NEW YORK CITY – On May 22 at Sotheby’s, the first work by Tilman Riemenschneider to be offered at auction set a record for medieval sculpture when it sold for $2.97 million. The rare and important Franconian limewood figure of a female saint was purchased by the Peter Moores Foundation for exhibition at Compton Verney, England, which is scheduled to open to the public in 2003.
The sculpture, one of only three works by the artist remaining in private hands in the United States, had been estimated to sell for $1.5/2.5 million. The proceeds of the sale will benefit the newly established Leo and Karen Gutmann Foundation, which supports financially needy and academically meritorious graduate students in the fields of art history, archeology and conservation and technology of works of art.
The figure was known to only a handful of scholars until the exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has been seen only once in public this century, in the 1931 exhibition of Riemenschneider’s work in Hannover. The catalogue for the exhibition at the Met stated that the work, “is distinguished by her commanding presence, the lucid arrangement of forms and the more planar treatment of volumes, all achieved with sculptural virtuosity, establishing this figure as a major work of Riemenschneider’s late style.”
Carved from a single piece of limewood, the figure is elaborately ornamented using at least nine different tools to represent the different texture and detailing of her clothing. Because of the nuances of the decoration, it is believed that she was not meant to be painted, as some works by the artist were.
Although she is carved in relatively high relief, Riemenschneider communicates a wonderful sense of movement and volume. Conceived in an S-shaped stance with her left leg supporting all of her weight, the figure’s sense of motion is compounded by the positioning of her hair behind her left shoulder and hanging down in front of her right shoulder, as if she had just turned her head.
Compton Verney, situated close to Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon, England, is a Grade I listed building by the Eighteenth Century architect Robert Adam, set in 42 acres of grounds designed by the famous landscape architect Lancelot “Capability” Brown. The dilapidated mansion was purchased by the Peter Moores Foundation in 1993 in order to provide an environment in which works of art can be encountered in a fresh, non-didactic way. The building was subsequently given to the Compton Verney House Trust, a charity founded by Peter Moores for that purpose.
The building is currently being adapted so that it can accommodate collections handed over by the Peter Moores Foundation and significant temporary exhibitions. It is due to open in 2003.
The acquisition of Tilman Riemenschneider’s “Female Saint” is the most recent in an ongoing purchasing program for Compton Verney. Works already acquired include Bernardo Strozzi’s “The Incredulity of St Thomas,” at present loaned to the National Gallery, London, and rare archaic bronzes on loan to the British Museum.