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Bodily finesse

Birgit Sonna on the world's first comprehensive exhibition of the masterful Renaissance sculptor Conrat Meit

Conrat Meit,
Judith with the head of Holofernes, circa 1525. © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum Munich

Judith is an anaemic beauty, exactly 30 centimetres long and buck naked. The perfectly wavy hair is bound stylishly around her head, the bloody and purposeful act of the previous night is nowhere to be seen in her expression. Were it not for the freshly hacked-off head of Captain Holofernes in the one hand and the huge sword in the other, one would never believe that the feminine figure, carved in milky alabaster, with the gentle facial features has just single-handedly saved her home town and people with an unbelievably martial act (more). Impressive is the contrast between the horrible act and the erotic, girl-like softness. Conrat Meit represented the virtuous heroine of the Old Testament in the fragile but also slightly pot-bellied feminine ideal of the day. His "Judith with the head of Holofernes" (dating from 1525/28) is often referred to in art history books as a model of Renaissance art north of the Alps. But what do we really know about the Worms-born sculptor?

The Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, which has owned "Judith" as well as a miniature bust of the "Archduchess Margarete von Österreich" since the 19th century, is dedicating an exhibition to Conrat Meit (1470/85-1550/51), and one which will not be easy to repeat given all the international loans. Little remains of the sculptures of the artist, who died in Antwerp - much of the late work in particular has disappeared or been destroyed - making every single piece in this first ever comprehensive show a treasure. Meit was a pioneer in courtly elegance and material finesse in the northern European cultural landscape at a time when the Renaissance had not yet reached it; even Dürer, not known for his compliments, praised him as a good "bildtschniczer mit nahmen Conrad, desgleichen ich kein gesehen hab..." (picture carver of the name Conrad, the like of whom I have never seen).

Judith with the head of Holofernes (detail). © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

The gaps in the work, much of which has not been authenticated, are artfully filled in the exhibition with artists and works in a similar vein. This applies in particular to the early artistic years in the Wittenberg studio of Lucas Cranach the Elder, from which not a single piece remains. Likewise, Meit's supposedly phenomenal early masterpiece "Wittenberger Doppelmadonna," carved for the castle church in 1505/06, was lost in the turmoil of the Reformation. According to a detailed description of his contemporary, Wittenberg university rector Christoph Scheurl, the Doppelmadonna stood surrounded by a jubilant entourage of angels, very much like a picture of the adoration of the Virgin Mary by Cranach the Elder even though the figure of its patron, Elector Frederick the Wise of Saxony, was missing from the colourful, gilded sculpture. What sets Meit apart from Tilman Riemenschneider and other expressive sculptors of his generation from the Upper Rhine may be attributable to Meit's contact to early humanistic circles in his home town of Worms. And thus his early statuettes from 1510 demonstrate a classical clarity in their formal vocabulary, an idealised sense of proportion comparable with the work of Dürer.

Jakob Fugger the Rich. Circa 1510/15. © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

In the central room, Conrat Meit's delicate statuettes are hoisted up to eye-level in their window-boxes, like a festive show of trophies. And while surveying the body's smooth contours, carved in boxwood, bronze or alabaster, often draped in Biblical robes, one comes to an ever clearer understanding of the highly sensual quality that the Berlin museum impresario Wilhelm von Bode was referring to when he wrote of the sculptor in 1901: "Naturalism as the representation of the nude, in particular the illusory reproduction of skin, has never been achieved as well by another German artist." Whether in Meit's depiction of "Adam and Eve" as a robust and confident pair in the midst of their fall from grace, or the rather spongy figure of virtue "Fortitudo" leaning against a crumbling pillar, the statuettes proudly display their naked prowess from all sides. At the same time, Meit earned distinction in another form of small sculpture: his miniature busts, obviously inspiried from models of antiquity, are captivating in their razor-sharp naturalism, a psychological almost painful way of seeing. Recently, a painted miniature bust of the Augsburg merchant Jakob Fugger the Rich, was identified as a work (1510-1515) by Meit. The young, power-hungry banker with the steely gaze is literally "marked" with wrinkles around the stern mouth and eyes.

Adam and Eve, 1510. © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

Anachronistic by comparison, by which I mean they represented a return to late Gothic, are the larger sculptural works that Meit made from 1512 on in the Netherlands. Meit, who was court sculptor to the Archduchess Margarete of Austria, lead a prestigious life in Mecheln, near to the Dutch residency of the Hamburg regent. The final part of the exhibition takes us to a room containing the tombs of the archduchess and her husband Philibert of Savoy (1526-1531) that were made for the cloister church in Brou. The flamboyant style of the church is reflected in the two tomb designs: the reclining figures are late-medieval, each represented in both youth and the height of nobility. Only the buxom cherubs and the lifelike faces of the ruling couple, carved by Meit alone, seem to pay tribute to the Renaissance aesthetic.

Archduchess Margarete of Austria. Circa 1518 (?) © Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich

Strangely, none of the statuettes commissioned by Margarete of Austria has survived to date. The nude figures with silhouettes that flattered both hand and eye and were destined for the luxury of private viewing in the curiosity cabinet, have been buried over the centuries. But who knows, following the harsh bust of Jakob Fugger, which now too belongs to the Bayerischen Nationalmuseum, maybe further sculptural precisions of Meit will make their way to the light of a museum one day.

Conrat Meit. Bildhauer der Renaissance. Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich. Until March 8, 2007.


This arcticle originally appeared in the Neue Zürcher Zeitung on February 26, 2007.

Birgit Sonna is a Munich-based art critic.

Translation: nb. - let's talk european