This superbly carved boxwood Christ is an exciting recent addition to the oeuvre of Veit Stoß, the leading Late Gothic sculptor celebrated as 'the Master of Crucifixes'. Remarkably, it is the only known surviving small-scale version of this subject that can be attributed to the master’s hand. Showing virtuoso carving in its representation of physical extremes, the Crucifix epitomises the sculptor’s unique, expressive style, which has earned him his reputation as one of the foremost wood carvers of his time.
Paralysed by rigor mortis, Christ’s crucified body is marked by an acute tension of form. The sinewy outstretched arms reveal strained musculature and protruding veins. His swollen thorax and emaciated stomach give the impression of a sharp intake of breath. Angular bones protrude above a perizonium that barely covers the hips. The stretched, impossibly elongated legs are enveloped in veining. In an almost balletic pose, Christ’s pointed feet are crossed in perfect symmetry; at the back they are rendered with stylised folds of skin. Between bony, dislocated shoulders falls the lifeless head, weighed down by the crown of thorns. With parted lips, barely open eyelids, and deeply furrowed skin, the sense of suffering expressed through the anatomy is mirrored in Christ’s face. By contrast, the finely carved curls of the beard resting on Christ’s chest convey a serene beauty at odds with the intense physicality of Christ’s flesh.
During his lifetime and later generations, Veit Stoß was celebrated above all for his masterful renderings of Christ’s body on the cross. Today, however, few such works that are securely autograph survive. Stoß's accepted corpus of surviving crucifixes has long revolved around four over-lifesize masterpieces: the monumental limestone Christ in Cracow, and three limewood figures in Nuremberg; one from the Heiliggeist-Spital, now Germanisches Nationalmuseum (inv. no. Pl. O. 62), a second in the Church of St Lorenz, and a third, perhaps the most famous, in St Sebaldus. The present statuette is closely related to the Crucifix in Cracow’s St Mary’s Basilica, a rare work in stone dated to the early 1490s (see Roller, op. cit.). Though seemingly heavier due to its monumentality and massive perizonium, the Cracow Crucifix mirrors the present statuette’s composition almost exactly, from the extreme rigidity and tension of the body to specific anatomical details, such as the veining on the stomach. Further comparison can be made with the two earlier Crucifixes in Nuremberg. The Christ now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum, carved around 1500, is near-identical in composition, and exhibits a similar perizonium. Dated to the second decade of the 16th century, the figure in St Lorenz provides a compelling parallel for the almost mannered slenderness of Christ’s body, seen particularly in a side view, as well as the chain-like vertebrae of the spine. Its undeniable affinity with these larger masterworks indicates an authorship of the present boxwood figure by Veit Stoß soon after the creation of the Cracow Crucifix and, according to Roller (op. cit.), probably preceding the corpora in Nuremberg. It could have been carved either before or shortly after Stoß's move from Cracow to Nuremberg in 1496.
Though undoubtedly informed by versions of the same subject by the influential Upper Rhenish sculptor Niclaus Gerhaert van Leyden (c. 1420-1473), Veit Stoß’s Crucifixes display a highly distinctive mode of representation. At the threshold between Gothic and Renaissance, Stoß introduces a hyperrealism created through the synthesis of naturalistic observation and mannered exaggeration. Kahsnitz suggested that the sculptor acquired the means to achieve his magisterial rendering of the athletically trained male anatomy within humanist circles in Cracow, where he may have observed physicians practising dissections (op. cit. 1995, p. 158).
It is in Cracow that the German-born Veit Stoß is first recorded as a sculptor in 1477, having emigrated to the Polish city to execute the Altarpiece in St Mary’s Basilica, his first major commission. Following the completion of several further monuments, including the tomb of King Kasimir IV Jagiellon in Wawel Cathedral, Stoß settled in Nuremberg in 1496, where he continued his prolific artistic activity. From 1503 the sculptor was embroiled in a legal dispute regarding the forging of documents, resulting in his punishment by branding of both cheeks. Despite retaining a tempestuous reputation, Stoß received numerous significant commissions in his later years, culminating in the magnificent limewood Angelic Salutation in the Church of St Lorenz. His reputation as a virtuoso wood carver was such that the Florentine historian Giorgio Vasari celebrated his work as ‘un miracolo di legno’. Stoß died in 1533 in prosperity, having reached an unusually advanced age.
While the sculptor’s greatest works are carved in wood, hardly any small-scale hardwood statuettes by Veit Stoß seem to survive alongside the present Crucifix. One rare example is the small boxwood Virgin and Child in the Victoria and Albert Museum (inv. no. 646-1893), which was likely produced for a private collector. It has frequently been observed that contemporary sources witness small corpora by Stoß in the hands of private individuals: Stoß's 16th-century biographer, Johannes Neudörfer, recorded a roughly hand-size crucifix by the sculptor among the estate of the Nuremberg patrician Christoph Kohler (see Kahsnitz 1995, op. cit., p. 123). Until the recent reassessment of the present statuette, however, no such work was known to be in existence. Masked by layers of patination and restoration, the present Crucifix was discussed by Theodor Müller (op. cit.), who had seen only photographs, among works from Stoß's followers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Now restored to its original appearance, this exceptional tour de force of small-scale wood carving represents a highly important survival from a little-known facet of the master’s oeuvre.
R. Kahsnitz (ed.), Veit Stoß in Nürnberg: Werke des Meisters und seiner Schule in Nürnberg und Umgebung, exh. cat. Nuremberg, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, 1983, pp. 36-46, cat. nos. 5, 16 and 23; R. Kahsnitz, ‘Veit Stoß, der Meister der Kruzifixe’ in Zeitschrift des Deutschen Vereins für Kunstwissenschaft, vol. 49/50, 1995/1996, pp. 123-178