This bust was likely part of an altar and may represent a donor. The use of black pigment in the irises of this bust was a typical practice in the sculptors’ workshop and conveys a greater sense of realism. In fact, although many of his carvings were not meant to be painted, Riemenschneider worked with wood glazes as well as pigmented varnishes to highlight the lips and eyes of his figures. Riemenschneider ran a large workshop where he taught apprentices and employed journeymen fluent in their master's vernacular. The sculptor’s fame was widespread; he was in high demand from local churches, towns and wealthier members of the region and he also received commissions beyond the boundaries of his home. Although it was necessary to rely on his assistants for portions of the work, the carvings were given final approval by the master himself. The majority of sculptures from the workshop were removed from their original settings and therefore remain undocumented. Few sculptures by Riemenschneider and his workshop remain in private hands.
Stylistic analogies between the present bust of a man and other established works by Riemenschneider and his workshop place it firmly within the master’s circle.
Tilman Riemenschneider (1460-1531) was born in Heiligenstadt in Thuringia and may have trained as a stone mason in Erfurt, specializing in alabaster. He settled in Ulm for a time where he may have worked as an apprentice to Michel Erhart. Settling and marrying there in 1483, he became a citizen and a member of the painter's Guild of Saint Luke, achieving the status of 'Meister'. His new wife's wealth provided a large house with sufficient space for workshops and quarters for assistants, apprentices and his family. He subsequently received numerous commissions from various town councils, including one in 1490 from the town council of Münnerstadt for an altarpiece for the high altar of St. Maria Magdalene, the parish church. The elements of that altarpiece are now dispersed. Further major commissions were executed by Riemenschneider's workshop for local patrons as well as for clients in Franconia and Saxony. In 1504, he was elected to the city council and in 1509, he was the first artist to be elected to the Upper Council in Würzburg. The sculptor was elected mayor of the town in 1520-21, by which time he had married for the fourth time. In 1525, when the Peasants' Revolt swept through Germany, Riemenschneider and other council members opposed the demands of the Prince-Bishop Conrad von Thüngen and attempted to assist the peasants in their struggle for freedom from serfdom. The sculptor died in 1531 and was buried in the cemetery next to the Würzburg Cathedral.
M. Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany, New Haven and London, 1980
L. Bruhns, Tilman Riemenschneider, Stuttgart, 1988
J. Chapuis, Tilman Riemenschneider: Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages, London, 1999
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