Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 10, 2007
Rainer Kahsnitz Carved Splendor: Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2006. 480 pp.; 362 color ills.; 70 b/w ills. Cloth $150.00 (0892368535)

A generation of Anglophone scholars has depended on Michael Baxandall’s masterwork, Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), for its inimitable introduction to the subject of the golden age of German carved altarpieces from around the turn of the sixteenth century. Now, a quarter-century later, Carved Splendor: Late Gothic Altarpieces in Southern Germany, Austria, and South Tirol—perhaps one of the most beautiful books ever produced—reintroduces this material in a translation of the 2005 Hirmer edition, with the usual high production values of that Munich art publisher. In this case, the accompanying text is truly worthy of the dazzling photographs by Achim Bunz. For scholarly specialists, Rainer Kahsnitz will be familiar as director of the Deutscher Verein für Kunstwissenschaft and as a professor at the University of Augsburg; he was author-editor of the basic reference work, Veit Stoss in Nürnberg (Munich: Deutscher Kunstverlag, 1983).

The plan of Carved Splendor is to present particular masterworks as individual chapters that follow an introduction outlining and illustrating the earlier history of German carved altarpieces, including mid-fourteenth-century surviving examples, such as the former Cistercian abbey church in Bad Doberan and even the Brabant prototype in the Low Countries, the Hakendover Retable (ca. 1410). Curiously, however, the carvings and paintings of the Grabow Altarpiece (Hamburg, Kunsthalle), best known for the paintings of Master Bertram von Minden or the later fifteenth-century achievements of Lübeck (Hermen Rode), are omitted, except for a passing citation (24). In general the accomplishments of North Germany are absent (as in Baxandall). Readers of this volume will also want to consult a (uncited) fundamental Art Bulletin article, “On the Role of Liturgy in the Early Winged Altarpiece,” by Donald Ehresmann (vol. 64 (1982): 359–69;, as well as the complementary book-length study by Lynn Jacobs, Early Netherlandish Carved Altarpieces, 1380–1550 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Then follow twenty-two individual studies of specific altarpieces and sites. The earliest of these is the Swabian high altarpiece in Nördlingen’s parish church of St. George, completed in 1462. This work clearly reveals the composite nature of all such rich ensembles, and the collaborators on this project included notables: Niklas Gerhaerts of Leyden, active in Strasbourg, for the sculpture and Friedrich Herlin for the painting. Unusually, this entry identifies the church architect and the maker of the cabinetry (lost). Both of the principal artists brought important visual impulses from the Netherlands, chiefly related to Rogier van der Weyden. Eleven sharp color photographs under ideal lighting conditions show the current display of the surviving sculptures (with a black-and-white reconstruction of their original disposition in the shrine with wings). Full-length images of the figures as well as close-ups of their faces are followed by good color images of the wings as full-page facing panels, first open, then closed. As someone who made a conscientious effort to undertake the pilgrimage to Nördlingen to view these works, I can personally attest that Bunz’s photographs are more revealing than the originals on site!

Historical links can also be forged across the chapters by the attentive reader. Specifically, Herlin can be followed to a Franconia commission in chapter 2, where he collaborated in Rothenburg ob der Tauber (completed 1466) at the parish church of St. Jakob with an unknown carver (in the tradition of Hans Multscher) but with the same cabinet maker from Nördlingen, Hans Waidenlich, this time represented with preserved carpentry. Later in the volume (chapter 10), at the same Rothenburg church one encounters the celebrated Altar of the Holy Blood (1499–1505), the extraordinary unpainted pictorial relief array of Last Supper sculptures by Tilman Riemenschneider, who also provided the wings as shallow unpainted reliefs rather than paintings. Good attention to the delicate and well-preserved altar architecture fills out the total picture. This particular altarpiece provided Baxandall with a highpoint for close-up analysis, but in Kahsnitz’s book Riemenschneider can be followed further in Franconia to his Corpus Christi Altar (ca. 1505–10; chapter 11) with its magnificent central group of the Assumption as well as its shallow relief wings—both unpainted.

Most of the “greatest hits” are included in this volume. For example, chapter 3 offers a perfect opportunity to get to know the masterpiece of Michael Pacher: St. Wolfgang (completed 1481) in the Salzkammergut. It begins by showing his earlier central group at Bozen-Gries in South Tyrol, featuring the same subject of the Coronation of the Virgin (1471–75) in a color photo of nearly a full page. Then it discusses the altar architecture—a typical outline feature but an often neglected component of these ensembles—before considering the paintings and the sculptures. Eighteen full-page color illustrations reveal the full multi-medium contribution of Pacher as painter and as carver, including the painted figures in the lacy finials on the pinnacle. The later Bozen Altarpiece in the Franciscan church, carved and painted by the workshop of Hans Klocker of nearby Brixen, follows up on Pacher’s model (chapter 9). A final altarpiece from South Tirol is at Latsch in the Val Venosta (ca. 1517–20; chapter 19), made by visiting artists from Kaufbeuren, sculptor Jörg Lederer and painter Jörg Mack.

In similar fashion, the Blaubeuren Altarpiece in Swabia, carved by the Erharts and painted by Barthomäus Zeitblom of Ulm (competed 1494; chapter 8), receives balanced attention for both its fully-colored sculptures and its expansive paintings, covered in a rich ensemble of nineteen full-page images. Later Ulm carving by Daniel Mauch, unpainted like the Riemenschneider brand, reappears in this same region near Augsburg at Bieselbach bei Horgau (1510; chapter 14).

Kahsnitz gives exquisite if select attention to the entire career of Veit Stoss, starting with his gigantic high altar in the Church of Saint Mary, Cracow (chapter 6), and its twenty-one color images of the main central figures of the Dormition as well as details of the painted and gilded reliefs on the wings. The circle of Stoss is responsible for carving the Franconian altarpiece (1505–08) in Schwabach, near Nuremberg, with wings by Michael Wolgemut of Nuremberg, Dürer’s teacher; these paintings receive magnificent coverage, both as closed- and open-wing ensembles and in close-up. This kind of attention to paintings recurs throughout the volume. Stoss’s final work, the altarpiece from the Carmelite church of the Assumption in Nuremberg (now in Bamberg cathedral; 1520–23; chapter 20) rounds out the career of the great Nuremberg carver. This book features Stoss’s presentation drawing of the altarpiece design (Cracow, Jagiellon Museum), a rare surviving instance of a plan made for a patron, originally included in the contract for the work. Another Baxandall feature work gets close scrutiny here: the Moosburg church of St. Castulus in Bavaria, carved by Hans Leinberger (1514; chapter 15) with paintings of Hans Wertinger (better known for his portraits for the Munich Wittelsbach court).

Yet besides the famous names, there are other altarpieces of great quality or interest produced by anonymous masters, e.g., the Lorch parish church of St. Martin (1483; Middle Rhine; chapter 5). Most of these less familiar sites stem from the Austrian regions: the Kefermarkt Altarpiece (Upper Austria; 1490–97; an early, well-preserved example of unpainted carvings and reliefs, also well discussed by Baxandall); Mauer bei Melk (Lower Austria; between 1509/18); the Zwettl altarpiece (now in Brno, Moravia; 1516–25); and the Pulkau Altarpiece (Church of the Holy Blood; ca. 1515), an anonymous work known chiefly to specialists because of its paintings’ kinship to Albrecht Altdorfer (for the first time these images are now visible in useful color; see the important, recent Art Bulletin article by Mitchell Merback, vol. 87 [2005 ]: 589–642).

At the end of Carved Splendor the remarkable, florid creations of the anonymous Master H.L., a favorite of Baxandall, receive their due in his two best-preserved ensembles, both in the Upper Rhine region: Niederrotweil (ca. 1520) and Breisach (1525–26). For the former work, the artist’s response for his subject, the Coronation of the Virgin, is traced to stimuli from both Dürer’s woodcut (1510) and Hans Baldung’s massive altarpiece painting in nearby Freiburg-im-Breisgau (1512–16), again usefully juxtaposing the contemporary figural media and reintegrating sculpture with the other sister arts rather than viewing it in isolation.

Taken together, these altarpieces are effectively chosen. They span individual careers and present regional histories while mixing essential masterworks with lesser-known works by anonymous masters. Each work is evaluated seriously, both in terms of its overall structure and in its component parts, i.e., its ensemble of carvings and paintings in various combinations. The range of carvings reveals a historical change from painted central sculptures surrounded by painted wing panels, to painted reliefs, to completely unpainted sculptures in both the center and the relief wings, something first seen both at Kefermarkt and in the Riemenschneider oeuvre, and culminating with late Stoss and Leinberger.

If there is any fault to be found in this sumptuous book, it is its usual, overly narrow German focus on the question of regions: neglect of the Lower Rhine (too “Netherlandish”?) and of the important sculptural traditions of the North, e.g., Lübeck (Bernt Notke’s combined carvings and paintings could be compared to his contemporary, Pacher). Finally, there is not much consideration of the production of these images in terms of their contracts and workshops, nor is the religious use of these works broached. But these small quibbles scarcely blemish a book whose thorough presentation is a treasure, with both text and images suitable for use by any scholars or newcomers to this remarkable art form.

Larry Silver
Farquhar Professor of History of Art, Department of the History of Art, University of Pennsylvania