In its affected state, this extraordinary head of a Bishop is a profound testament to the artistic and psychological sophistication of Tilman Riemenschneider and his assistants.
It is unclear whether the head, which is truncated slightly above the shoulders, once belonged to a full-length statue of a Bishop saint, or whether it served either as a reliquary or as part of an altarpiece in the form of a bust. Some of the damage it has suffered, particularly the losses to the mitre, appears to be deliberate and is perhaps the result of iconoclasm or war. The mitre would once have been inlaid with stones or pearls, and only some traces of polychromy remain. Despite its compromised surface, the carving shows an exceptional level of quality, as well as an air of psychological tension, bringing it into direct association with the great Franconian wood sculptor of the early Renaissance, Tilman Riemenschneider. The subtly graduated bone structure of the cheeks, the fleshy double chin, and the complex folds in the collar achieve a highly realistic effect while being characteristic of Riemenschneider’s distinctive style.
Comparisons can be made with numerous works by the master, confirming an attribution of the Bishop head to his workshop, if not his own hand. Statues of bishop saints appear frequently in Riemenschneider's oeuvre at the height of his career. The half figure which survives in the Kress Collection (National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C., inv. no. 1961.1.A152), dated to circa 1510, wears a similar collar and carries his mitre with a slight turn of the head and an introspective, melancholy expression that mirrors that of the present sculpture. An even more compelling argument for the proposed authorship is found in a comparison of the present head's profile with that of the balding Apostle in the Altarpiece in Creglingen of circa 1505-1508. The shape of the slightly upturned nose, the treatment of the cheek, and the transition from the chin to the neck are almost identical. As Hartmut Krohm notes in his expertise, a similarity of the facial structure, and in particular the brow line, to the stone tomb portrait of Johann Trithemius, who died in 1516, indicates a facture of the present head between circa 1510 and 1515.
Though it is perhaps impossible to establish whether the head could be an autograph work by Tilman Riemenschneider, it is likely to have been carved by one of his most talented assistants under the master's close supervision. When turning the head to its proper right side, one is faced with a small tour-de-force of German limewood carving.
RELATED LITERATURETilman Riemenschneider: Frühe Werke
, exh. cat. Mainfränkisches Museum, Würzburg, Regensburg, 1981, pp. 360-361; C. Lichte (ed.), Tilman Riemenschneider: Werke seiner Blütezeit
, exh. cat. Mainfränkisches Museum Würzburg, Regensburg, 2004, p. 169, fig. 129 and p. 262, no. 17
An expertise by Professor Hartmut Krohm, dated 24 November 2015, is available upon request.