Day 18 – Tilman Riemenschneider, Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, 1499-1505, St. Jacobskirche, Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
Originally posted on 5 April 2020
It’s Palm Sunday today, marking the beginning of Holy Week – so I’ll have a look at some of the Easter narrative over the next few days, as I’m not sure I can find any paintings of chocolate eggs (although someone did throw in a question about the best eggs in art a while back, so I might look for those!).
Today, though, I want to start with one of my favourite artists, but one I rarely get to talk about because there are so few of his works in the UK: Tilman Riemenschneider. And I want to look at one of his most remarkable creations – ‘The Holy Blood Altar’ in Rothenburg ob der Tauber. This is just part of it – the left wing of what could be described as a triptych – and I’m starting with this wing because it is the most relevant to today: ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’.
Jesus is shown riding on a donkey, which suits Riemenschneider, as his style is ideally suited to the depiction of humility. We don’t know a huge amount about his early life, nor do we know where he trained. However, his first works show stylistic similarities to sculptures in Ulm, in southern Germany, and Strasbourg, now in France – so it could have learnt his craft in either, or both, of these. He spent the majority of his working life in and aroundWürzburg. He was enormously successful, until he found himself on the wrong side of a political dispute and ended his life in some disgrace, only for his name to be forgotten completely after his death. He wasn’t rediscovered until the 19th Century.
Much of his work has been dispersed, but of the few pieces that are still in the place for which they were made, the Holy Blood Altar is undoubtedly the most important. It is carved from limewood, like the majority of his work (he also carved stone), and unlike many similar sculptures at the time, it was meant to look like wood. Up until this point wooden sculpture had been painted to make it look like alive, even more ‘real’ than a two-dimensional image. The artists who applied the colour were often painters in their own right, although a few sculptors also painted their own work. In later generations, when painted sculpture was considered rather brash, the paint was removed. This was sometimes justified by the bad state of preservation, and the sculpture was either repainted, or stripped. However, when you remove the paint from a sculpture, traces remain in the cracks and joints, and even in the grains of the wood. However no such traces can be found on this relief. Not only that: it is actually painted, but with a wood-coloured paint. This was done to protect the sculpture and to cover any blemishes, although even at this resolution you might be able to see that it was subject to woodworm. No one is entirely sure why this shift from colour to monochrome occurred, but there are two main suggestions. The first is that the artists – or patrons – became wary of the images looking too real, and worried that they might contravene the second commandment, which says you should not to make any graven images. This was to be a concern of some Protestants in the coming decades. The other theory suggests a more sophisticated reason: that Riemenschneider was making enormous claims for his skill as an artist, by saying that he could make something look real – he could make you believe in it – even if it wasn’t the right colour. He could make wood look like fabric, or flesh, for example.
Here’s a great example, a detail from another altarpiece which has found its way down the hill from Rothenburg to the suburb of Detwang. It is part of the Resurrection, and shows the feet of two of the soldiers guarding Christ’s tomb. The lower foot is clad in hose – an item of clothing a bit like stockings, which were thickened round the feet to form a shoe. As a sign of his slovenly behaviour, this soldier has allowed his hose to fall down around his ankles. The upper foot has no shoe, allowing you to see the creases in the soles of the foot and at the back of the ankle, not to mention the veins running along the side of the calf muscle, which is beautifully tense. All around rough gouges of the chisel denote the grass on which the soldiers are sleeping, or, at this point, waking.
You can see similar details in today’s picture. It is the left wing of the altarpiece, only seen when the wings are open (having said that, there is some suggestion that they might never have been closed). Like almost every depiction of the ‘Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem’ he travels from left to right – the direction in which we in read. As this is the left wing, he is leading us through the gate, and into the central part of the altarpiece, leading us on to the next part of the story (but you’ll have to wait for that).
According to the Gospel of St Mark 11:8, ‘Many spread their garments in the way: and others cut down branches off the trees, and strawed them in the way.’
You could argue that this is not what Riemenschneider shows. There is one person spreading a garment, and one person cutting down a branch – and he is very tiny. That’s hardly ‘many’. But then, in a panel of this format there isn’t much space for ‘many’ – so he shows us each activity symbolically, by showing a typical example. It is quite common for the man in the tree to be tiny. It’s a primitive form of perspective, I suppose, but it is almost as if this, the act which gives today its name, has been slightly marginalised. The tree itself is wonderfully gnarly, though not like any palm tree I’ve ever seen. But I do like the idea that it is a tree carved out of wood (rather than the other way round).
Why would it be marginalised, though? Maybe because, although it was an act of recognition, and of respect, to ‘straw’ branches in the way, it is not as much of a sacrifice as spreading a garment. That is what the man at the bottom right is doing. It appears to be a rather fine, long-sleeved, full-length coat. It is even embroidered at the lower hem with what look like letters – although as far as I am aware these cannot be deciphered. The man has taken off his coat, but that has left him in his undergarments – a long sleeved jacket, the cuffs of which were clearly designed to be seen emerging from the coat, as they cover his wrists, and his hose. Basically, he is in his underwear, including his slightly sagging pants. This really is an act of humility, effectively debasing himself, knock-kneed, so that Jesus’s donkey doesn’t have to step upon the street.
The gate into the city is sturdily built from evenly cut blocks of stone, and is well protected with a portcullis. A throng of people await within. Above the gate is an oriel window, a look-out so that the city guards can see who is approaching and who they should admit. The design of this oriel, with three sides projecting over a triangular bracket, looks remarkably like a more martial version of the three windows you can see if you go round the back of the altar:
Jesus is followed by quite a crowd, who are packed in tighter than might be possible in such a narrow space. It’s quite hard to count how many people are there – because at the back you can only see the tops of their heads, and it’s hard to distinguish between the different haircuts. At the last count (and I may be being optimistic), I could see twelve. This would mean that they are the Twelve Apostles, and I have no doubt that they are, even if not all are present. Just behind the donkey is a young, clean-shaven man with long, curly hair: this is John the Evangelist, always shown as the youngest of the apostles. In between him and Jesus, the man with short curly beard and hair (well, what is left of it) is St Peter, effectively Jesus’s right-hand man. Most of the others you could argue about, although one up from John, with the long beard, is probably St Andrew, and above him, with the hat, is St James Major. He was associated with pilgrimage, and he wears a pilgrim’s hat. The journey to the Church of St James in Spain – Santiago de Compostela – was the major pilgrimage route in Europe, and the church in Rothenburg was on one branch of that route (Jakob is German for James, and Iago is Spanish) so it is a little surprising in this case that St James is so far back.
Jesus stands out from the crowd because he is not being crowded – there is a clear gap between his head and those on either side. He is also presented far more formally, with the donkey parallel to the surface of the image rather than angled to enter the gate with ease – it takes him out of the ‘real’ world and makes him appear more important. And yet, at the same time, it is kept real by the details – the donkey’s ears, for example, at different angles, or the bridle around the donkey’s muzzle, attached to the reins which are only just visible: Jesus holds them limply in his left hand, while he blesses with his right.
There are things you can only see when you get closer, such as the lettering along the bottom of the man’s coat, and the tufts of hair on the donkey’s fetlocks and around its hooves. And best of all, the fact that the donkey is shod – I want to say it’s a horseshoe, banged in with nails, but this can only be a donkey shoe. It’s not something you can see from the front – you have to go to the side. If you were one of the apostles, following Jesus, you would see it. That’s one of the great things about sculptures – they work in three-dimensions. And it’s one of the great things about Riemenschneider that even on a relief carving like this he expects you to move around and look from different directions. In this case, he wants you to follow Jesus and become part of the drama. The carving in this panel is bubbling with excitement, it is over-packed with people and with details. It’s like an expectant crowd, waiting for the spectacle to begin, and to see that spectacle you must follow Jesus through the gate. Which in a few days, we will.