounted the corpus. Retables were costly undertakings that often resulted from the collaboration of several individuals: a sculptor, a joiner, an ironmonger, and, in the case of a polychrome altarpiece, a painter.

Images for Private Devotion
By 1300 emerged a form of spirituality that emphasized the emotional involvement of the faithful. Believers were encouraged to contemplate events from the life of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints, as if they had been present at such events. Besides attending the celebration of the Eucharist at church, the devout were expected to retire for prayer several times a day to a private chapel, monastic cell, or simply a corner of one’s home. Images, usually modest in scale, helped in these meditations, since they made tangible the object of prayer. Reflecting the wealth and rank of the individual owner, they were produced in every medium, from paper to gold. The rapport with the image was an intimate one: typically kneeling, the devout recited prayers while gazing at the image, and could light candles in front of it, caress it, and kiss it. Groups of the Virgin and Child and scenes from Christ’s Passion (Christ on the Road to Calvary, 1996.581; Pietà, 2001.78) were among the most popular images for private devotion. A sculptor’s attention to detail and the corporeality of his figures increased the immediacy of the image as a focus of veneration.