This coming of age first manifested itself in art. We may find it hard to believe, but it is true, that at the very height of the Italian Renaissance—from the birth of Leonardo (1452) to the death of Raphael (1520)—German artists were in demand throughout Europe for their excellence in every craft in wood, iron, copper, bronze, silver, gold, engraving, painting, sculpture, architecture. Perhaps with more patriotism than impartiality, Felig Fabri of Ulm wrote in 1484: “When anyone wishes to have a first-rate piece of workmanship in bronze, stone, or wood, he employs a German craftsman. I have seen German jewelers, goldsmiths, stonecutters, and carriage makers do wonderful things among the Saracens; they surpassed even the Greeks and Italians in art.”40 Some fifty years later an Italian found this still true: “The Germans,” wrote Paolo Giovio, “are carrying everything before them in art, and we, sluggish Italians, must needs send to Germany for good workmen.” 41 German architects were engaged by Florence, Assisi, Orvieto, Siena, Barcelona, and Burgos, and were called upon to complete the duomo at Milan. Veit Stoss captivated Cracow, Dürer received honors in Venice, and Holbein the Younger took England by storm.
In ecclesiastical architecture, of course, the zenith had passed with the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. None the less a single generation of Munich citizens raised in Late Gothic their Frauenkirche (1468–88) or Church of Our Lady, and the Altes Rathaus (1470–88) or Old Town Hall; in the first two decades of the sixteenth century Freiburg in Saxony completed its choir, Augsburg built the Fugger Chapel, Strasbourg Cathedral finished its Lawrence Chapel, and a lovely Chörlein, or oriel window, was added to the parsonage of the Sebalduskirche in Nuremberg. Domestic architecture in this period built charming cottages, with red tiled roofs, timbered upper stories, flower-decked balconies, and spacious eaves to protect the windows from sun or snow; so in Mittenwald’s arduous climate the undiscourageable Germans countered the sublimity of the Bavarian Alps with the simple and cherished beauty of their homes.
Sculpture was the glory of the age. Minor carvers abounded who would have shone as major stars in a less brilliant galaxy: Nicolaus Gerhart, Simon Leinberger, Tilman Riemenschneider, Hans Backoffen.... Nuremberg alone in one generation produced a trio of masters hardly surpassed in equal time by any town in Italy. The career of Veit Stoss was a tale of two cities Nurtured in Nuremberg, and acquiring fame as engineer, bridge-builder, architect, engraver, sculptor, and painter, he went to Cracow at thirty, and did his best work there in a flamboyant Late Gothic style that well expressed both the piety and the excitability of the Poles. He returned to Nuremberg (1496) with sufficient funds to buy a new house and marry a second wife, who bore him five children to add to her predecessor’s eight. At the height of his abundance Veit was arrested for having shared, perhaps unwittingly, in a forgery; he was branded by burning through both cheeks, and was forbidden ever to leave Nuremberg again. The Emperor Maximilian pardoned him and restored his civic rights (1506), but Stoss remained an outcast to the end of his painfully long life. In 1517 he carved a large group representing the Annunciation or Angelical Salutation; he enclosed the two figures—among the most nearly perfect in all the range of wood sculpturein a garland of roses, surrounded this with a rosary, attached seven medallions picturing the joys of the Virgin, and crowned the whole—all in linden wood—with an unprepossessing portrayal of God the Father. The fragile composition was suspended from the vault of the choir in the Lorenzkirche, where it still hangs as a treasured relic of the great city’s halcyon days. For the Sebalduskirche, Stoss carved in wood a Crucifixion never surpassed in its kind (1520). In that year his son Andreas, as prior of the Nuremberg Carmelites, procured for Stoss a commission to design an altar for a church in Bamberg. While the artist labored on this assignment the Reformation captured Nuremberg; Andreas was replaced as prior because he remained a Catholic; Veit himself clung to the colorful faith that had inspired his art; payments on the altar commission were stopped, and the work remained incomplete. Stoss spent his final ten years in blindness, solitude, and desolation, predeceased by his wives, abandoned by his children, and rejected by an age too absorbed in theology to recognize that it was losing, at ninety-three (1533), the greatest wood carver in history.42
A bronze worker equally supreme in his line lived in the same city and time, but led a quieter and happier life. Peter Vischer the Elder portrayed himself in a niche of his most famous product as an earnest, simple laborer, short, stocky, full-bearded, with a leather apron around his waist, and hammer and chisel in his hands. He and his five sons gave eleven years (1508–19) to their chef-d’œuvre, the Sebaldusgrab or Tomb of Sebald, Nuremberg’s patron saint. The enterprise was costly; funds ran out, and the work lay unfinished when Anton Tucher roused the citizens to contribute the 800 guilders ($20,000?) still required. This masterpiece is not impressive at first sight; it does not seem to rival Orcagna’s Tabernacle (1348) at Florence; and the snails and dolphins on whose backs the structure rests are not the likeliest carriers of so immense a weight. But a closer inspection reveals an astonishing perfection in the parts. The central sarcophagus of silver is adorned with four reliefs representing the miracles of the saint. Around it rise the bronze pillars of a Gothic canopy, delicately carved with Renaissance ornament, and joined in lovely metal lacery at the top. On the pillars, around the base, in the socles, in the niches of the crowning baldachin, the artists deposited a veritable population of pagan, Hebrew, or Christian figures—Tritons, Centaurs, Nereids, Sirens, Muses, Fauns, Hercules, Theseus, Samson, the Prophets, Jesus, the Apostles, and angels playing music or sporting with lions or dogs. Some of these effigies are still crude, many are finished with the precision of a Donatello or a Ghiberti; all contribute vividly to a varied realization of life. The statues of Peter, Paul, Matthew, and John rival the Four Apostles that Dürer painted some seven years later in this same Nuremberg.
No prince or potentate, we are told, came to Nuremberg in these first decades of the sixteenth century without visiting Peter Vischer’s foundry, and many solicited his art. A score of churches displayed his products, from the great brass candelabra in the Lorenzkirche to the tomb of Maximilian I at Innsbruck. His five sons followed him in sculpture, but two preceded him in death. Hermann Vischer the Younger, who died at thirty-one (1517), cast a handsome bronze relief for the tomb of Cardinal Casimir in the cathedral of Cracow.
As the Vischers excelled in bronze, and Veit Stoss in wood, so Adam Kraft led all his contemporaries in the sculpture of stone. German chroniclers pictured him, and Peter Vischer the Elder, and Sebastian Lindenast (who designed the obsequious electors on the Frauenkirche clock) as devoted artists and friends. “They were like brothers. Every Friday, even in their old age, they met and studied together like apprentices, as the designs that they executed at their meetings prove. Then they separated, having quite forgotten to eat or drink.”43 Born probably in the same year as Peter (1460?), Adam resembled him in simplicity, honesty, piety, and fondness for self-portraiture. In 1492 he carved for the Sebalduskirche the tomb of Sebaldus Schreyer, with reliefs of the Passion and Resurrection. Moved by their excellence, Hans Imhoff, a merchant prince, commissioned Kraft to design a ciborium to hold the bread and wine of the Eucharist in the Lorenzkirche. Adam made this Sakramenthaus a tall and slender tabernacle in Late Gothic style, a miracle of stone filigree rising stage by stage to a height of sixty-four feet, and tapering to a graceful crosier-head curve; the pillars alive with saints, the doors of the “House” guarded by angels, the square surfaces cut in relief with scenes from the life of Christ, and the whole airy edifice resting anomalously on three crouching figures—Adam Kraft and two of his aides. There are no compliments in the self-portrait: the clothes are worn and torn with toil, the hands are rough, the beard is unkempt, the broad, uplifted face is intent upon the conception and execution of the work. When this absorbing masterpiece was finished Kraft returned to his favorite subject by carving seven sandstone pillars with scenes from the Passion; six of these are now in the Germanisches Museum; one of them, The Entombment, is typical of Teutonic art—a courageous realism that does not need idealization to convey a sincere piety and faith.
The minor arts continued the same medieval moods and themes. Miniaturists were still in sufficient demand to maintain prosperous guilds. Major artists like Dürer and Holbein drew designs for stained glass; this art, declining in France and England, now reached its apex in Germany; the Lorenzkirche, the cathedrals of Ulm and Cologne, received world-famous windows in this period. Not only churches but guildhalls, castles, even private homes had some windows of stained glass. Cities like Nuremberg, Augsburg, Regensburg, Cologne, and Mainz were proud of their craftsmen-artists: metalworkers who glorified torches, chandeliers, basins, ewers, locks, trays; goldsmiths whose products, from spoons to altars, were treasured throughout Europe; textile workers who wove fine carpets, tapestries, ecclesiastical vestments, and the ornate garb of the patrician class; devout women who wore out their fingers and eyes to cover altars and priests with embroideries and silk. Woodcutters were never better. Michael Wolgemut, besides painting two magnificent windows for the Lorenzkirche, cut in wood a dozen altarmasterpieces, and then taught Dürer to surpass him.
Engraving by cutting a design into wood or copper developed in the fifteenth century into a mature art, respected on a par with painting. The greatest painters cultivated it. Martin Schongauer carried it to completion; some of his engravings —The Scourging of Christ, Carrying the Cross, St. John on Patmos, The Temptation of St. Anthony—are among the greatest of all time.44 Book illustration by engravings became convenient and popular, and rapidly replaced illumination. The most famous paintings of the period were multiplied in engravings that sold readily at book stalls, fairs, and festivals. Lucas van Leyden showed an astonishing precocity in this field, engraving his Mohammed at fourteen, his Ecce Homo at sixteen (1510), and nearing perfection in his copper engraving of Maximilian.45 Dry point engraving, by a pointed instrument throwing up a burr or ridge of excised metal along the lines of the design, was used by the anonymous “Master of the House Book” toward 1480. Etching by covering a metal surface with wax, cutting a design in the wax, and letting an acid eat (German ätzen) into the exposed lines, grew from the decoration of armor into the incision of metal plates from which etchings could be printed; Daniel Hopfer, an armorer, seems to have made the first recorded etching in 1504. Burgkmair and Dürer practiced the new art imperfectly; Lucas van Leyden probably learned it from Dürer, but soon went beyond him to mastery.
In painting this was Germany’s greatest age. Influenced by both Dutch and Italian, schools, and by their own expatriated Memling, German painters in the second half of the fifteenth century graduated from Gothic intensity and ungainliness into a more graceful line, and figures that moved with ease in natural scenes reflecting the domestic life of the triumphant bourgeoisie. Subjects remained predominantly sacred, but secular topics advanced; altarpieces gave way to panel pictures, and rich donors, no longer satisfied to kneel in the corner of a religious group, demanded portraits in which they would be all in all. Painters themselves emerged from medieval anonymity into distinct individualities, signing their work with their names as a grasp at immortality. Still anonymous is the “Master of the Life of the Virgin” who worked at Cologne toward 1470, and left a Virgin and St. Bernard with a very German Virgin squeezing milk from her breast for the Child, before a devout monk who hardly suggests the hound of heaven that pursued Abélard. Michael Pacher is one of the first who transmitted his name as well as his work. The Parish Church of St. Wolfgang in Salzkammergut still shows the massive altarpiece, thirty-six feet long, that he carved and painted for it in 1479–81; the study of perspective in these panels shared in the education of German art. Martin Schongauer brought into his painting the finesse of an accomplished engraver, and the delicate sentiment of Rogier van der Weyden. Born at Augsburg (c. 1445), Schongauer settled in Colmar, and developed there a school of engraving and painting that played a major role in bringing the arts to fulfillment in Dürer and Holbein.
Year by year the thriving cities of the south stole the leadership of German art from Cologne and the north. At Augsburg, the center of the trade with Italy, Hans Burgkmair brought Italian decorative touches into his pictures, and Hans Holbein the Elder combined Italian ornament with the high seriousness of the Gothic style. Hans passed his art down to his sons Ambrose and Hans, whom he fondly portrayed in his paintings. Ambrose faded from history, but Hans Jr. became one of the glories of Germany, Switzerland, and England.
The greatest of Dürer’s predecessors was Matthias Gothardt Neihardt, who by a scholar’s error became known to posterity as Matthias Grünewald. In the immemorial social heredity of art he learned the painter’s magic from Schongauer at Colmar, added his own hunger for fame and perfection, practiced patiently at Ghent, Speyer, and Frankfurt, and chose Strasbourg as his home (1479). Probably there he painted his first master product, a double portrait of Philip II of Hanau-Lichtenberg and his wife; Dürer himself would never excel this in depth of penetration and grace of execution.46 Wandering anew, Grünewald worked for a while with Dürer at Basel—where he painted the Portrait of a Man now in New York—and again with Dürer making woodcuts in Nuremberg. In 1503 he settled at Seligenstadt, and there finally he developed his own mature and characteristic style—the graphic rendering of Biblical scenes with passionate feeling and tragic power. Archbishop Albrecht made him court painter at Mainz (1509), but dismissed him when Grünewald persisted in applauding Luther (1526). H married unfortunately, and withdrew into a melancholy solitude that ma) have lent some dark shades to the chiaroscuro of his art.
His masterpiece—probably the greatest German painting—is the complex polyptych made for a monastery at Isen in 1513. The central panel shows the Virgin and her Child in an almost Turneresque glow of golden color against a background of distant seas. But the outstanding and unforgettable panel is a gruesome Crucifixion: Christ in His final agony, the body covered with wounds and bloody sweat, the limbs distorted with pain; Mary swooning in the arms of St. John; Magdalen hysterical with angry and incredulous grief, Still other panels could be major paintings by themselves: a concert of angels in a Gothic architectural setting of brilliant reds and browns; a macabre Temptation of St. Anthony; the same saint and a fellow anchorite in a weird forest of decaying trees; and a Boschian nightmare apparently symbolizing Anthony’s dreams. In the predominance of color, light, and feeling over line, form, and representation this almost theatrical outburst of pictorial power is the culmination of German Gothic painting on the eve of the triumph of line and logic in a Dürer who, rooted in the mysticism of medieval Germany, stretched out hands of longing to the humanism and art of the Italian Renaissance.