Niclaus Gerhaert. The Medieval Sculptor


27 October 2011 to 4 March 2012
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Niclaus Gerhaert. The Medieval Sculptor

From October 27, 2011 to March 4, 2012, the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung will be presenting a major exhibition devoted to art from the Middle Ages, entitled "Niclaus Gerhaert. The Medieval Sculptor.” The Netherlander Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, who was likely born in Leyden around 1430, was first documented in Strasbourg in 1462, and died in Wiener Neustadt in 1473, is undoubtedly one of the most important and influential artists of the Late Gothic period. His works strike us for their amazing modernity and the lifelike quality of the figures. Such famous medieval sculptors as Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stoß, Michel Erhart, or the Tyrolean Michael Pacher would be unthinkable without him. The small number of signed works and the scarcity of written documents make it difficult for scholars to reconstruct Gerhaert’s origins, career, and oeuvre. Yet the sculptor must already have enjoyed a high reputation during his lifetime, for even Emperor Frederick III sought to employ his services. Today, however, Gerhaert is largely unknown to the public, which is not least due to the few surviving works attributed to him. This is now to be remedied by the first monographic exhibition on Niclaus Gerhaert, which was preceded by comprehensive research and restoration work. For the first time, some seventy works have been compiled, twenty of which are by the hand of the master and his workshop. Loans are coming from renowned international collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Bode-Museum in Berlin, and the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich. After its presentation at the Liebieghaus, the show will be on view at the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg from March 30 to July 8, 2012. An exhibition co-organized by the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, and the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg.

It was within a short period of time that Niclaus von Gerhaert lastingly changed and influenced sculpture north of the Alps, first between the late 1450s and 1467 from Strasbourg and then, until his death in 1473, from Wiener Neustadt, his impact making itself felt over several generations. There is hardly any reliable data about the artist’s life. It is assumed that he was born in Leyden in the Netherlands around 1430. Information about his years as an apprentice and journeyman are lacking entirely. Some clues suggest that he sojourned in Burgundy and in the Southern Netherlands or Northern France, where Gerhaert seems to have gained formative experience as an artist. The first work that makes him accessible to research dates from 1462 and is a signed and dated tomb for one of the most important and influential personalities of his time: Jakob von Sierck (1398/99–1456), the archbishop and elector of Trier, who was also imperial chancellor to Emperor Frederick III and held in high esteem as a diplomat. The tomb, of which merely the slab has survived, is now preserved in the Bischöfliches Dom- und Diözesanmuseum in Trier and numbers among the rare works that can safely be attributed to Gerhaert. Although we do know that Gerhaert worked in both stone and wood, the uncontested works that have come down to us are exclusively stone sculptures: besides the tomb slab for Jakob von Sierck, they include parts of the portal decoration for the Old Chancellery in Strasbourg (1463; its head of the so-called "Bärbel of Ottenheim” is one of the highlights among the Liebieghaus’s holdings of late medieval sculpture), the epitaph of Canon Conrad of Busang in Strasbourg Cathedral (1464), the crucifix in the Stiftskirche of Baden-Baden (1467), and the tomb slab for Emperor Frederick III in St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna (1467–73).

With its approximately 70 sculptures from international collections, this exhibition offers an unprecedented opportunity of actually juxtaposing secured works by Gerhaert and stone and wood sculptures attributed to him with works by his circle and his followers, thereby putting hypotheses voiced by recent and latest research to the test. In the course of the preparations for this show and with the assistance of a team of internationally renowned experts, Dr. Stefan Roller, head of the medieval collections at the Liebieghaus and curator of this exhibition, and Harald Theiss, head of the restoration department at the Liebieghaus, thoroughly examined all the works in stone and wood safely or plausibly attributable to Gerhaert with state-of-the-art research methods, thereby compiling comprehensive technological reports. The focus of their examinations was on the sculptures’ genesis and their polychromy. With the aid of latest technological findings that productively supplemented traditional art historical methods of identification, several hitherto contested works could securely be assigned to Gerhaert and his workshop, whereas other sculptures had to be removed from the artist’s oeuvre.

Even today, Niclaus Gerhaert’s sculptures impressively reveal their innovative quality and creative potential, thus demonstrating why this sculptor exercised such a lasting influence. With his virtuoso craftsmanship, the originality of his formal solutions, and the sculptures’ powerful spatial impact, but also and particularly because of the figures’ astounding vivacity and touching liveliness Gerhaert set new benchmarks. The pronounced jaggedness of the stone or wood blocks, the tour-de-force perforations and indentations, as well as the fact that the artist largely avoided adding extra parts raised conventional sculpting techniques to an extraordinarily high level of virtuosity. Profound studies from life and the faithful rendering of numerous details are equally characteristic of Gerhaert’s works; yet a certain casualness in the handling of individual elements and in the treatment of large areas of the stone surfaces that also goes hand in hand with a notable expressivity and impulsiveness ensures a unique impression and spontaneity unusual in those days. It seems that Gerhaert, thanks to a well-rehearsed and excellent team of workshop collaborators, was mostly able to work under conditions that allowed him to devote himself to several substantial commissions simultaneously and develop solutions that were unconventional in terms of both artistic conception and technique.

With its so-called "Bärbel of Ottenheim,” the Liebieghaus, besides the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg and the Bischöfliches Dom- und Diözesanmuseum in Trier, is one of only three museums worldwide owning an uncontested masterpiece by the sculptor. The work actually depicts the head of a Sibyl, an ancient seer, of whose bust only the Frankfurt fragment has survived. Its pendant, now in the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg, was a bearded prophet that, as early as the sixteenth century, was identified as City Vogt Jakob von Lichtenberg, whose mistress Bärbel of Ottenheim had been. This head was freed from old paint coats in the course of the preparations of this exhibition, so that it now presents itself as one of Gerhaert’s most superb works. Both works once formed part of the portal, dating from 1463, of the now-destroyed Old Chancellery in Strasbourg, for which Niclaus Gerhaert supplied the figural decoration. What was then new and surprising was the dynamicism of the busts, which peeped forth from illusionistic windows, as well as their great vivacity and psychological penetration. For the first time since they were separated in the nineteenth century, it will be possible to see them displayed in the exhibition side by side.

Another crucial work also comes from the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg: the artist’s alleged self-portrait, which is likewise a bust. Conceived with an explicit emphasis on spatiality, it shows a beardless man supporting his head in his right hand, obviously lost in thought. People in the Middle Ages were perfectly familiar with the motif of resting one’s head in one’s palm, a melancholic gesture handed down from antiquity. From the inclination of the head and the layout of the limbs results a spatial structure rich in tension whose appearance, in its dynamic swirl, can hardly be more antithetic to the static moment depicted here.

Among the exhibition’s highlights are also two elaborately carved and almost life-sized wooden figures of St. George and St. Mary Magdalene attributed to Gerhaert. They are part of the high altar of Nördlingen, dated to 1462, in the town’s Late Gothic church of St. George, and have never been loaned before. A technological examination conducted in the course of the cleaning and restoration of the altar carried out by a team of conservators of the Liebieghaus in preparation of the exhibition has revealed that the figures in Nördlingen were covered with polychromy in a workshop in Strasbourg, so that they were not made in Cologne, as has always been assumed, but in the metropolis on the Upper Rhine. This evidences that Niclaus Gerhaert must have been active in Strasbourg even before his first archival record there in 1463. Further important loans are the so-called Rothschild Madonna, the busts of St. Catherine and St. Barbara from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, as well as the latter’s companion, a bust of St. Margaret from the Art Institute of Chicago, but also a hitherto almost unknown dish of St. John the Baptist, a bowl depicting the saint’s head, from the museum in the Slovak town of Banská Bystrica. These works are complemented by other significant examples, all of which have been assembled in this first monographic show dedicated to Niclaus Gerhaert and his workshop. Several works are once again brought up for discussion as to their relationship to Niclaus Gerhaert: for instance, the small Infant Christ with a bunch of grapes from the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich, a statue of the Virgin Mary from the Bode-Museum in Berlin, and a figure of St. Adrian from the Musées royaux d’Art et d’Histoire in Brussels.

Gerhaert’s lasting impact, which emanated from Strasbourg and Vienna and made itself felt throughout Central and East Central Europe, is illustrated in the exhibition through a number of selected examples of superior quality, such as a Madonna by Veit Stoß once adorning the exterior of a private home from the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, a small Nativity group from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, a group of the Annunciation from the Imperial Court Chapel in Vienna lent by the Kunsthistorisches Museum, as well as further first-rate sculpted works from numerous national and international museums and church and private collections. Works by Gerhaert that could not be shipped to Frankfurt for conservational or other reasons, including the tomb of Jakob von Sierck in Trier, the Madonna of Dangolsheim in the Bode-Museum in Berlin, or the Imperial Tomb in Vienna, will be presented in the exhibition via monitors. In this way, the show will offer a unique and unprecedented opportunity of studying and discussing Gerhaert’s oeuvre in its entirety under one roof.

Curator: Dr. Stefan Roller, head of the Middle Ages department of the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung
Scholarly and restorative collaboration: Dipl.-Rest. Harald Theiss
Scholarly collaboration and project management: Eva Maria Breisig, M.A.

The research and exhibition project was made possible by the culture endowment foundations Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain and Kulturstiftung der Länder.

Media partners: Deutsche Bahn, Frankfurter Rundschau, Verkehrsgesellschaft Frankfurt am Main

Cultural partner: hr2-kultur

An exhibition of the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt and the Musée de l’Œuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg

 

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