A far cry from Tiepolo

April 2, 2011

With hindsight, I rather regret not having visited the Residenz when I was in Würzburg last week – after all, it features a world-famous fresco decoration by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696-1770) which is rightly considered one of the greatest examples of Baroque painting in Central Europe. Man, what a blog-post I could have written about that!

So, no Tiepolo but, erm, let me tell you about this other, not-quite-so-great painter by the name of Rudolf Schäfer (1878-1961). And no, I’m not talking about the well-known photographer of that name, but about the Protestant church artist who painted stuff like this:

Now, Schäfer, I guess, is an artist most of you have never heard of. No, let me rephrase that: I’m pretty sure that none of you have ever heard of him. Well, I certainly hadn’t before I stumbled upon his triptych with the Adoration of the Magi (pictured above) in Würzburg’s Deutschhauskirche [the former church of the Teutonic Order]. Schäfer, the son of a Protestant theologian, saw himself as a Christian artist whose purpose it was to sort of preach the faith and doctrine of Germany’s Protestant Church through his work. This is quite apparent in the Adoration-triptych in Würzburg: On the right wing, there’s a portrait of Martin Luther standing at the pulpit, while the left wing shows…

…yes, none other than Johann Sebastian Bach playing the organ. According to the painter’s declared intention, Luther and Bach are meant to represent Protestant preaching and Protestant song. As if that wasn’t enough, there are even more overt references on the central panel: The first and oldest of the Magi looks suspiciously like Luther’s protector Frederick III., aka Frederick the Wise, of Saxony, and the second of the Magi bears the features of Albrecht Dürer, the quintessential Protestant painter and, by the way, Schäfer’s most important role model…

So, as far as subject matter is concerned, Schäfer’s triptych isn’t exactly subtle. But on a technical level, you could say that it’s actually quite a good set of paintings. It’s beautifully executed and the blueish night-time-atmosphere interspersed with the warm reddish glow of dim lights and garments creates a certain mystical atmosphere. All in all, it has a nice Symbolist touch and, if it had been painted around 1890, it would probably even pass as an artwork of high quality. As things are, however, it actually dates to 1931 so it’s practically contemporary to, say Otto Dix’ Der Krieg [War] (1929/1932) or Paul Klee’s Schachbrett [Chessboard] (1931). So, to put it politely, in its own time, Schäfer’s work seems just a tiny tad backward and naive.

Speaking of naive… When I visited Würzburg’s Mainfränkisches Museum, I also came upon this:

Admittedly, this particular piece of wall painting doesn’t have any aspirations of being a work of art. It’s just a piece of set decoration in the museum: Judging by the inscription underneath it, this niche usually holds a statue of St. Urban, patron saint of winemakers and wine, and apparently someone thought it a good idea to display the figure against an accordingly themed backdrop. By the look of it, I’d say this was most probably done in the 1950s. And while it’s definitely and hopelessly naive – and involuntarily so – it also has something of a nice ornamental quality and a certain old-fashioned charm.

But, as already mentioned in my last post, the Mainfränkisches Museum also houses some really great works of art, most importantly a large collection of sculptures from Tilman Riemenschneider (ca. 1460-1531) and his workshop. Here’s a fine St. James by one of Riemenschneider’s followers, dating to 1511:

I don’t know if you remember those late medieval / early modern sculptures from the Historisches Museum in Bern which I blogged about last December. They are actually heavily influenced by Riemenschneider and his school, and if you compare e.g. this saint’s wrinkled face from Bern with this…

… St. Peter from Würzburg (again dating to 1511), the similarities are quite apparent. I must confess, though, that I found the figures in Bern actually much more impressive than those in Würzburg, but that may simply have to do with the more dramatic lighting situation in Bern.

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