Saturday, July 4, 2015

The Sculpture of Swabia - Les Sculptures Souabes au Musée de Cluny Paris...

My actual visit to the Tudor exhibition was not quite what I had expected last week, so I made the most of the occasion to go back to the Musée de Cluny; Musée Nationale du Moyen Age, Paris

This title did not really mean a great deal to me initially… Was the term ‘souabe’ used to describe a particular sculpted object, an adjective referring to a style of sculpture or that of a particular geographical region? As it turned out, la sculpture souabe – ‘Swabian sculpture’ in English - is a unique combination of all these things. I'm afraid that my photos do not do these works great justice as I just couldn't block out the reflection of the lighting from the display cabinet glass.

Firstly, souabe  is French for the German adjective ‘schwaben’; this particular art form comes from the La Souabe – Schwabia – a region of south-west Germany situated between the Black Forest and Bavaria that, in the Middle Ages, included parts of modern-day France and Switzerland. Of course, Germany as we refer to it today , was but a vast mosaic of Germanic states, principalities, free cities and ‘stem duchies’ in Medieval times – collectively affiliated to the Roman Holy Empire. A Germanic king, crowned in Rome, would then be referred to as Emperor of the Romans, yet there was little real unity.

While England, France and Spain gradually evolved from strong dynasties to established, united nations, the Germanic lands were divided, and remained so until unification following the Franco-Prussian War of 1871, becoming an empire under Emperor Wilhelm 1, King of Prussia. In the Middle Ages, division and unrest due to politics and power-hungry rulers and princes led onto the dramatic upheaval brought about by the Protestant Reformation at the beginning of the 16th century. The states were stripped of their hitherto religious unity, now torn between Roman Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist allegiances, leading to spiritual, social and cultural disharmony. The exhibition of the Musée de Cluny shows a specific sculpture, unique to its time and place, namely of the pre-Reformation Swabia between 1460-1530.

Protected by the Alps and Lake Constance in the south, the Jura in the west and the Black Forest in the north, the Swaben region was rich in forests and traversed by great rivers - notably the Danube. This gave rise to the primary use of wood for construction and carving and the emergence of a timber as a source of trade, with transportation facilitated by the waterways. At the end of the Middle Ages, many Swabian cities (such as Ulm, Augsburg, Biberach, Memmingen, Kaufbeuren and Kempten) had the status of ‘Free town of the Empire’ and were under the direct authority of the emperor. 

These autonomous urban centres played a vital role in the economy of the region, acting as commercial hubs and as the site of intense artistic activity. Swabia specialized in rich, sculpted ecclesiastic decoration and devotional statues for private use that met great demand during the fifteenth and early sixteenth century. These were commissioned from religious and secular patrons alike, from both within the region and beyond, following the same commercial routes towards the Swiss and Austrian Alps as other merchandise.

Being in plentiful supply, and of great variety, wood proved to be the medium of predilection and practicality for artists who soon become renowned as master wood-carvers. Far cheaper and far more accessible than marble or any other stone, wood indeed offered far greater possibilities to these craftsmen. Spruce, poplar and, above all, lime were favoured due to the ease with which they could be worked, affording greater artistic freedom perhaps than the oak that was used in the northern Germanic states. 

The advanced technical skill in the wood-carving process and the vivid effects created by polychromy were combined to create a unique style influenced by Germanic, late-Gothic tradition. Indeed, at the time when Italy was entering its High Renaissance period (1490-1530), German art largely still adhered to the forms characteristic of Medieval aesthetic traditions. 

Influenced by painting from the Netherlands, the Germanic craftsman employed an increasingly naturalistic style, yet kept features such as gilded forms and gold backgrounds that were deemed out-dated by artists in countries elsewhere.

Even when these influences had less hold, Germanic art maintained a distinctive, heightened character. In short, a true ‘renaissance’ in the Italian sense could not be experienced simply for the reason that a revival of Classical forms was only possible if these Classical references were part of a given country’s past. This was not the case for the Germanic states, beyond the Alps, cut off from the culture of Classical Antiquity that had driven the Italian Renaissance, by time and distance. The art of Renaissance Italy was finally introduced in Northern Europe by the German artist, Albrecht Dürer. The resulting art meant that Swabian wood-carving developed highly detailed, coloured, strangely expressive, often theatrical forms that found no parallel. 

The production of the sculpted pieces for which Swabia grew famous was rarely the work of one craftsman alone; far from it, in fact. Work was carried out collaboratively in workshops or ‘corporations’ by craftsman, companions and apprentices, performing as either carpenters, wood-carvers or painters. In this manner, each stage of artistic creation, from conception to completion with the final touches of polychrome pigment was assured by artisans highly-skilled in a specific craft. 

The work was performed under the command of a master, who had been commissioned to create a specific piece of work and would then act as general contractor (‘verleger’), subcontracting the work required. He thus orchestrated and oversaw the whole creative process in order to satisfy the requirements of a particular patron, and also to secure further commissions both locally and further afield. Thus the master and his workers would frequently travel to carry out the latest commissions, and the renown and influence of Swabian sculpture would spread beyond Swabia itself. 

The Cluny exhibition shows pieces by craftsmen such as Ivo Strigel (1430-1516) from Memmingen, Lux Maurus (1470-1527) in Kempten, Daniel Mauch from Ulm (1477-1540), Jörg Lederer (ca 1470-1550) from the Kaufbeuren and Niclas Weckmann (1481-1526).

Prior to the Schism, throughout Europe demand had been great for the sculpted forms of the varied ecclesiastic decorations and functional religious furnishings and objects; retables, choir stalls, pulpits, crucifixes to name but a few. However, Swabia appeared to specialize in the richly sculpted, emotionally-charged ‘reredos’, a rather elaborate relative of the retable. The retable itself was initially a simple decorative, paneled screen attached to the back of the altar, hence its name from the Latin, retro tabula altaris

. It showed the forms of devotional figures of saints, and would sometimes bear the various liturgical objects used in services, as an accessory to the Sacred table. Over time, the retable grew to be extensive in size, taking on ever-more impressive dimensions as it rose above the altar with its intricate woodwork.

Nevertheless, the retable tended to follow the same basic structural shape – that of a central section depicting a key religious theme – flanked by side-panel doors or ‘wings’, painted and or sculpted, that could be closed. The reredos, IF  I have understood correctly (no certitude here as the French appear to use the term retable for the two structural forms), was the sophisticated, latter-stage variation of the retable. 

Assuming monumental proportions, the structure was now independent from the altar, detached from any wall, free to occupy the space available at the back of the nave or the chapels as a separate architectural element in its own right. Towering over the altar, rising up towards the vaulted ceiling, the reredos nevertheless gave an impression of light airiness, due to woodwork that made full use of the play of light pouring through the Gothic windows onto intricate shapes and contrasting colours.
 No longer attached to the altarpiece, the reredos used a predella, a platform that served to support the central panel and to lift the entire structure well above the altar itself. Typically this base would bear 3-5 narrative pieces presented horizontally, usually in relief form. The central element, meanwhile, bore large sculpted figures representing scenes that remained classic in their themes - the Nativity, the Flight from Egypt, Entry in Jerusalem, Lamentation of Christ etc, although others, such as the ever-present threat of the plague, are also reflected. 

However, these were no dry, staid representations of Biblical figures nor were they the rather over-blown ecstatic figures of High Baroque, with billowing garments and febrile emotions. The Swabian sculpted figures possess an almost troubling human quality that enables us to somehow relate to the individuals in questions, despite the centuries that separate us. Many of the groups of figures in the exhibition were originally in the central part of the reredos, or were in reliefs from the lateral panels. Others were not necessarily part of a larger entity, but were for private devotional use, or were destined for display, as part of a public procession in active representation of episodes from the Bible. Large ‘Palmesel’ (Palm donkey) statues were used during Palm Sunday reenactments of Christ’s entry into Jerusalem. The figure of Jesus, seated on a donkey, itself mounted on a wheeled platform would be key feature of religious festivals as it was pulled through the streets to the sound of hymns. 

Not my photo (too awful to use!!!) - Marie-Lan Nguyen
The standing figures were generally carved from a halved tree trunk, to which independently sculpted details could be added and attached by dowels; namely hands, voluminous drapery or other paraphernalia. The relative ease with which lime wood could be sculpted offered the Swabian wood-carvers greater freedom, leading towards Parallelfaltensil, a style specializing in deep, parallel pleated clothing whose influence spread from Swabia across the southern German states

The preparation, carving and colouring technique followed a rather elaborate procedure, a form of which can be seen in this link. Generally speaking, the initial block of rough wood was attached to a workbench that could be rotated, allowing the craftsman to move this as required and enable him to anticipate the effects of foreshortening that would come into play once the sculpture was set in the finished reredos and thus seen from below. The back of the sculpted figures were generally hollowed out in order to avoid warping and cracking as the wood weathered and aged. Once the main sculpting had been carried out, the sculpture would then be prepared for the polychromy process. The surface of the wood would remain sufficiently rough to allow for adherence of the different layers required to achieve the desired effect. Much of the polychromy process used on wood-carvings followed the same, or similar, techniques as those used on panel painting to create delicate hues and ‘blushes’, more sustained colour and, of course, gilding. 

An initial priming to prepare the wood against the absorption of the paint medium, would see the piece coated in a chalk-like glue substance – the gesso - which would act as a support to the subsequent layers. Pigments used for colouring came from four sources; soil, organic materials, rocks and minerals and chemicals and their multi-layered applications produced startling illusions of flesh and clothing. Gilding required a layer of ‘bole’ covered by fine gold leaf which in turn would be burnished then painted with a tempura pigment that was scratched ‘sgraffito’ or perhaps punched with a debossing technique to reveal the gilding beneath. Unfortunately, fluctuations of temperature and humidity could lead the wood to ‘walk’ as it expanded and contracted at a greater rate than the primed base of the polychrome effect. This would damage the coloured surface of the carving, but other factors led to the deterioration or discontinued use of polychromy in sculpture; the considerable cost and changing aesthetic taste being key determinants.

It was, of course, the Protestant Reformation that largely slowed down and eventually ended production of the unique Swabian sculpture. No longer able to rely on ecclesiastic patronage, the craftsmen found themselves without their ideological and economic basis. While Martin Luther had been opposed to excessive Catholic imagery, he may have shown a certain tolerance in his stance, the same could not be said of the iconoclasts of the Calvinist movement. The prohibition of idolatry and the creation of images of God would eventually lead to the widespread destruction of thousands of paintings, sculptures and the ruin of countless ecclesiastic buildings. By 1525, many Swaben craftsmen either left the region in order to find work under Catholic sovereigns or were obliged to find other alternatives, carrying out secular commissions. 

Fortunately, exhibitions such as these allow us to appreciate this moving, sometimes quirky art form that bears a certain unself-conscious innocence… While Swabian depictions of Mary seem to be fairly 'standard' in their essence of calm piety, it is not often in religious art that we see the child Christ acting as a tiresome toddler within the Holy family! As Jesus playfully grabs Joseph's beard, Mary looks on with a mother's loving solicitude.


  1. Thank you for the wonderful article!!!

  2. Thank you! These sculptures are so moving and have so much life, across all those centuries. And of course the Musée de Cluny is amazing....


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