The Medieval Review 17.01.13

Taubert, Johannes. Polychrome Sculpture: Meaning, Form, Conservation. Ed. Marincola, Michele D. Los Angeles: The Getty Conservation Institute, 2015. pp. xiv, 234. $59.95 (hardback). ISBN: 978-1-60606-433-7 (hardback).

Reviewed by:

Anna Russakoff
American University of Paris

The year 2015 witnessed both the translation of Polychrome Sculpture: Meaning, Form, Conservation into English by Carola Schulman with an introduction and new edits by Michele D. Marincola as well as the re-issuing of the publication in a new format but in the original German, Farbige Skulpturen: Bedeutung, Fassung, Restaurierung by Callwey. Of course one of the major advantages of these brand-new publications from the 1978 original is the inclusion of new color photographs. It is a testament to the exceptionally vivid quality of description that the book has remained such a highly-respected volume on polychromy even with its original dependence on black-and-white images, with only 35 color plates. These new attractive editions filled for the most part (but not entirely) with color photographs are most welcome. The felicitous coincidence with the Colour exhibition in Cambridge, and its concomitant catalogue, should not be overlooked. [1] Viewing these publications together, it would be difficult to see how anyone could still perceive of the Middle Ages as "dark." Although the title does not specify mediums or epochs, the book focuses almost exclusively on wood sculpture from the Romanesque to the Rococo periods, with a heavy emphasis on late Gothic sculpture in Southern Germany.

The book is divided into two parts: "Art Historical Questions" and then "On Technical Results and Problems of Restoration." Yet both sections alternate between narrative prose, and chapters that are simply cataloging objects or that read like condition reports. Since the intended audience is not limited to conservators (hence the current reviewer!), this means that certain sections are more accessible than others. Yet it shines through that Taubert's clear methodology included an "interdisciplinary, object-based study" avant la lettre and that he "believed in color" (x). Taubert also takes the question of overpainting very seriously, and in general is always thorough about investigating the entire history of an object up to the date of publication.

Chapter 1 provides a framework about images and likeness from late medieval altarpieces to Manneken Pis to "realist" sculptures by Duane Hanson in the twentieth century. Taubert sets up his important argument about the inseparability of painting and sculpture, in this case on altarpieces: "the integrity of the work rests on their convergence, with color as the unifying element that ties together the painted background and the painted sculptural group in the foreground" (12). This point is illustrated perfectly with the example of the Bamberg Town Hall. Pre-restoration, there was a lone putto that seemed completely anomalous. However, it turns out that in the Baroque period there was a trompe l'oeil architectural painting behind him on the façade, and the putto within its original polychromatic setting made perfect sense.

The next chapter begins with the earliest chronological period covered: the Romanesque. Very few Romanesque sculptures retain their original polychromy. Yet Taubert finds that from what has survived, the relationship between color and form is vexed: "color does little to clarify sculptural form; on the contrary, more often than not it obscures it" (21). In fact, the word he comes up with--after great deliberation--to define this relationship is "irrational" (21; same word in original German text). For examples of lack of integration of color and form, he finds "representationally unmotivated" (22) tendrils on loincloths and moustaches.

Chapter 3 is one of the short, catalogue-like chapters, on the subject of "Relics and Repositories for Relics in Sculptures." Chapter 4 takes us to the Gothic period, the main focus of the book, and we can tell from the title that Taubert perceives a real shift from the Romanesque, since it is entitled "On the Artistic Unity of Form and Color in Sculpture (Gothic Sculptures)." Here he revels in a "heightened sensitivity to the allure of different textures" (32) and shows that polychromers are "expanding their expressive vocabulary" (33) with handling flesh tones and colors and patterns on clothing. The suffering of the Virgin Mary and the Crucified Christ is also frequently heightened through polychromy.

This leads us to chapter 5, which focuses on a liturgical function: "Medieval Crucifixes with Movable Arms: A Contribution to the Question of the Liturgical Use of Sculpture." Most of the chapter is in "catalogue" mode, but nevertheless the methodological approach is varied and refreshing. Taubert studied the Good Friday and Easter ceremonies in depth, combined with a close, technical analysis of the wooden arms. By 1339 at the latest, the movable-arm type of Christ began to be used in Depositio celebrations. The corpus could be removed from the cross and the arms brought down, either close to the body or folded across the chest, and this could then become a sepulchral image that could be wrapped in a shroud and entombed. As Taubert states, "only a figure with hinged arms can be used as a prop for the entire sequence of events" (49).

Chapter 6 is "On the Imitation of Textile Structures in Late Gothic Polychromy and Panel Painting." This chapter focuses on the patterns and textures of sumptuous textiles. Late Gothic artists were interested in the shimmering brocades which had been imported in huge quantities from Italy. There were certain textile patterns that were especially popular, such as the pomegranate form. Thus the Late Gothic altarpiece was a truly collaborative work, requiring sculptors, painters, polychromers, and metal engravers to create molds for pressed brocades, and even blacksmiths could be involved by supplying punches for decorative borders and star-shaped cutters.

Chapter 7 is a case study of "The Annunciation of the Rosary by Veit Stoß in Nuremberg." Surrounding the Annunciation figures and several angels, the Rosary itself is represented by a garland of 50 roses. This extraordinarily heavy Rosary was constructed entirely of wood, and the gilding alone was executed in three different techniques. The polychromy of the heads features a subtle transition from carved hair to the skin via painted wisps of hair. Taubert is also interested here in the liturgical function of this large sculpture. It was probably only uncovered for high holidays. This chapter also provides the interesting post-medieval history of this Rosary. When the church of St. Lorenz in Nuremberg adopted Lutheran Protestantism, the sculpture was removed from view, and only rediscovered at the end of the sixteenth century. In the course of the seventeenth century, it was shown to high-ranking visitors, including the bishop of Bamberg and even Cosimo III de' Medici. In 1811, it was taken down and transferred to the castle chapel. Then until 1817, it was stored at the town hall. And then came disaster. On 2 April 1817 it was "smashed to smithereens when it was suspended from a rope rather than a chain as before" (75). Fortunately subsequent restorations were able to bring it close to its original form.

Chapter 8 takes up a new theme, "On the Surface and Finish of So-Called Unpainted Late Gothic Wooden Sculpture." Around the year 1500, carved altarpieces began to break with the tradition of rich polychromy. Taubert rightly draws the distinction between sculptures that were never intended to be painted, and those that lost their original polychromy over time. For example, the Castulus reliefs from the Moosburg Altarpiece show 23 punches of different shapes and sizes. It seems that the reliefs were never intended to be polychromed. Then we get to the famous sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider. The role of light in Riemenschneider's work has long been recognized as important: notably, there is a skillful difference between a matte surface and the refraction of a pigmented glaze--what Taubert refers to later as "wood-colored" (93). As an analogue to brightly painted altarpieces, monochromy could also play a unifying role. For example, in an altarpiece attributed to Bernard van Orley, the outside wings were probably painted in shades of brown (brunaille). Forming a parallel to semi-grisaille of manuscript illumination and panel paintings, Taubert proposes to call a group of altarpieces "half-polychromed" (87). In these altarpieces, painting and sculpture are also closely linked by a shared color scheme, albeit a much more restrained one.

Following a case study of the reliefs of Hans Leinberger in chapter 9, chapter 10 is a chronological jump, as we shift to "The Polychromy of Rococo Sculptures in Southern Germany." Rococo was included because there was a "diversity and opulence that had been unparalleled since the Late Gothic era" (117).

The next chapter begins Part II. Chapter 11 gives us an introduction to the "Conservation of Wood." Taubert divides this into objects made entirely of wood, and objects in which wood is combined with other materials. He insists that relics found hidden inside sculptures should be left there. Taubert believes that conservation needs to begin with a thorough understanding of the object at hand, and then an accurate assessment of the state of preservation. With wood, climate control is indispensable; other than that, it is impossible to generalize about conservation measures, since each object is unique. In case of doubt, he advises to leave the sculpture alone and to preserve the current state, including any overpainting. During the restoration process, documentation is essential: photographs and descriptions should be taken before, during and after restoration, and the photographs should always be taken from the same angle.

Chapter 12 continues with "On the Restoration of Sculptures." Taubert laments the fact that polychrome sculptures are rarely restored as carefully as paintings. Unfortunately, many people dismiss color as a "decorative extra" (138). And overpainting is prevalent. Taubert believes that there is no "one" technique for the removal of overpainting, and no single answer to the question of chemical solvents or the scalpel. Notably, he warns us that "a solvent that dissolves all layers of overpaint and their ground without attacking the original polychromy is pure fantasy" (140). Another wise piece of advice to restorers is to never start with the face, and to wait until one has a firm grasp of the entire object first.

Chapter 13 is a case study "On the Restoration of the Forstenried Crucifix." One interesting discovery of original polychromy was the painted tufts of hair in the armpits: here "light ocher brushstrokes are overlaid with darker shades of ocher, similar to those found in the beard" (153). Taubert emphasizes that the naked eye, perhaps enhanced with a magnifying glass, can provide a surprising wealth of information. Furthermore, any retouching should "allow the original to sing rather than dull its voice" (155). Chapter 14 is a broader case study: "The Restoration of Late Gothic Altarpiece Shrines: An Art Historical Problem." Here Taubert defines the late Gothic altarpiece as a Gesamtkunstwerk: a remarkable unity of architecture, sculpture and painting. The collaborative effort of its creation should be matched with the teamwork involved in its restoration. Chapters 15 through 17 provide further case studies.

Throughout the book, Marincola has added extremely useful references from conservators and technical art historians, bringing the volume up-to-date. The glossary of technical terms is also thorough and tremendously helpful. Yet she states that the art historical literature "for the most part has not been updated" (ix). While this is entirely understandable, it is also unfortunate. Surely Taubert would have been delighted to see the directions that scholars like Jacqueline Jung have taken when it comes to "bedeutung." Nevertheless, Marincola and The Getty Conservation Institute are to be congratulated for this initiative and this very handsome volume that will be useful not only for wood sculpture conservators, but also for all historians of medieval art and well beyond.



1. Colour: The Art & Science of Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. Stella Panayotova with the assistance of Deirdre Jackson & Paola Ricciardi (London: Harvey Miller, 2016).

Copyright (c) 2017 Anna Russakoff

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