Germanic Gothic Art

Upper left: The cathedral of Wimpfen im Tal, a painting by Michael Neher (1846). Upper right: St. Elizabeth’s Church in Marburg (Germany) was built by the Order of the Teutonic Knights in honor of St. Elizabeth of Hungary, it was consecrated in 1283. Bottom left: The Freiburg Minster or the cathedral of Freiburg im Breisgau in southwest Germany, begun ca. 1200. Bottom right: The Cathedral of Trier (Trier, Germany), is the oldest cathedral in the country, the first building dates back to ca. 270, it was completed in 1270.

In the last years of the Germanic Romanesque art some Gothic forms begun to be insinuated. The first Germanic monument with ogival forms is the church of the abbey of Wimpfen of Tal, built between 1261 and 1278. Later, several Gothic churches of purely French style were built in German territories, such as that of St. Elizabeth of Marburg, the cathedral of Trier, and many others.

Built in French-style is the cathedral of Freiburg, with three naves and a magnificent tower on the facade above the central nave. It was begun in the year 1253 according to the plans of John of Gmünden. On the outside, the very beautiful apse with ambulatory and chapels has the pinnacles topped with fine points and light buttresses.

In these Gothic churches there is nothing left of the traditional layout of the German Romanesque cathedrals, which we have discussed in an earlier chapter, with two opposite apses, double crossing and lateral entrances. The French Gothic triumphed in Germany, not only imposing constructive and decorative forms, but in the general layout of the buildings: three naves preceded by a facade, with doors, crossing and apse, this last sometimes with ambulatory and chapels.

Different views of the Cologne Cathedral in Cologne, Germany. It is considered the tallest twin-spired church at 159 m (515 ft) tall. It begun in 1248 and was completed, following the original plan, in 1880. This cathedral is the largest Gothic church in Northern Europe. Its choir also has the largest height to width ratio, 3.6:1, of any medieval church.

The most perfect work of Gothic architecture in Germany, the cathedral of Cologne, was probably designed by a French architect or at least by someone who had taken part in the works of the Amiens cathedral. This monumental cathedral of Cologne still retains a very pure French style. In Cologne there was an older cathedral, but after a fire in 1248 the temple was again rebuilt in the midst of the Gothic style. The name of the first architect is unknown. At the end of the XIII century appeared the name of master Gerardo, but later with the passing of time the construction works advanced slowly. To give an idea of how slow the construction of the cathedral progressed, the choir, for example, was not consecrated until 1322; afterwards, construction progressed until the XVI century, when it suffered an almost permanent interruption. After the scrolls with the floor plan of the church were discovered, the construction works began again in 1817 and did not end until 1880. The cathedral is huge; it is 132 meters long by 74 meters wide at the transept.

The arrangement of the floor plan is very similar to that of the Amiens cathedral, although Cologne has five naves. On the outside the cathedral shows extraordinary wealth: the apse, on which the nave and chapel’s vaults are supported, is a real forest of pinnacles and buttresses, and above the crossing there is a small spear. However, the most admirable feature of this monument are the two towers, two towering spears which, by effect of the Rhine’s foggy climate, appear often hide among clouds on foggy days. Their height is not the same: one rises up to 159 meters, the other is 146 meters.

The Strasbourg Cathedral (Strasbourg, Alsace, France). At 142 mt (466 ft), it is the highest extant structure built entirely in the Middle Ages. It was constructed between 1015-1439.

Another great religious monument of the Rhenish basin confirms the ease with which the French Gothic found reception in Germanic countries. This monument is the cathedral of Strasbourg (today belonging to France), still with a Romanesque apse and to whose extraordinary beauty not only contributes the purity of lines of its main facade but also its abundant sculptural decoration. Its facade is dominated by a beautiful Gothic spear that Erwin de Steinbach put on place in 1439 on the left side. Its sculptures will be discussed later, when enumerating the most important works of this kind of art in the Germanic lands and central Europe from the XIII century until the middle of the XVth.

Top: German Gothic castles. Top left: The château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg (Orschwiller, Alsace, France). Top right: The Albrechtsburg, the former residence of the House of Wettin, in Meissen (Germany) regarded as being the first castle to be used as a royal residence in the German-speaking world; built between 1472 and 1525, it is a fine example of late Gothic style. Bottom right: The Holsten Gate (Lübeck, Germany) built in 1464 and represents one of the relics of the city’s medieval fortifications.

Germany is famous for the still standing medieval castles located on the banks of the Rhine. They all have a fortified enclosure criss-crossed by battlements and forming a terrace over the adjacent valley, usually populated by vineyards. In the center of its nucleus is the building destined for the habitation rooms, with the high square tower and the chapel or small church located to one side. In the same Rhenian basin in Alsace (in now French territory) it is also included in these group of castles the huge château du Haut Königsburg castle, which was bought and restored before 1914 by William II – the Kaiser -. German castles are quite numerous in Saxony, as an example is the one that’s considered the most important, the castle of Meissen (the “Albrechtsburg”) which dominates the city of the same name and that, in the XVIII century, was the place where it was first manufactured in Europe authentic porcelain similar to the Chinese.

In addition to such castles, the Military Order of the Teutonic Knights promoted the construction of their own in East Prussia and across the border with Poland and the Baltic countries in order to house their garrisons. The most formidable of them was that of Marienburg, seat of the governing authority of that Order. At first it was a kind of large castle built of rock, with thick walls and surrounded by a moat and with its additional rooms distributed around a large square courtyard with an almost isolated chapel. Later, new rooms and the great hall for the celebration of the Order’s meetings were built as well as a palace in which his Grand Master resided, all these rooms were organized in three additional wings. Almost totally destroyed in the course of World War II, this huge monument of military architecture still preserves, among the ruins of its vast enclosure, the beautiful chapter house erected during the XIV century, with a large central pillar from which the vault’s ribs radiate adorned with tiercerons, a feature so frequent in the Gothic civil architecture of that period.

In the free cities of the Rhine and in Central Germany there was a lively enthusiasm for the municipal community. Consequently, during these Gothic centuries (XIII and XIV) many of the city’s monumental gates were built, such as that of Saint Severino in Cologne and the Holsten Gate in Lübeck. These gates generally served as a passage between two very pointed towers distinguished from afar and covered with colored tiles. Some of the towers have been encompassed within the cities, which have spread to the neighboring suburbs, and today serve as decorative elements of the new squares.

German Gothic City Halls or “Rathaus”. Top left: The Aachen Rathaus in Aachen (Germany), begun in 1330. Top right: The Lübeck Rathaus in Lübeck. Bottom left: The Bremen Rathaus, begun ca. 1400. Bottom right: The Weinstadel a medieval building in Nuremberg, its name derives from its function as a wine estate, which was established around 1571.

Likewise, the popular guilds* built large town halls (“Rathaus”) for their municipalities. The oldest of these in Germany is believed to be the one in Aachen, which has statues of XIII century princes. All the German cities competed for having the richest town hall of the time. The floor plan of a German town hall included rooms for contracting, public meetings and those for the commercial tribunals. Over time, buildings with a greater number of services were needed, and it was also necessary to build rooms for the board members and for administration and offices, which were installed in new areas of the building that were added to its old core. Worthy of mentioning as models of this type of buildings are the town halls of Lübeck and Bremen, the great commercial cities of the Baltic. Around the town hall were the guild houses, with their gold and polychrome signs, adorned with statues of warriors, Virtues, or the Justice, whose polychrome attributes were the pride of the German bourgeois.

Until they were partially destroyed during World War II, some cities such as Nuremberg and Cologne had whole neighborhoods with wooden houses and their old artisan shops, all survivors of the guild-based life of the Gothic centuries. The layout of a bourgeois house in Cologne, Nuremberg, Lübeck, etc., was more or less as follows: on the ground floor was the shop, a chamber or back room, and the workshop which overlooked the courtyard; a small staircase led to the first floor, where there was a kitchen and two rooms: one overlooking the street, for the main person of the family, and another to the patio. The other inhabitants of the house, children, servants, apprentices, occupied the highest floors with skylights. The lower part of the houses was generally built in stone, with the shop’s sign worked in iron; some houses with empty wall faces were decorated with frescoes representing scenes from the medieval Germanic repertoire: vices and virtues, saints and prophets, or sometimes scenes of chivalric books. When the houses were built in wood, the decoration of the facades was enriched with friezes, arches and small pilasters crowned with pinnacles, and the window and door bays were also surrounded by excessively accumulated ornamental motifs. Some houses had galleries over the street, decorated with corbels and ledges.

Left and top right: The Basel Minster or reformed cathedral (Basel, Switzerland) built between 1019 and 1500 in Romanesque and Gothic styles. Bottom right: The apse of the Bern Minster seen from outside (Bern, Switzerland), this church was begun in 1421.

A cathedral that could be named “Germanic” is that of Basel, although this city today is a canton of Switzerland. It is very similar to that of Strasbourg, with Romanesque parts in the transept and in the lower parts of the apse. The cathedral of Bern, built somewhat later, completely shows the features of the German Gothic, which was already well characterized at the end of the XIV century. The cathedrals of Geneva and Lausanne are French in style, the latter was restored by Viollet-le-Duc and completed with a lead arrow on top of the crossing. Its interior is very beautiful, today is dedicated to the Protestant cult without altars or superimposed ornaments, which allows to admire its interior and the Gothic structure of the building better than any other cathedral of the French Gothic style. On the outside it is perhaps excessively restored, but includes some important details like the small lateral porch, torn by windows divided by little columns.

The cathedral of Geneva still includes Romanesque features, its style is not as uniform as that of the cathedral of Lausanne and it is disfigured in the front facade by a Calvinist design in pseudo-classical style. Inside, the temple remains intact, the Reformation merely stripped off its altars.

The Cathedral of Notre Dame of Lausanne (Lausanne, Switzerland) consecrated in 1275.

Swiss cities, like German municipalities, also owned their town halls, perhaps something simpler, in the style of solid rural palaces, unadorned and with a large roof. The cities also had towers and decorative fountains, similar to those of the Germanic cities and crowned with attributes and personifications of medieval virtues.

Perhaps the most popular of all European castles is that of Chillon, which stands on a small island located at one extreme of Lake Geneva. The ancient nucleus of the building is of pure Gothic style of the XIII century. The rooms, covered with massive groin vaults, are very famous because they inspired Lord Byron’s lamentations.

Three different views of the Chillon castle, located in an island on Lake Geneva (canton of Vaud, Switzerland). This castle was made popular by Lord Byron, who wrote the poem The Prisoner Of Chillon (1816) and also carved his name on a pillar of the dungeon. Top left: aerial view. Top right: one of the castle’s rooms. Bottom: view of the dungeon.

The German Gothic sculpture seems to have been originated in the sculptural school of Saxony that produced in the XIII century the sculptures for the cathedrals of Magdeburg, Bamberg and Naumburg. These sculptures still show certain signs typical of the Germanic Romanesque art. Such artistic style is notorious in the wise and foolish virgins of the northern gate of the cathedral of Magdeburg who have the same elegant representation of garments and attitudes typical of the German Romanesque. The scene with the Dormition of the Virgin located in the tympanum of the same door was carved around 1240, before the figures of the virgins already mentioned.

The two group of sculptures depicting the five wise and the five foolish virgins in the Cathedral of Magdeburg (Germany) from ca. 1250. To the left are three of the foolish virgins and to the right three of the wise virgins. This is considered the most remarkable sculpture in the cathedral. The sculptures show how the five wise virgins were prepared and ready to bring oil to a wedding, whereas the five foolish virgins were unprepared and bring no oil, as a consequence they had to go find oil, were late, and didn’t join the wedding. The unknown artist masterfully expressed the emotions in their faces and body languages, showing a much more realistic expression uncommon in medieval art. All figures are different, and have ethnic Slavic features. The sculptures are located outside of the north entrance to the transept.

The sculptures of the cathedral of Bamberg show a more energetic realism and originality. The master who, before the middle of the XIII century, sculpted the tympanum of the north door shows a style reminiscent of that of the cathedral of Reims; but, a little later, in the southern door of the same temple another sculptor expressed himself with a particularly Germanic style when sculpting the statues covered by canopies that ornate such facade. They include, to the left, the figures of St. Stephen, the emperor Heinrich II and his wife Kunigunde, and, to the right, the figures of naked Adam and Eve with Saint Peter, both groups of sculptures with great artistic expressiveness. But within the statuary of this cathedral the most outstanding figure is the equestrian statue that, according to tradition, represents an unidentified king or emperor: this work is of deep realism and has imprinted very clearly a completely Germanic seal which infuses indomitable energy to that young warrior on horseback.

The doors of “Adamspforte” and “Marienpforte” (or “Gnadenpforte”) of the Bamberg cathedral lead into the eastern towers. The group of sculptures to the left includes figures (replicas) of St. Stephen, Kunigunde and her husband Heinrich II. To the right of the portal are St. Peter and Adam and Eve.
Left: The Dormition of the Virgin, carving in the tympana of the south transept portal of the Strasbourg cathedral. Right: The Bamberg Horseman, a life-size stone equestrian statue by an anonymous medieval sculptor in the cathedral of Bamberg (Germany). Dating from around 1237, it is located on a console at the north pillar of the St. George choir. It is considered the first monumental equestrian statue since classical antiquity, and also one of the first to depict a horse shoe. Beneath the horse’s front hooves is one of the many sculptural representations of the Green Man.

The statues of Naumburg Cathedral show a similar realistic strength. They date back to the year 1270 and represent feudal leaders with their wives. Those of Margrave Eckart and his wife, the beautiful and elegant Uta, are examples of absolute originality that do not suggest the existence of any nexus or influence linking them with any contemporary French sculpture. In that same cathedral, the sculpture of Saint John that forms part of the Calvary located in the closing wall of the choir, made before 1278, shows in its sad attitude and in the violent folding of his mantle, expressions that will only be found later in works of the German sculpture of the mid-XV century.

The Stifterfiguren (or donor figures) by the artist called Naumburger Meister (Master of Naumburg) are probably the best-known work of art in the Naumburg cathedral and are often referred to as the best-known work of early Gothic sculpture in Germany. These life-sized sculptures are located in the western choir. Two of them represent Uta von Ballenstedt and her husband Markgraf Ekkehard II of Meissen as a couple. This sculpture is particularly famous because of the way Uta holds her coat and her beautiful facial features.

The various sculptors who worked in the cathedral of Strasbourg from 1230 until the end of the XV century reflected in their works all the trends that characterized the Rhenish school of sculpture of those times. Until 1250 the sculptural types of that cathedral of Alsace followed the models of the statues of the French cathedrals of Chartres and Paris, although some purely Germanic characteristics appeared in the sculptures of the tympana of the south portal particularly visible in the carving of garments and in the characters’ movements within the compositions. On that door stand out the elegant figures of the Church and the Synagogue, two female sculptures whose appearance is completely different from that exhibited by the French sculptures of the  time. Another style, more vivacious and picturesquely human, dominates in the sculptures from the end of the XIII century until the first third of the following century located on the west facade of the same cathedral, that is, on the main Gothic facade. On both sides of the right door of the triple portal of such facade are the figures of the wise and foolish virgins from the Gospel’s “parable of the Wedding”, with the figure of the seducer who offers, smiling, the tempting apple to the group of the foolish virgins. On the first floor of the towers of that cathedral there is a great variety of elegant sculptures, but it is in the interior, in one of the great pillars of the southern transept, where is found the most singular sculptural work of that temple: the so-called Pillar of the Angels formed by a bundle of columns adorned by statues from its base to its summit. At the base are the figures of the four Evangelists and distributed along the column shaft, four beautiful figures of angels playing the long trumpets of the Last Judgment, while at the top there is a figure of Christ accompanied by other angels holding the instruments of the Passion as a pledge for human redemption.

Some of the sculptures of the southern portal, (also known as the portal of the Last Judgment) of the Strasbourg cathedral include on the left the representation of the Church (left), a woman crowned and holding a standard in the shape of the cross and the chalice. This figure is complementary to the statue located to its right representing the Synagogue (right), with blindfolded eyes and lowering her face, holding a broken spear in sign of defeat, while her arm drops the Tables of the Law. Her eyes are blindfolded because she was supposed to be blind to the truths of the New Law.
The southern portal of the Strasbourg cathedral presents the classic theme of the wise virgins (left) holding a lamp and the tables of the Law next to the ideal husband, and the foolish virgins (right) holding the lamps upside down, with the tables of the Law closed and by the side of a man who holds the apple of temptation and with reptiles on his back. On the pedestals of these statues there are on one side the signs of the zodiac, and on the other the main works of the fields.
Located in the south arm of the transept of the Strarsbourg cathedral is the pillar of the Angels, built around 1230. It is the central pillar of the hall and carries twelve beautiful sculptures: the first row represents the four evangelists, surmounted by angels playing the trumpet. The upper group includes Christ, seated, surrounded by angels carrying the instruments of the Passion.

The polychrome sculptures that decorate the exterior of the cathedral of Freiburg, from the early XIV century, are picturesque and no less naturalistic, despite their small size and somewhat popular manufacture. In spite of their Germanic spirit, they reminisce French reliefs.

Later on, the German Gothic sculpture was influenced by the innovative Dutch art. In the early years of the XV century, the sculptures produced in the regions adjacent to the Rhine were also influenced by Rhenish mysticism. These influences are notorious in the wavy or angular forms of the garments’ folds and in the delicate tenderness exhibited by certain feminine figures. The Virgin was always represented as a young girl, both in the images of the Pietà (with the sad young mother holding on her knees the deceased body of her Son), as in the Virgin with the Child in her arms. From about 1400, in southern Germany as well as in Austria and Bohemia, these representations acquired a refined beauty that can be seen in the so-called Beautiful Virgins that spread to Poland and the Baltic regions. But it wouldn’t be until about 1430 when in Germanic sculpture appeared somewhat different schools, especially in the southern part of Germany, and particularly in Bavaria (Nuremberg) and Swabia. Initially it was Hans Multscher, an Austrian artist, sculptor and painter born in Allgaü and established in Ulm around 1427, who started the Swabian school. It was he who carved the images of the altar of Wurzach and who carved the sculptures of profane personages in the town hall of Ulm, as well as the beautiful risen Christ or Man of Sorrows of the mullion of the door of the cathedral of this city (1429). His work would continue until the second half of the XV century.

Left: Virgin and Child, made in sandstone in Nuremberg near 1425-1430 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Middle: Marie Magdalene, carved in wood in Brussels ca. 1480 (Musée national du Moyen Âge, Paris). Right: Bust of the Virgin, made in terracotta with paint, from Prague ca. 1390-1395 (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York).
Some works by Hans Multscher: to the left polychrome figures on the facade of the Ulm town hall (Rathaus), to the right the Man of sorrows (Copy) in the mullion of the western portal of the Ulm cathedral (minster).

Another exceptionally gifted artist would eventually impose a stamp of delicate idealism on the Germanic sculpture immediately prior to that characteristic of the late Gothic period. Nikolaus Gerhaert was born in Leyden, Holland, although he worked in Germany and Austria. From 1460 is his recumbent effigy of the archbishop of Trier Jacob von Sierck, and from 1467 his Crucified of the old cemetery of Baden-Baden, a work that reveal the influence of the sculptural styles of Flanders and Burgundy. In Strasbourg, Gerhaert left some of his most delicate creations: the female head (perhaps a portrait of Barbara de Ottenheim) preserved in the Frankfurt Museum, as well as the delicate half-body sculpture depicting a sculptor (probably his self-portrait) which used to be inside of the cathedral of Strasbourg but that is now displayed in its museum. Then, Gerhaert moved to Vienna, where he carved the luxurious red marble tomb of Emperor Frederick III located in St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

Some of Nikolaus Gerhaert works. Top left: the tomb of Archbishop Jakob von Sierck, ca. 1462 (Museum Dom Trier). Bottom left: Reliquary Bust of Saint Barbara, ca. 1465, carved in walnut with paint and gilding (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). Right: Self portrait (?), ca. 1463 (Musée de l’Oeuvre Notre-Dame, Strasbourg).

Thanks to this sculptor and other talented wood carvers, such as Jörg Syrlin author of the carvings that ornate the choir of the cathedral of Ulm, the maturity of the Germanic sculpture was finally established. Such artistic maturity would be later observed in numerous images and altars made by the great sculptors of the last years of the XV century and the first decades of the XVI century in the glimpses of the German Renaissance.

Top: The tomb of Frederick III, Holy Roman Emperor, built by Nikolaus Gerhaert (St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Vienna), considered one of the most important works of sculptural art of the late Middle Ages. Bottom: “Secundus and Quintilius” some of the numerous carvings of the choir stalls of the Ulm Minster. These XVth century choir stalls by Jörg Syrlin the Elder, made from oak and including hundreds of carved busts, represent the most famous pews of the Gothic period.