Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden (ca. 1430/40 - ca. 1473)

Head of a Sibyl

Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, Head of a Sibyl, Strasbourg, 1463/64
Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, Head of a Sibyl, Strasbourg, 1463/64

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Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden

ca. 1430/40 - ca. 1473

Niclaus Gerhaert, from Leiden, Holland, was the most influential sculptor north of the Alps in his own day and for several subsequent generations. His realistic, animated and highly masterful art defined sculpture north of the Alps for decades. His work in stone and wood was equally accomplished. Nothing is known of his training. His art emphasises reality, brings out the material by means of strongly differentiated surface treatments and is highly psychological, which suggests that he was decisively influenced by the Franco-Netherlandish sculpture of Burgundy. The Netherlandish artist Claus Sluter (ca. 1350–1405), who worked for the Burgundian dukes in Dijon, may have been particularly significant for his work.

The earliest indication of Gerhaert’s work is a tomb slab now located in the Diözesanmuseum in Trier, dated 1462 and marked with his name, a work executed for Jakob von Sierck, Archbishop of Trier, who died in 1456. It was probably made in Strasbourg, where Gerhaert is thought to have lived from the late 1450s, even though his presence is documented there only from 1463 onwards and he became a full citizen only in 1464. The high altar of the Georgskirche in Nördlingen is also dated 1462; its carved and painted shrine sculptures were from Gerhaert’s workshop. The commission for this retable dates back to 1459.

In 1463–1464 Gerhaert was responsible for the figures decorating the portal of the New Chancellery in Strasbourg, which has since been destroyed; the head of a prophet in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg and that of a sibyl in the Liebieghaus have been proven to be part of this work. Until 1870, both survived as animated half-length figures with interlocked arms that looked out of two illusionistic windows above the portal. It is not clear yet whether the grand bust of a man also in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame – possibly a self-portrait – also belongs in this context. In any case, these three sculptures provided pioneering inspiration for the design of busts and half-length figures. In 1464 he produced the tomb monument for Archbishop Busang or Busnang in the Cathedral of Strasbourg; in 1464 he completed the high altar for the Cathedral of Constance, which was destroyed during the Protestant iconoclasm; these are the only wood sculptors by Gerhaert confirmed by archival information.

The monumental stone crucifix for the cemetery in Baden-Baden (now in the Stiftskirche), which also established a type for later sculptors, is dated 1467. That same year the sculptor gave in to Emperor Frederick III’s long-standing appeals and accepted his invitation to Vienna, or Wiener Neustadt, where until his death in 1473 he worked on an enormous table tomb for the emperor (now in the Stephansdom, Vienna). Today it is generally assumed that the work of many of the best known sculptors of the Late Gothic – especially that of Michael Pacher, Michel Erhart, Veit Stoss, Tilman Riemenschneider and Adam Kraft – would have been inconceivable without the innovative art of Niclaus Gerhaert.

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