Features » History


Pas teutonique du tout!

An exhibition in Naumburg celebrates the greatest sculptor and master builder of Medieval Germany. But patriots be warned! By Sven Behrisch

There could be no doubt that the artists who created the alert but melancholic, proud but oddly hunched, lively but not necessarily elegant benefactor figures in the cathedral of Naumburg was a German. Even Emile Male, the great French Medievalist, who could never be accused of having too much love for Germany, believed at the beginning of the 20th century that the major works of the Naumburg Master were unquestionably Teutonic. So convinced was the Frenchman of the non-Frenchness of the sculptures that in a bilious art historical outburst he vented his indignation that a German would be so audacious as to not simply copy French sculpture of the High Gothic (which would have been fine) but actually to develop it further into something entirely new, and outrageously beautiful.

Poster for the exhibition
© Design Prof. Nicolaus Ott, Berlin

The realisation that this Naumburg Master, the most talented Medieval sculptor on German soil, was in all likelihood a Frenchman, is the true sensation of the exhibition in Saxony-Anhalt which opened last week. For generations of cultural patriots this would have been the equivalent of announcing that Albrecht Dürer was a Dutchman or Caspar David Friedrich a Dane – incredible.

In the national cultural history of the Middle Ages, long stretches of which read like truculent declarations of independence from French cultural hegemony, the figure of Uta of Naumburg was brandished as evidence of genuine German expression. When Gothic, that supposedly oh so "German style" had to be conceded, teeth gritted, to the French, Naumburg became the next unique selling point. Stylistically speaking, this was pinpointed in the unusual presence and emotion of the standing figure, but also in the poise and facial expression, which made her a German ideal woman even before the Nazis.

Meissen Cathedral St. Johannis and St. Donatus
head of statue of Emperor Otto the Great, Naumburg Master, before 1268. © United Chapters Foundations, photo M. Rutkowski

The exhibition in Naumburg goes to great lengths to explain the Master's artistic development but the details of his life, the number of his works, even his name remains the stuff of rumour. Following the trail, the exhibition is spread out across numerous locations and brings together an impressive collection of sculptures from France but also from Mainz and Meißen – places where the Master supposedly exerted his influence, or where at least he would have been familiar with the works of art. Sadly missing are even older examples from the 12th century. Only by exhibiting these would everyone understand what a revolution was taking place at the beginning of the 13th century in northern France.

The figures, like in the visitation scene at the portal of the Reims west facade, step out of their niches, come to life, turning from idols to human beings as if kissed awake. They look at one another, cling to one another, seem to call out to one another. They also look at the viewer, like the sculpture of Eve, who glares down so threateningly that anyone will fear that the snake in her hands is about to be thrown around their neck. And the faces – they are not the faces of saints, but of fearful, happy, proud, furious and drunken individuals.

Cathedral of St. Peter and St. Paul
the crucified Christ at the entrance to the west rood screen, 1243-1249 ©United Chapters Foundations, photo M. Rutkowski

This is no longer about the triumph of the saints over death; it is about the successful fight against sin and death that makes people into saints. It is not adoration that is being demanded of the churchgoer, but participation and imitation of the Christian heroes. The visible suffering of Christ is intended to move people, is meant to set an example and serve as a warning.

The realistic turn in art is also present in the depiction of nature. The leaves, fruits and animals that creep and crawl around the column capitals are the product of meticulous observation. From fragments of buildings in Reims to examples from the Crac des Chevaliers castle in what is now Syria, spout veined buds and buttercup leaves so delicate you want to reach out and pluck them.

 Cathedral, west rood screen, blind arch, foliate capital with grapes, 1243-1249 ©United Chapters Foundations, photo M. Rutkowski

At times, in the Marienkirche for example, which belongs to the cathedral, the Naumburg exhibition feels like a best-of-the-Middle-Ages show. Plaster copies of the intrepid Bamberg Horseman and Synagoga and Ecclesia the pair of female figures from Strasbourg are brought together without any real explanation or reason. Only in the cathedral itself, on the west rood screen and in the benefactor figures, is it possible to see just how brilliantly the exhibition has been conceived for the place.

You see what the Master bought from France, and what he invented himself. The vines, cherries and oak leaves on the capitals of the chancel screen seem even more filigree. The columns become tree trunks, and the arches that rest on them seem to hover on the canopy of treetops. The passion, the suffering of Jesus is the subject matter of the rood screen. Eight relief panels show scenes from the taking of Christ and the flagellation, a furious Peter and a grim henchman. But it is not the famous realism of the individuals, their suffering and their smiles, that is so mesmerising, but the figure of Christ, which looks out with a serious but impassive face, towards the church hall in the distance.

west choir, benefactor statues of Margrave Ekkehard and his consort Uta, 1243-1249
©United Chapters Foundations, photo M. Rutkowski

Inside the chancel, which is accessed through two narrow entrances beneath the outspread arms of Christ on the cross in the centre of the rood screen, stand the benefactor figures in a similar state of absorption. Not all of them are so deep in thought, though, not Count Syzzo, who appears to be staring furiously at the man beside him, who is cowering behind his shield. But Count Dietrich, Margrave Ekkehard and Uta next to him appear collected but strangely lost in reverie, as if in silent dialogue with one another. This ability of the Naumburg Master to lend an interior movement to the state amazement, distinguishes him from his role models and his own earlier work. The movement comes from a slight bending of the knees, a gentle tugging on a coat or classical contrapposto, but above all though ambiguous facial expression. The figures do not merely express fear or joy, but something more like a state of utmost excitement that is veiled at the same time.

The benefactor figures are so named because they funded  the construction of the cathedral. The donation business was a recognized means of absolution for those who could afford it. Some of the figures look towards the painted window, where the virtuous triumph over vice, and martyrs stand victorious on the broken bodies of their tormentors. Taking place right before their eyes is a fate that threatens every penny-pinching sinner who is not prepared to make donations: the fall of the damned. In the Naumburger Master's ensemble of passion scenes on the rood screen, promises of paradise and threats of hell in the window, the ambivalent faces of the founders appear in a yet another, entirely different light: in a sense of guilt mixed with conventionality - very German somehow.


This article was originally published in German in die Zeit on 30 June, 2011.

Sven Behrisch
is an art historian and freelance art critic.

Translation: lp

"The Naumburg Master" runs until 2 November, 2011. - let's talk european