This spectacular group of the Virgin and Child is a rare masterpiece of Middle Rhenish wood sculpture from the second half of the 15th century. While many of its stylistic traits suggest an origin among the following of the great Strasbourg sculptor Niclaus Gerhaert van Leyden, the group finds its closest parallel in the Altarpiece in Lorch am Rhein, which places it firmly within a Middle Rhenish milieu around 1480.
Niclaus Gerhaert van Leyden's influence on his artistic contemporaries and successors was vast, with reverberations of his groundbreaking style reaching not only his immediate surroundings in the Upper Rhine area, but as far as the Alps. Born around 1430, Gerhaert hailed from the Netherlands, yet his main activity as a sculptor took place in Strasbourg, where he is thought to have led a substantial workshop. His surviving recorded works, which are almost exclusively in stone, are marked by a compositional innovation and formal realism that was unprecedented in medieval sculpture. Later in his career Gerhaert followed a call by Emperor Frederick III to Vienna, where he worked on various commissions, notably the Emperor's tomb in St Stephen's Cathedral, until his death in 1473.
Only a handful of wood carvings that can be attributed to Niclaus Gerhaert survive. The foremost of these is arguably the so-called Dangolsheimer Madonna, which is now in the Bode Museum in Berlin and dated to the 1460s (inv. no. 7055; Roller, op. cit., no. 7). Though the circumstances of the sculpture's commission are unknown, Gerhaert’s proposed authorship faces little dispute in the current scholarship. The roughly two-thirds life-size group of the Virgin and Child is set apart not only by its technical virtuosity, but by its ingenious composition, which creates a clever sense of continuity and inner focus. Balancing horizontally across the Virgin's chest, the Christ Child playfully pulls His mother's veil over his head. The Virgin meanwhile holds a large section of drapery in front of Her body, giving the impression of depth while drawing attention to the son of God in Her arms. Stylistically Gerhaert's group is distinguished by the massive, undercut curls of hair that cascade along the Virgin's shoulders, a naturalistic and lively infant, and deep, angular folds in the drapery. Similar features may be observed throughout female figures that have been associated with Gerhaert and his circle, such as the Rothschild Madonna (Roller, op. cit., no. 17) and another Virgin in the Bode Museum (inv. no. 2240; Roller, op. cit., no. 24), which testify to the sculptor's powerful impact on Upper Rhenish sculpture.
In both style and conception, the present Virgin owes much to Niclaus Gerhaert’s presumed prototypes. The forms of Her body are obscured by deeply undercut, agitated folds of drapery that end in billowing heaps atop the crescent moon. The tour-de-force of cloth that envelops the Virgin's figure allows only for a suggestion of Her proper right knee, revealing a slight contrapposto, and the glimpse of a delicate pointed shoe. Her proper right hand, which is given a highly naturalistic appearance with pronounced knuckles and joints, clutches a bible, which is intricately punched to give the impression of a leather binding. Such realism is undoubtedly a symptom of Gerhaert's Rhenish legacy. In Her proper left hand the Virgin holds the curly-haired infant Christ, whose somewhat contorted pose seems to be the result of a close study of nature. The Virgin's broad, planar face is framed by abundant waves of hair which cascade down Her shoulders on both sides. Though slightly flattened on the reverse, the group is carved fully in the round, showcasing the Virgin's long tresses on Her back.
The present group shows remarkable similarities with the Virgin and Child at the centre of the Altarpiece in the Church of St Martin in Lorch am Rhein, completed in 1483, which is thought to be the product of a Middle Rhenish sculptor from the following of Niclaus Gerhaert. The group in Lorch resembles the present carving not only in the heaviness and sharp angularity of the drapery, but also in the flat broadness of the faces, with pointed noses and aloof expressions. Furthermore, both groups to an extent repeat the veil motif of Gerhaert's Dangolsheimer Madonna, though while in Lorch the Christ Child holds the end of the veil in His right hand, the veil in the present group vanishes underneath the Child's body.
It is here significant to note that the present group has traditionally been referred to as the 'Biebricher Madonna', though no details regarding its original setting are known. Biebrich is today a borough of Wiesbaden on the Rhine, and a mere 40 kilometres' distance from Lorch. The possibility that the present Virgin and Child could originate from the same hand or workshop as the Lorch Altarpiece is therefore tantalising. The localisation of the 'Biebricher Madonna' in the Middle Rhine area is further corroborated by its relation to another statuette of the Virgin Child, which has most recently been catalogued as 'Middle Rhine, Trier(?), circa 1460-70' (Roller, op. cit., no. 43). This so-called Virgin of the Grapes is undeniably softer in form and sweeter in mood, but shares the present group's facial types, as well as details such as the Virgin's distinctive belt. Note also the similarity of their back views.
The superbly carved drapery and anatomy of the present group find few parallels in contemporary carvings from the Middle Rhine, marking this out as a rare survival from a highly accomplished, if anonymous, master - one who powerfully adapted the stylised realism of Niclaus Gerhaert and his followers.
R. Kahsnitz, Die grossen Schnitzaltäre: Spätgotik in Süddeutschland, Österreich, Südtirol, Munich, 2005, pp. 122-133; R. Suckale (ed.), Schöne Madonnen am Rhein, exh. cat. LVR-Landesmuseum Bonn, Leipzig, 2009; S. Roller (ed.), Niclaus Gerhaert: Der Bildhauer des späten Mittelalters, exh. cat. Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main, Petersberg, 2011