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Preparations for Major Medieval Show at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung in Full Swing
Liebieghaus conservator Harald Theiss and his team examining the Saint George in Nördlingen © Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main.

FRANKFURT.- With the ivory exhibition just over and the precious objects it featured on their way back to their home collections, for example the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, preparations for the next show at the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung are already in full swing. From 27 October 2011 to 4 March 2012, in cooperation with the Musée de l’OEuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg, the Liebieghaus will stage the first major special exhibition on Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden (ca. 1430–1473), one of the most important and influential sculptors of the Late Gothic period.

The Frankfurt presentation will showcase approximately seventy impressive works from such internationally renowned collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, the Bode-Museum in Berlin, and the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich.

The research and exhibition project is beeing made possible by the Kulturfonds Frankfurt RheinMain and Kulturstiftung der Länder.

The show itself has been preceded by extensive research on Niclaus Gerhaert and his contemporaries. Within the context of these preparations, Dr Stefan Roller, head of the Liebieghaus’s Medieval collection and curator of the exhibition, and certified conservator Harald Theiss, head of the museum’s conservation department, employed the most advanced research methods to examine all of the works in stone and wood provenly executed by and attributed to Gerhaert. They were assisted in this undertaking by an international team of distinguished experts. Detailed reports were drawn up on every object, documenting the techniques used in its making. The research focused primarily on the sculptures’ execution processes as well as the polychromy of their surfaces.

“Although the art-historical significance of the sculptor Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden is undisputed among experts on the subject, we know only very little about his career and his oeuvre”, curator Stefan Roller points out.

“Few objects have survived the times, and only sparse written sources provide us with information about his life. With the exhibition, our aim is to bring together further pieces of the art-historical puzzle to form an illuminating overall picture”, Roller says.

“Thanks to the range of aspects addressed by the research efforts – which went hand in hand with the examination of all of the artistic techniques employed in Niclaus Gerhaert’s works as well as in many works from within his circle – we were able to gain valuable insights. Our work will moreover provide art-historical research with impulses for the further study of one of the most important artists of the Late Gothic period north of the Alps”, Harald Theiss adds.

On the basis of the newly acquired knowledge of the artistic working techniques, which serves as a productive enhancement to the insights gained by established art-historical methods, the origins of a number of works hither to under discussion can now be attributed with certainty to Gerhaert and his workshop. Conversely, a number of previous ascriptions to Gerhaert have thus proven erroneous.

Owing to the extreme sensitivity of their material to transport conditions as well as to climatic factors such as temperature and humidity, painted wooden sculptures of the Middles Ages place high conservatorial demands on a museum. In order to do justice to the conservatorial responsibilities that go along with an exhibition of this scale, optimal climatic conditions, suitable packing, and above all the transportability of numerous objects must be guaranteed. Particularly the transport of non-museum loans – such as works from churches and castles – generally represents a challenge. In preparation for the Niclaus Gerhaert exhibition, for example, numerous loans were analyzed by the staff of the Liebieghaus conservation department in cooperation with the lenders on site in their home locations, where they were conserved and put in transportable condition.

Among the works thus treated were two prominent nearly life-size figures dated 1462 from the high altar of the Late Gothic Church of St George in Nördlingen. The cleaning and conservation of the high altar of Nördlingen by a team of conservators from the Liebieghaus took an entire month. This project also provided a unique opportunity to examine the altarpiece figures from the perspective of the latest art-historical considerations and with the aid of the most advanced technology, and thus to gather more objective criteria for the sculptures’ art-historical assessment than can be gained by the classical means of pure stylistic criticism.

In the case of the Gothic figures as well as the Baroque-era centre panel, the dust which had accumulated on the surfaces since the 1970s had to be removed. Sections of the polychromy layers had loosened, and were once again fixed to the sculpted surface. To an extent, visually conspicuous chips were filled in and retouched. Not only the polychromy was taken into account, however, but also the underlying carving work. The original surface design was moreover analyzed and its special technical qualities documented.

Extremely fascinating insights resulted from these investigations, with whose help relatively certain older speculations could be ruled out, while at the same time new questions were raised. Precise technological analyses thus led among other things to new findings on the artworks’ origins and production process. More specifically, they prove that the figures of Nördlingen were not executed in Cologne – as hitherto assumed – but painted in a workshop in Strasbourg. Niclaus Gerhaert’s workshop must accordingly already have been located in the latter city as well.

An artist active in Strasbourg and Vienna, the Netherlander Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden is undoubtedly one of the most important artists of the Late Gothic period. Although virtually unknown today, Gerhaert was highly praised by his contemporaries, who appreciated him above all for the lifelike quality of his objects, their formal originality and masterful execution. Emperor Friedrich II was also deeply impressed by Gerhaert and took the sculptor into his service. For the emperor’s monumental tomb in the Viennese Cathedral of St Stephen, the largest such tomb of the Middle Ages, Gerhaert executed the slab in red marble with a figure of the deceased – a masterwork of Late Medieval sculpture.

The so-called Bärbel von Ottenheim – the head of a sibyl (an ancient oracle) sculpted in red sandstone – is among the chief objects in the Liebieghaus’s Medieval collection. Its companion piece, a bearded prophet of which likewise only the head has survived, is in the holdings of the Musée de l’OEuvre Notre-Dame in Strasbourg. The two sculptures were executed by Niclaus Gerhaert in 1463 to decorate the portal of the “Neue Kanzlei” in Strasbourg, a chancellery which has since been destroyed. For the first time since their separation in the nineteenth century, these two grandiose heads will be on view together again in the exhibition.

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