Book Reviews -- German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, C. 1520-1580: Art in an Age of Uncertainty by Jeffrey Chipps Smith

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JEFFREY CHIPPS SMITH German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, c. 1520-1580: Art in an Age of Uncertainty Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1994. 546 pp.; 317 b/w ills. $65.00

Delicately carved mythological reliefs, ebullient fountains, and magnificent monuments to the great are among the subjects discussed in Jeffrey Chipps Smith's impressive German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, c. 1520-1580. The subtitle, Art in an Age of Uncertainty, reflects the religious and political upheavals of these decades and their consequences for the arts. With altarpieces falling into disfavor after the iconoclasm of the 1520s, the sculptor's livelihood was seriously threatened; other types of subject matter attracted greater attention, and the hierarchy of genres underwent revision along with the status of the arts themselves.

Tilman Riemenschneider, Veit Stoss, Adam Kraft, and the other heroes of the Duerzeit make only a guest appearance, for this book is not about that great cultural flowering at the turn of the century, upon which Germany continues to draw for its sense of identity. The decades covered by Smith offer no paradigms of resolution to nurture a national consciousness; it is a period open rather than closed, a time when new conventions were being forged within a frame of unprecedented international dimensions. Nevertheless, several of the artists disussed were already established by 1520, and Smith sensibly casts an eye to the early part of the century so as better to mark subsequent developments. Although Loy Herring's monumental figure of Saint Willibald of 1512-14 is often anthologized in surveys, for instance, Smith provides a wider sample of Herring's work, showing his manner of adapting traditional formats to various projects. At Eichstatt the sculptor had the good fortune to enjoy consistent Catholic patronage until his death in 1552. His epitaphs and altarpieces retain a conservative format--symptomatic, Smith suggests, of an inward and retrospective tendency among his clients. The Saint Willibald is ultimately seen as an anomaly within Hening's oeuvre and may owe its distinctive qualities to the commission--the desire to give Eichstatt's founding bishop and patron saint a vivid and commanding presence in the church and to imply continuity with the current bishop, Gabriel von Eyb. Smith tends to follow individual sculptors in relation to social and institutional factors, spreading discussion of their work over several chapters.

Despite its broad coverage German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance is not an encyclopedia of 16th-century production nor does it attempt to include all significant sculptors throughout the German lands. Instead, it offers a representative selection of artists and works, ordering this material thematically with each chapter considering artistic solutions to a specific set of problems. The reader is presented with a series of studies rather than a single monumental narrative, though the individual chapters often have a chronological structure. The nonspecialist is thereby spared the seemingly endless succession of names, dates, and reproductions often encountered in reference works. The specialist is given the first extensive coverage of German 16th-century sculpture in any language, one that treats more than sixty different artists and numerous anonymous works, created throughout a large part of central Europe. Those acquainted with the period will miss certain artists; fans of Johan von Trarbach are destined to be disappointed, though few will argue with Smith's selection. By discriminately choosing his examples he has given shape to the period, recognized geographic diversity, and kept the project to human proportions. This is a remarkable accomplishment.

Many of those coming to this book on German sculpture will be surprised by the variety of works treated: altarpieces carved in relief, enormous tombs with life-size figures, small-scale secular works for the home, as well as fountains for the garden, ink wells, portrait busts, medals, organs, porches, and more. …