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TR's Holy Blood Altarpiece

Updated: Nov 25, 2021

TR there doesn't stand for Teddy Roosevelt. It stands for Tilman Riemenschneider, the sculptor who created the Holy Blood Altarpiece (1505) for the Church of St James in Rothenburg, Germany. Wood carving deserves mention in art history and I thought this would be as good an example as any of the medium's rightful place.

You probably won’t recognize his name but Tilman Riemenschneider was sought-after and prolific in his early career. But regrettably he fell into anonymity for the next three centuries. He’s been rediscovered, though, so look up his stuff because it’s all incredible.

Even if you’re not much in to altarpieces, this one is beautiful, isn’t it? The limewood has some really rich color, the faces are subtle but very expressive, and the robes are mesmerizing. I also think his use of back lighting through the chapel window is pretty innovative. He was clearly a master of technical skill but his composition is a masterstroke, as well. He chose the specific moment from the last supper when Jesus had a brief exchange with his betrayer, Judas. We would expect last supper scenes to place Jesus at the center, but that isn’t what we get from Riemenschneider. He put Judas there instead. That strikes me on a couple of levels. It’s a unique take on a popular story, for one, and I’m always interested in stuff like that. But it’s also a devotional piece, meaning the intended audience was scores of believing pilgrims. And he spoke to the faithful by placing the primary antagonist at the center of their shrine? That’s fairly provocative. I don’t know for certain but I’m confident this wasn’t done on a whim.

I should add that wooden altarpieces in general are very rare. Those that do exist, like this one, are historical survivors. It just seldom happens that you can see a carved altarpiece still residing in the church for which it was created. So many were lost to church fires, wars, or changing liturgical tastes. Many more were destroyed by mobs during the Protestant Reformation, when an idea took hold that venerating such religious art was a form of idolatry. I’m not sure how this one survived, or how it remained a fixture at St James even after the church was converted from Catholic use to Lutheran. But survive it did, which makes seeing the Holy blood Altarpiece an almost priceless cultural experience.

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