Sunday, March 04, 2012

Niclaus Gerhaert at the Liebieghaus

Niclaus Gerhaert: Self portrait (?), c 1463
Musée de l'Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg 

The Liebieghaus in Frankfurt dedicated a monographic exhibition to the late Gothic sculptor Niclaus Gerhaert of Leiden. Alongside Hans Multscher, Gerhaert is regarded as the most important artistic character developing the naturalistic formal language of Late Gothic sculpture. His career corresponds to the spread of artistic ideas from west to east: although it is not known whether he was actually born in Leiden (given as his origin in later sources), but he was likely trained in the artistic milieu of the Southern Netherlands, then in the 1460s worked on the eastern part of the Holy Roman Empire - more precisely in Strassburg - and was finally invited by Emperor Frederick III to Vienna and Wiener Neustadt, where he died in 1473. Although the corpus of works firmly attributed to him is rather small, his influence was enormous, and members of his workshop as well as his followers determined the development of Late Gothic sculpture in Central Europe. The art of both Veit Stoss and Tilman Riemenschneider would be  unthinkable without the influence of Gerhaert.

The exhibition currently on view in Frankfurt is accompanied by a comprehensive catalogue edited by Stefan Roller. There are essays in the catalogue by a number of authors, following an introductory study by Roland Recht. This part is followed by catalogue entries, the first part of which include all the surviving works attributed to Niclaus Gerhaert (including those not in the exhibition), while the second part analyses the sculptures featured at the Frankfurt exhibition - arranged in groups of works from the environment of the master, and works showing his influence.

In the following, I would like to focus on one aspect of the subject, the influence of Gerhaert in the Kingdom of Hungary. I stated above that the sculptor was invited to Vienna by Frederick III, the most formidable opponent of Hungary's king Matthias. Gerhaert was commissioned to work on the tomb of the Emperor (in the Stephansdom of Vienna) and also on that of Queen Eleonore of Portugal (in Wiener Neustadt). Work on the Vienna tomb was likely disrupted in 1473, at the death of the artist, and again in 1485, when the troops of Matthias moved in to occupy the town. By that time the tombstone was moved to Wiener Neustadt, only to be returned to Vienna in 1493, so three years after the death of King Matthias. The tomb was not completed until 1513. There are few other works firmly attributed to Gerhaert from his Viennese period: first among them is the tomb of Queen Eleonore at Wiener Neustadt, wife of Frederick III, who passed away in 1467 - at the time the master was invited by the Emperor. In Wiener Neustadt, there is also a painted limestone statue of the Man of Sorrows at the former Cathedral (the Diocese was established by Frederick in 1469). Apart from these stone monuments, there a few wooden statues from this period, as Niclaus Gerhaert was an equally versatile sculptor both in stone and wood. Two small statues of the Virgin in Child - one in the Metropolitan Museum, the other in private collection - round out this period of the artist. 

Head of St. John from Tájó 
In the territory of the Kingdom of Hungary, it was his works of wood which exerted a considerable influence. Stefan Roller dedicated a study to the influence of of Gerhaert in Central Europe, and two objects  from Upper Hungary (the territory of modern Slovakia) are actually included in the exhibition. Altogether, four works are discussed: the Head of St. John the Baptist from Tájó (Tajov, Slovakia), the main altar of Kassa (Košice) and the Nativity group as well as a figure of the Virgin at the reading stand - both originally from the main altar of the parish church of Pozsony (Bratislava). 

In the catalogue, the head of St. John from Tájó, preserved at the Stredoslovenské múzeum of Banská Bystrica (Besztercebánya / Neusohl) is attributed to Gerhaert himself (cat. no. 16, by Stefan Roller) - a very convincing attribution, based on comparisons with the Crucifixion group of the Nördlingen altarpiece, as well as the Man of Sorrows in Wiener Neustadt. The last time this sculpture was shown in the west - at the exhibition of Gothic art from Slovakia, at the Musée Cluny in 2010 - this attribution was not yet spelled out explicitly.

The other works are attributed in the catalogue to a follower of Gerhaert, whose career matches that of the master: it is Hans Kamensetzer, who also moved from Strassburg to Vienna. Both the main sculptures of the high altar of Kassa (Košice, dating from 1474-77) and sculptures from the former high altar of Pozsony (Bratislava / Pressburg; dating from 1481 and after, cat. no. 54) are attributed to him in the catalogue, but only with a question mark. This is something which - as far as I know - has not been raised before, although the close reliance of both ensembles on the art of Niclaus Gerhaert has of course been mentioned many times before. I would be interested to know what experts of the period believe of this new attribution. There is one more question, which is not discussed in much detail in the catalogue: the role of the court of King Matthias at Buda in commissioning these works. One theory - represented for example by Robert Suckale - attributes these chief works to the direct patronage of king Matthias, who sought to emulate Frederick III by inviting artists from the same circle as he did. In this sense, these works would reflect the lost late Gothic art of the Hungarian capital, Buda. Others, such as Ernő Marosi and Gábor Endrődi, see different reasons for the appearance of these works, and emphasize local connections - quite plausible in the case of Pozsony and Vienna. Anyway, these are questions to be worked out by further joint efforts of Hungarian and Slovak art historians, as it was the case with the 2003 exhibition at the National Gallery of Slovakia, dedicated to Gothic art.

Central part of the main altar of Kassa ( Košice), 1474-77 

However, perhaps the question could have been explored a bit further by the inclusion of two more statues in the exhibition. Obviously, the main altar of Kassa - which still stands in the sanctuary of the Church of Saint Elizabeth - could not be moved for the sake of an exhibition, but the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest has two statues originating from Kassa: statues of two of the church fathers, namely St. Gregory the Great and St. Jerome. The statues, which were carved in the workshop of the main altar, likely were part of the structure of the main altar originally. Their realistic style is a good example of the new style initiated in the region by Niclaus Gerhaert and his followers - even if their quality does not reach that of the main figures of the altarpiece, or the extraordinary fineness of the Nativity group from Pozsony. All in all, it is a welcome development that this circle of works from the territory of medieval Hungary is discussed in such an important and high quality, monographic exhibition catalogue.

One final observation: this catalogue is one of the most beautiful books I have seen in recent times. The printing quality is impeccable, and the illustrations are of the highest quality. The large, full-page photos - and some double-page spreads - literally jump of the pages. Other aspects of the content not discussed here - such as the technical analysis of the carving methods and decoration - also benefit a lot from this high level of production.

Nativity from Galgóc, originally on the main altar of St. Martin's at Pozsony, 1480s
Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava 

The exhibition closes in Frankfurt at the time of writing, on March 4, 2012. However, starting from March 30, 2012, the exhibition will also be shown in Strasbourg, at the Museum Œuvre Notre-Dame.

Bibliographic data:
Roller, Stefan (ed..): Niclaus Gerhaert. Der Bildhauer des späten Mittelalters; Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, 27. Oktober 2011 bis 4. März 2012. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag, 2011.

I would like to thank the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung and the press department of the Städel Museum in Frankfurt am Main, for providing a review copy. Photos are provided by Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung (except of the Tájó head of the Baptist, which is my own photo from the 2003 Bratislava exhibition).

Finally, here is a film about the exhibition - some more are available on the exhibition website as well as on YoutTube.

1 comment:

  1. Comparations of Tajov Head of Christ with the Nordlingen Altar by "Meister der Nördlinger Hochaltars" (cf. L. Fischel, Nicolaus Gerhaert, 1944, fig. 93) is known from 1969 (Homolka), and more detailed by Glatz 1982. But, some "experts" worldwide must look for "hot water." Dr Roller shall read more older literature, because conncetion between Gerhaert and Nordlingen sculptures (foundation 1462)----noted as "das Herz der Gerhaertschuzle"----is discussed at least from 1944!