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Anna Selbdritt

Anna Selbdritt

Origin / Date Franconia, c. 1520
Material Alabaster
Dimensions 35 x 27cm
Availability Sold


Acquired by the Mainfraenkisches Museum Wuerzburg, this rare alabaster panel from the workshop of TILMAN RIEMENSCHNEIDER, and the first work in alabaster for the Museum which holds the most important collection of Riemenschneider’s oeuvre.

Complete, the surface wear on the face of the Virgin and Infant most probably due to many years of impulsive devotion, slight abrasion to face of left angel, minor chipping, excellent condition.


Once set in a chapel wall in Northern Italy early last century, which accounts both for the marks on the side and the devotional rubbing of the faces of Maria and Jesus, whence sold to a Munich collector, then to Erich Hassberg from whom bought byAlbrecht Neuhaus in 1981 for a collector in London.

Taken to be modelled on the Nikolaus Gerhaert (or circle) prototype of Anna Selbdritt now in Berlin Bode Museum, this composition, popular in Germany, survives in various versions. The main reference is Riemenchneider’s Anna from c. 1490-95 (Fruhe Werke, cat 53, p. 253) 78x48cm, in sandstone, now Mainfrankisches Museum Inv nr. S. 32640.There is also the Lamentation altarpiece from Maidbronn of 1526 (ibid, ill 310, p372), 205x166cm, also in sandstone, and a 84cm limewood Selbdritt from his workshop, late 15th c., now Munich, Bayerisch Nat no MA4067 (ibid. no 37, p213). Most of them share general compositional features, in the disposition and size of the figures, the broad lateral sweep of AnneÕs garment below the knees, the Child seeking support with one hand on her body while turning to face us, etc.

The present work’s unusual motif of the two angels parting a curtain can already be observed in an engraving of Christ by Martin Schongauer (cf. Julius Baum, Vienna 1948), a contemporary of the young Tilman active in Strasbourg in the later 15th century, whereas the ogive frame and the raised left arms of the angels are reminiscent of one of the predellas of the Creglingen altarpiece.

The late Justus Bier examined a transparency in 1981 and thought the piece was extremely close to the Master’s work and very likely to be a workshop piece, especially as the alabaster is the same as used by Tilman himself, in the St Jerome in Cleveland for example (Tested in Germany, 1980s).

Alabaster works by Tilman and his workshop are comparatively rare and on a smaller scale than the sandstone and limewood pieces for which he is best known. He began to use it, following a general western tradition, for sepulchral sculpture, where he learnt much from Netherlandish masters.The best known alabaster pieces are: Annunciation Rijksmuseum, St Barbara at Bremen, Roselius-haus (Pl 173B Muller), Virgin of the Annunciation in the Louvre, Annunciation of 1484 in the Munich Nationalmuseum, and the St Jerome in Cleveland against which our alabaster has been tested as identical.

Born in Thuringia circa 1460, Riemenschneider trained in Erfurt, Strasbourg and Ulm before returning to Wurzburg, where he had been an altarist at the church of St. Anne, in 1483. He became Master in 1485 and from then on had a large workshop teaching apprentices and employing journeyman sculptors. His uncle had held an important position in the administration of the bishopric of Wurzburg and the Duchy of Lower Franconia and through his influence Riemenschneider obtained numerous important commissions in Wurzburg, Rothenburg and other localities which were to establish him as one of the pre-eminent exponents of ecclesiatical sculpture. The workshop production would reflect the Master’s style and working practices. As T. Muller said: “generally late gothic Franconian sculpture adhering to certain conventions, was so good that it is difficult to distinguish the master’s hand”. Moreover, one of the major new developments of Tilman and his associates was the reliance on conscious artistic effect by means of treatment of material and surface, so accomplished that it was never meant to be polychromed nor needed to be.

In addition to the most basic yet most difficult criterion of presenting corporal volume correctly and naturally behind the drapery, the present work contains many stylistic elements reminiscent of Riemenschneider’s work: finely proportioned heads, the almond-shaped eyes with the lower and upper lids emphasised by thin chisel lines, the aquiline nose and the fine delineation of the mouth and the finger nails, the voluminous curls of the angels, the subtly balanced composition with horizontal and vertical sweeps of drapery, the shallow relief which also conveys depth through superb articulation which is never exaggerated, and economy of means (the way the diagonal sweep of the left curtain rolled behind is continued instead by the sleeve of the angel). More particularly, though rubbed, the head of the Virgin withstands close comparison with the one, similar in size, shape and general expression, of the small Madonna in the Mainfraenkisches Museum (S. 49792) of c. 1500.

To quote Muller again: [there is] great verisimilitude transfigured by a muted peace and harmony, a delicate, gentle beauty, naturalistic, intimate and free from rhetoric”. This is particularly true of the present work which, modest on impact, repays prolonged contemplation.

It has perhaps not been observed or stressed enough that even though St Anne is the Saint of Mothers, in the Anna Selbdritt motif the Church also elevates a grandparent to a position of dignity which is generally absent from the Bible, and secondly, that, as the relation between St Anne and the Virgin emphasises a maternal line, the paternal and symbolic dimension which is the presence of God (but still as an infant) is always introduced by the book the Virgin is taught to read. It is as if the emphasis on her book (this at a time when Luther would deliver The Book back into the hands of ordinary people) shows Mary’s preparedness to conceive the incarnation of the book as flesh and blood.The early 16th century is also the highpoint of this iconographic theme, as most of the best examples date from c.1480-1520. It is for example, at this very time, that Leonardo da Vinci finished his version now in the Louvre.


Loan exhibition at the Mainfrankisches Museum Wurzburg 1981.

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