German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, C. 1520-1580: Art in an Age of Uncertainty

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German Sculpture of the Later Renaissance, c. 1520-1580: Art In an Age of Uncertainty. By Jeffrey Chipps Smith. (Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1994. Pp. xxi, 524. $65.00.)

This book offers the reader a vast amount of information concerning the production of sculpture in Germany during the sixteenth century. It may be regarded both as an introduction to the subject and as a reference work, one which can be consulted, say, to determine what sculptor was responsible for the execution of a particular monument, or to answer more complex questions as to the types of subject matter favored by a certain patron. There is an encyclopedic quality to the work, for the author has set himself the task of synthesizing what art historians have so far had to say about the material he treats. This is no mean achievement, since the literature to date is almost exclusively in German. The result is a useful compendium, a source book to which one can turn for succinct accounts of the sculpture produced in a large geographical area over a period of almost a century.

It is perhaps because of the scope of this work, as well as Smith's talent for synthesis, that one does not find new and challenging interpretations either of individual sculptures or about the way in which this medium intersected with the cultural life of the period. Whatever gestures are made toward a broader understanding of the work, its significance for its social context, tend to take place in the opening chapters. The first chapter, for example, contains a very useful account of the devotional status and function of sculpture in the years leading up to the Reformation. Smith goes over the well-known theological arguments which were used either to support or criticize the religious use of images, as well as a history of iconoclasm. However, he also points to other forms of cultural signification affecting the production and use of sculpture. He provides a very useful and original account of the competition that took place between different cities when, in the closing years of the fifteenth century, they decided to outdo each other by building larger and more imposing monuments to their patron saints. In Chapter 3, he deploys the useful heuristic tool of contrasting the different fates of sculptors working in Catholic and Lutheran areas of Germany. Among the interesting conclusions is the fact that sculptors often worked for both sides of the dogmatic schism and even traveled to different parts of the country, working for Catholic and Lutheran patrons alike. In other words, the sculptors' own religious convictions, which are often documented, do not seem to have interfered with their professional careers.

Smith's concern, however, lies principally in the task of recording what sculpture was made and who made it. This means that the text often reads as a list of facts in which one commission follows another. Such is the strain placed on the narrative structure that it often stumbles under the burden. …