Nuremberg's Gothic and Renaissance treasures

In spite of the severe damage that it sustained during World War II, this German city is still in a leading position to show an extraordinary collection of ``Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg 1300-1550.'' Nuremberg is the birthplace of Albrecht D"urer (1471-1528). It boasts two medieval churches (St. Sebald and St. Lorenz) that are richly endowed with woodcuts, painted glass windows, and high-ranking architecture. And it's the home of the Germanisches National Museum.

The museum is now hosting the ``Gothic and Renaissance Art in Nuremberg'' exhibition that was on display in New York earlier this year. The show was jointly organized by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Germanisches National. It runs here through Sept. 28. The exhibit of nearly 250 pieces draws primarily on collections from North America and Germany.

The story of art in Nuremberg is a success story of an almost American nature. And that is precisely what this show details -- the gradual transformation of provincial German art into art that had a European status and style.

The exhibit begins with a concentration of mixed pieces, giving the viewer a complete smattering of what was produced in Nuremberg from 1300 to 1550: paintings, sketches, ceramics, glass paintings, book paintings, sculptures, woodcarvings, weapons, measuring instruments and armor.

Then the viewer is led into a large room with paintings from the beginning of Nuremberg's Gothic period. After that comes the real core of the exhibit: the teacher-student relationships of Michael Wolgemut, D"urer's teacher, and D"urer as the teacher of Baldung Grien.

As expected, Nuremberg's favorite son D"urer is given more individual attention than any other single artist represented. D"urer, who believed that his creativity was divinely authorized, would have expected the honor.

Unfortunately, however, the exhibit did not bring to Nuremberg all of the D"urer works that were exhibited in New York. Although all of it is announced as part of the exhibit in the 500-page catalog, several pieces were considered too fragile for shipping. The D"urer pictures that remained in America include some of the original exhibit's central pieces, including ``Salvator Mundi,'' D"urer's self-portrait, ``Agnes D"urer as Saint Anna,'' and even the exhibition catalog's cover picture, ``St. Anna with Two Persons (Selbsdritt).''

In spite of this, D"urer is still well represented with paintings, woodcuts, painted glass, and even a little-known dragon lamp. D"urer works on display include ``The Holy Family with Three Rabbits,'' ``The Prodigal Son,'' ``The Apocalypse,'' and the richly decorated ``Starchart of the Northern Skies,'' and many, many other pieces.

When speaking of influence and proportion, we can hardly value D"urer sufficiently. Almost everything he created works in a ``natural'' way. He had a great instinctive love for animals, and included them as often as possible in the most unlikely places.

In his woodcut ``The Honoring of Marie,'' a cherub playfully pulls the tail of a rabbit. In another, ``Flight into Egypt,'' a deer, an ox, and a bird accompany the holy family, and peeking out from behind a tree is a rabbit. ``The Prodigal Son'' gives us a medieval barnyard scene: a herd of pigs with their piglets, cows, ducks, chickens, and a flock of happy barnyard swallows. Applied arts not neglected

The exhibit organizers have also made a great effort to include exemplary works in the area of applied arts. As a result, Renaissance Nuremberg's capable craftsmanship is well represented. ``Vitam non mortem cogita'' -- think on eternal life, not death -- is the command that is inscribed on a brass ink well cast by Peter Vischer in about 1525. Other objects of daily use include: door knockers, door knobs, measuring devices, compasses, and sundials.

Several hollow-cast brass fountain figures that spewed water for hundreds of years are among the well-preserved and detailed metal works on display. A large fountain figure known as ``Hansel'' (1380), is a lovely representative of the simplicity that shines through much of the Gothic art. ``Hansel'' was apparently cast as one piece with the exception of his chain belt.

Many works of the early 14th and 15th centuries on display are anonymous. But beginning with the painters Hans Pleydenwurff and Michael Wolgemut, as well as sculptor Viet Stoss, artists began signing their works -- although often only in the form of their initials.

Well chosen wood carvings from Viet Stoss are represented in the exhibit. The viewer can see Stoss's ``Mother of God with Child,'' ``The Crucifix,'' and ``The Archangel Raphael with the Boy Tobias.'' The latter, which was cut from one piece of wood in 1516, is remarkable for the almost paper-thin impression created by the folds in the garments.

Quite opposite from the detailed woodcarvings of the period are the drawings of the times. By and large, these are mere sketches. Most of them are notebook pieces or preliminary concepts for other works. For example, next to a painting of the crucifixion, possibly created by Jakob Elsner between 1494-95, is a sketch by D"urer. Obviously the painter took Johannes and the Christ figures from D"urer's sketch.

Numerous project sketches of everything from furniture to wall fountains reveal that Peter Fl"otner was a progressive designer of his times. There was no shortage of work for him in Nuremberg with its deep love of art. In this exhibit we see Fl"otner's ``Stumbling Winged Putto.''

Again and again in the exhibit we see the influence the church once played in the world of art. Apart from a limited number of practical objects and personally commissioned paintings, the Gothic and Renaissance works on display here are dominated by religious themes.

One of the rare exceptions among the book paintings is the ``Goose Book'' written by Friedrich Rosendorn around 1510 and illustrated from Jakob Elsner. Using many symbolic figures, the painter filled the border areas with miniature forms. Among these is a picture of a fox that is busy teaching seven geese to sing.

This show provides a pleasant stroll through the Nuremberg art world of 1300-1550. Everyone can find something fascinating, perhaps one more of D"urer's hidden rabbits, or a new detail in Fl"otner's ``Coconut Goblet.'' Although it is not everything that the brilliant catalog promises, it is well worth visiting the city on the Pegnitz before Sept. 28.

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