It may be timely to say a little something about the artist himself.
He was born about 1460 in Heiligenstadt im Eichsfeld, in Thuringia. His father, Tilman Riemenschneider the Elder, became involved in a religious feud in Mainz and fled with his family in 1465 to Osterode in the Harz mountains. Young Tilman at age 18 settled in Würzburg, a city in Franconia on the Main River. He enrolled as a journeyman and learned the craft of wood and stone carving by going out to study with masters in the areas of Swabia and the upper Rhine.
He gained citizenship in Würzburg in 1485, enabling him to become a master. He married the widow of a goldsmith and adopted her three children. They also had a child of their own. As his work and workshop flourished, he took on more responsibilities as a citizen of his city as well. Over the course of his life he acquired property, held positions of trust in the city, married four times (each of his wives died), raised seven children, and practiced and taught his craft, producing numerous works now recognized as masterpieces. The great sensitivity and noble beauty of the works he created won him a reputation far and wide even in his own day.
His life story ended in tragedy. When the peasant revolt swept into Würzburg in 1525, Tilman Riemenschneider was a member of the city council. The city took the side of the peasants. The army of the Prince-bishop Konrad von Thungin crushed the revolt. He, along with other members of the city council, was thrown in prison, interrogated “under threat of torture” and eventually released. Legend has it that he was indeed tortured and his hands broken. Whatever happened in that episode, he never again produced a work of art. He died on July 7, 1531.
Was it simply a tragedy? Or could this final painful episode be interpreted instead as a costly witness to his own faith and humanity which shine through his art? Tilman Reimenschneider was forgotten after his death until the 19th century, when his tombstone was uncovered and he was claimed by the Romantics, who regarded him as an inspiration to nationalism.
Yet the finest and most lasting tribute to him proved to be of a very different kind. It was spoken in 1945 by the novelist Thomas Mann, in a talk he gave in the United States on “Germany and the Germans.” Mann talked about Reimenschneider as an exponent of “the other Germany”:
At that time, there lived in Germany a man who has my special sympathy, Tilman Riemenschneider, a master of religious art… He never expected to take a hand in politics, in world affairs — the thought lay far from his natural modesty and from his love for his free and peaceful work. There was nothing of the demagogue about him. But his heart, that beat warmly for the poor and the oppressed, forced him to take the part of the peasants, whose cause he recognized as just and pleasing in the sight of God, against the lords, the bishops, and the princes… Riemenschneider paid dearly for it. For after the crushing of the peasant revolt, the victorious powers whom he had opposed took cruel revenge upon him; they subjected him to prison and to torture, and he emerged from the ordeal as a broken man, incapable of awakening the beauties of wood and stone.
Mann’s view dominated the public perception of Riemenschneider’s work until 1981, when a major exposition of his sculpture in Würzburg turned the discussion to issues and questions of a purely technical nature.
[Information for this article is taken from: Iris Kalden-Rosenfeld, Tilman Riemenschneider: The Sculptor and his workshop, translated by Heide Grieve (Königstein im Taunus: Karl Robert Langewiesche Nachfolger Hans Köster Verlagsbuchhandlug KG), 2004, and Wikipedia.]
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Today’s image is the Crucified Savior.
How do we imagine Christ on the cross? What do those images do to us? How do we “read” them?
Do we read the images in dialogue with what St. Paul described in his letter to the Romans: “For if we have grown into union with him through a death like his, we shall also be united with him in the resurrection” (Rom. 6:5)?
I saw this in the Mainfränkisches Museum in Würzburg.