Painting of the Day

24 Feb


Altarpiece of the Holy Blood (Wings Open). by Tilman Riemenschneider (c.1460-1531). Limewood and glass, c.1499-1505. Currently on view at the Church of St. James, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany.

Notes from Stokstad & Cothren’s Art History, 4th edition:

The main panel of the altarpiece portrays the moment at the Last Supper when Christ revealed that one of his followers would betray him. Unlike Leonardo da Vinci, who chose the same moment, Riemenschneider puts Judas at center stage and Jesus off-center at the left. The disciples sit around the table. As the event is described in the Gospel of John (13:21-30), Jesus extends a morsel of food to Judas, signifying that he will be the traitor who sets in motion the events leading to the Crucifixion. One apostle points down, a strange gesture until we realize that he is pointing to the crucifix in the predella, to the relic of Christ’s blood, and to the altar table, the symbolic representation of the table of the Last Supper and the tomb of Christ.

Rather than creating individual portraits of the apostles, Riemenschneider repeated a limited number of facial types. His figures have large heads, prominent features, sharp cheekbones, sagging jowls, baggy eyes, and elaborate hair with thick wavy locks and deeply drilled curls. The muscles, tendons, and raised veins of hands and feet are also especially lifelike. His assistants and apprentices copied these faces and figures, either from drawings or from three-dimensional models made by the master. In the altarpiece, deeply hollowed folds create active patterns in the voluminous draperies whose strong highlights and dark shadows harmonize the figural composition with the intricate carving of the framework. The Last Supper is set in a “real” room contain actual benches for the figures. Windows in the back wall are glazed with bull’s eye glass so that natural light shines in from two directions to illuminate the scene, producing changing effects depending on the time of day and the weather. Although earlier sculpture had been painted and gilded, Riemenschneider introduced the use of a natural wood finish toned with varnish. This meant that details of both figures and environment had to be carved into the wood itself, not quickly added later with paint. Since this required more skillful carvers and more time for them to carve, this new look was a matter of aesthetics, not cost-saving.

My comments:

This enormous thirty-foot altarpiece possesses such intricate decorative accoutrement that the putative focus of the work, the Last Supper, feels overshadowed by it. The lack of individualization in the faces of the apostles and Jesus in the Last Supper scene adds to its engulfment by everything around it.

This work is an especially good example of when photographic reproductions simply cannot communicate the effect that the artist would have intended for this work. But I can imagine that the person who walks up to the altarpiece would feel quite overwhelmed by the ornate patterning that weaves throughout the entire artwork. One import aspect of drawing that we discuss in my Studio Art course is patterning, and it applies very well to this three-dimensional work as well. Even in the human figures, one can see the twisting, well-defined lines in the folds of the fabric of the robes that the apostles wear. This is also visible in their thick, ropelike strands of hair. This patterning serves to make what could have been a cumbersomely large and unwieldy piece of wood carving into a unified, very balanced composition. Despite its gargantuan size, the altarpiece does not inspire fear or uneasiness, and this is precisely because of its compositional symmetry and consistent patterning.

But because of the positioning of the Last Supper scene, which would be at the eye level of the viewer who stands in front of it, the artist refocuses our attention on the religious significance that he wants to express with his monumental altarpiece. Even after our eyes are guided upward by the intertwined lines that travel up from the Last Supper scene, Riemenschneider added another Christ figure near the top of the altarpiece. Even while viewers might have been taken away by the incredible artistry of the piece, Riemenschneider makes sure to remind them that at the end of the day, everything is for the glory of God.

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