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Late Medieval Alabaster Sculpture

A new look at Tilman Riemenschneider’s Jerome
Gerhard Lutz, Robert P. Bergman Curator of Medieval Art
March 1, 2023
Saint Jerome and the Lion (From the former Church of St. Peter in Erfurt), c. 1495. Tilman Riemenschneider (German, active Würzburg, c. 1460–1531). 1946.82

When the young Würzburg sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider (German, c. 1460–1531) was commissioned around 1495 to make figures in alabaster for the Benedictine monastery of Saint Peter in Erfurt, he did not have to look far to find a suitable quarry. The small town of Ickelheim, about 40 miles southeast of Würzburg, was known at that time for its alabaster deposits. Only recently, with the help of scientific research, has it been discovered that this quarry even served sculpture workshops as far away as Bruges, and thus was of international European importance. 

At that time, Riemenschneider was just beginning to establish himself in the episcopal city of Würzburg. Born between 1459 and 1462 in Heiligenstadt (Thuringia, Germany), the artist spent his wanderings on the Upper Rhine, among other places, in cities such as Strasbourg and Colmar where he became familiar with local artists. He then settled permanently in Würzburg in 1483. By around 1500, he was one of the wealthiest citizens in town and had a flourishing workshop. In the general consciousness, Riemenschneider is known primarily as the creator of wooden sculptures, outstanding carved altarpieces, and funerary monuments. In contrast, his small oeuvre in alabaster stays rather in the shadow due to the few surviving examples. 

The commissioner, Saint Peter’s monastery, was a wealthy abbey of Benedictine monks until it was dissolved in the early 19th century in Napoleonic times. Subsequently, most of the monastic buildings were demolished, and the church was converted into a warehouse and storage building, which it remained as until rather recently. Now, the former church has been restored and is usable for cultural events. We do not know how many sculptures Riemenschneider made for the monastery in Erfurt. Two have survived to this day: a Mary from an Annunciation, which is now in the Louvre Museum, Paris, and Saint Jerome and the Lion, now one of the major works in the Cleveland Museum of Art’s medieval collection.

Jerome is Riemenschneider’s only alabaster work in a collection in the US. This sculpture depicts the church father Saint Jerome as he removes a thorn from the paw of a lion, a legendary account of the saint’s kindness. Following the common iconography of the scene, Jerome is dressed in the traditional robes of a Roman cardinal, with the cowl draped over his tonsured head and the broad-brimmed hat on his right leg. Traces of polychromy (paint) and gilding suggest that the work was once brightly colored. Drill holes in the hat further indicate that cords and tassels of fabric, typical of a cardinal’s hat, would once have decorated the sculpture. Whether the statue was originally commissioned for an altar in a private chapel or a smaller space in the monastery remains unknown.

Alabaster was prized for its luster and capacity for fine details from the 1300s through the 1700s particularly in Germany, the Netherlands, France, and Spain. It was used for altarpieces and small sculptures, as well as for the tombs of wealthy princes. Alabaster is a variety of the mineral gypsum, and due to its softness, it is very easy to create detail in it with tools typically used for wood sculptures. The surface of alabaster works can vary. By differentiating the intensity of polishing, a surface can be created with different degrees of luster, or shine. The polychromy varies between only a few dots of color and gilding and a partial polychromy where the clothing and flesh tones are more heavily colored.

Jerome is shown for the first time in Cleveland in the exhibition Riemenschneider and Late Medieval Alabaster together with the sculpture of Mary from the Louvre. Both figures are the central characters of this exhibition, joined by other examples from the CMA, such as the mourners from the tomb of Philip the Bold. These are complemented by select works from other North American collections, including the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, providing insight into the characteristics of late medieval alabaster sculpture.