Date: about 1515-1520
Place Made: Germany
Materials & Techniques: Limewood
Dimensions: 106.7cm x 33cm x 16.8cm
Accession Number: Compton Verney, CVCSC: 0271.N
This female saint is carved from a type of wood called limewood which is pale yellow, soft and very good for carving. She would have once been part of an altarpiece in a church. The altarpiece would have included other sculptures of saints. Saints are usually pictured with a certain object or shown holding something which tells you who they are supposed to represent. She would once have held an object in her right hand; now her hand is missing so we cannot tell who she is supposed to be.
She is resting back on her right leg forming a gentle curve to her body. She most likely leaned towards the main figure of the altarpiece. Her clothes are simple but expertly carved and she wears a turban-like headdress.
She was carved by a German artist called Tilman Riemenschneider (about 1460-1531). He made many pieces for churches and was one of the most important sculptors in Germany at that time. He left his figures unpainted but would add a small amount of black tint to the eyes and mouth to bring out the facial features. Sculptures such as this were produced to tell people of the lives of the Christian saints, a bit like a 3D storybook.
Riemenschneider (1460-1531) is arguably the pre-eminent medieval German sculptor and greatest proponent of the Late Gothic style in Germany. He worked in stone and alabaster but is better known for his limewood carvings. Riemenschneider was the first German sculptor to leave his wooden figures un-painted except for tinting detail on lips and eyes. You can see here that the eyes and lips have traces of black pigment for emphasis.
Limewood is pale yellow, even-grained and soft and is one of the best woods for carving. Unfortunately the sculptures are a magnet for woodworm and fungi and how to conserve them is a constant source of disagreement between experts.
The female saint has an elegant posture, enhanced by the elongated s-curve of her stance created by details such as the hair falling in long tresses down her right shoulder and the swathe of drapery from her turban (fastened with a jewel) curving outwards from that same side. She suggests a sense of calm and dignity.
A standing figure such as this was typically cut from a halved section of a tree trunk, clamped horizontally in an adjustable workbench that allowed the block to be rotated. Working from this angle, the sculptor was able to envision the figure in strong foreshortening, much as the viewer would when the finished work was installed above eye level. After marking the contours of the figure on the block with callipers and compasses, he roughed out the form with a variety of tools, such as two types of axes, curved and straight adzes, broad chisels and mallets. The deeper recesses were created with further tools, such as augers and hand-cranked borers. Certain parts of a figure, such as hands, attributes, and protruding folds of a drapery, were carved separately and attached to the figure with dowels. The backs of figures were normally hollowed out to prevent the wood from cracking as it aged. The carvings were meticulously finished with knives and scrapers, exploiting the contrast between broad, smooth areas and incisive details. Last, decorative patterns were either appliquéd or cut or pressed into the surface with punches. You can see here that her bodice and dress are decorated with a punched tooled decoration which simulates velvet or lace. Before a figure left the Sculptor’s Workshop, the eyes and lips were often tinted.
1. Using a block of air drying clay create your own sculpture of an inspiring person like our female saint. Perhaps the patron saint of the country you come from such as Saint George or Saint Andrew. What will you put in their hand to identify them?
2. Make a timeline (starting with Tilman Riemenschneider) of famous sculptors, the materials they used and subjects they chose.