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22.01.25 Boivin, Riemenschneider in Rothenburg

22.01.25 Boivin, Riemenschneider in Rothenburg

In this fascinating and well-researched work, Katherine M. Boivin undertakes investigation of a concept that has generated much discourse in medieval studies of art and architecture over the past decades: the idea of the planned artistic environment. This is not a study of an individual chapel or building, but multiple public areas within an entire, if small town: that of Rothenburg ob der Tauber from the late fourteenth through the early sixteenth centuries. The program is ambitious. Boivin acknowledges the fluid, changing nature of the environments in question, which were additive constructs made by multiple patrons and through a process of accretion over more than two centuries; it is a study, moreover, that can only include certain aspects of the town. The portions chosen for consideration are those that were impacted by the highly studied late Gothic sculptor Tilman Riemenschneider and his workshop: there were possibly as many as nine Riemenschneider altarpieces in Rothenburg installed before 1525. The presence of so many sculptural works of the same visual character set up points of resonance throughout the town, giving these sites a definite “shared look,” as Boivin demonstrates. But though Riemenschneider and his associates are central to the book, this work goes beyond a study of their contributions, and into an excursus of wider exploration to ask: “To what extent were medieval environments programmed?” and “Who or what had agency in assembling such an environment?” (3).

The introduction sets up the methodologies and historiography of this approach. Boivin introduces earlier efforts at understanding medieval art environments as more than simply frames for specific works of art. Previous scholarship’s attempts to reconstruct meaning, reception, and even appearance of these environments can be problematic, since the nature of such spaces is chimerical rather than fixed in some perfect whole. [1] The accretive character of the Rothenburg spaces makes such reconstruction particularly slippery. Further, one must consider that medieval audiences more frequently experienced religious or civic sites under construction, rather than as completed ensembles, let alone any that fully conformed to a preplanned design. Turning to recent scholarly models, Boivin instead pursues an investigation of “resonances between various media” (following the work of Jacqueline Jung) in forming “webs of significance” (identified by Paul Binski) and the “self-conscious coordinations between simple ingredients” (as noted by Paul Crossley) that exist within these porous but still identifiable spaces. [2]

The following chapters of Boivin’s book are organized like a series of extending circles, expanding outward from the core points of inquiry presented in the introduction, widening the scope of each space in turn, as she investigates the resonances and webs of meaning that were created in each. Each of these spheres was impacted by the power struggles between the civic government and various clerical bodies. These ranged from Rothenburg’s Dominican nunnery to the Teutonic Order who managed the town’s single parish church of St. Jakob. In this narrative, Boivin recounts a carefully documented series of struggles that ended in the triumph of the lay authorities, and what this meant for the religious spaces, which they effectively annexed.

The first chapter focuses on St. Jakob, the most significant religious building of the city. Not merely a parish church, it also had collegiate and pilgrimage functions, and was home to more than one Riemenschneider altarpiece. Arguably the best known of these is the Altarpiece of the Holy Blood, for which the late Gothic west church extension was built, and which served as a tabernacle for a miraculous host or “blood relic” of Christ (discussed further in Chapter 2). The fourteenth-century east end of the church was built ca. 1301-1350, when St. Jakob was still under the primary management of the Teutonic Order, and its design closely reflects the Order’s church at Würzburg. The nave construction, dating from 1373-1422, is strikingly different in design, adhering not to any single model but rather drawing inspiration from a variety of regional models. This portion of the building program took place during the height of the power struggle between the governing council and the Teutonic Order, which ended with the Order ceding oversight to the municipal authorities. They henceforth managed donations to the church and made arrangements to honor many of the pious bequests associated with these gifts.

In the second chapter, Boivin examines the construction of the west end of the church, from 1453-1471, where a new choir was created to showcase St. Jakob’s holy blood relic. Highlighting this relic was a conscious choice, as a surviving church inventory names additional relics in its possession, including others kept in the very same reliquary as the miraculous host. This new emphasis was achieved not just through the restructuring and adorning of a specific space, but also the commission of the Holy Blood altarpiece beginning in 1499 with the contract for the armature by virtuoso joiner Erhart Harschner. The imagery of this altarpiece, focusing on the Last Supper, was carefully detailed in the town’s purchase contract with the Würzburg artist Tilman Riemenschneider and his workshop. Scholarly interest on this extraordinary work, which was not completed until 1504, is extensive and not without some controversy over original placement. Boivin persuasively argues that not only was the altarpiece originally located in the western choir but that the artist and his workshop were sensitive to the conditions of the site when creating the composition. Not only is the altarpiece set off dramatically by the choir lighting and fenestration, but also the Last Supper’s Judas figure, with an accompanying accusatory gesture from a fellow apostle, becomes the focus of a dramatic “reveal” when seen from an approach via the north side staircase. A second stair on the south side allowed for smooth flow of traffic exiting the chapel. The church extension that accommodated the choir was raised over a vaulted passageway that allowed exterior street traffic to pass beneath. The far west portion of the building rested on a ground-floor relic chamber, whose two arched entries, Boivin argues, also could serve pilgrim traffic. The design of the west end, raised over a lower-story chamber and vaulted tunnel passage wide enough for mounted riders to pass, is an unusual one, but a similar spatial arrangement can be found at the Wernerkapelle in Oberwesel, built over the spot where a boy’s body, supposedly murdered by Jews, had been found. Boivin argues that the anti-Semitic resonances of the Oberwesel experiences were replicated in Rothenburg, not least because the vaulted tunnel passage beneath the new west choir was a key route to reach the Jewish community of Rothenburg, recently and forcibly relocated from their prior habitations. The anti-Semitism of this act was enhanced by the demolition of the former synagogue, and the erection of a chapel to Mary on the site. In addition to the architectural takeover, the civic authorities’ reframing of the town’s very traffic patterns beneath the church of St. Jakob made an unmistakable impression on residents as well as pilgrims.

The third chapter expands the focus of spatial restructuring from St. Jakob proper out to the parish churchyard and the charnel house chapel of St. Michael located to the east of the church. Torn down in the nineteenth century, the St. Michael chapel’s role as part of the church complex is no longer visible. However, Boivin ably demonstrates how the architectural design, timing, and use of this charnel house was definitively linked to St. Jakob, its pilgrimage program, and its civic concerns. Moreover, the upper chapel space also housed another Riemenschneider altarpiece; Boivin supports the interpretation that this was probably the Holy Cross altarpiece now at Detwang. The imagery of the blood and body of Christ, paired with themes of resurrection and death, provided an “iconographic logic” that helped weld disparate elements here and elsewhere in Rothenburg into an “evocative multimedia program” (115-116).

In Chapter 4, Boivin widens the scope of this program by drawing in additional sites to the discussion. These comprise the chapel of St. Wolfgang, just outside the city walls, as well as the Franciscan church and the chapel of St. Mary on the Milchmarkt (built as noted over the former synagogue site). All of these sacred spaces contained at least one altar with sculpted Riemenschneider figures. There is considerable excursus here in discussing the altarpiece programs, and whether or not they were polychromed (and what this might have signified in terms of cost, meaning and aesthetics). All details taken together provide a vivid explanation of how repetitive style and iconographic echoes linked site to site across the town, thus clarifying Boivin’s concept of how the urban space of Rothenburg was remapped through art and architectural patronage in the early fifteenth century. Religious processions and other performances connected these chapels and churches, which also reinforced these links for contemporary viewers. Thus individual environments and their artworks helped contribute to a “single identity of place” (172).

The book concludes with a brief postscript on Rothenburg’s currently cultivated character as a “well-preserved medieval city,” and the success with which the town is able to draw upon that image to fulfill modern visitors’ expectations. The evidence of this success extends even to the armchair visitor through the book’s well-chosen illustrations, 77 in color and 20 in black and white.

While the situation in late medieval Rothenburg itself was unique, the model of analysis set forth here by Boivin is one that will bear further study by medievalists in many disciplines beyond art and architectural history. Just as Riemenschneider in Rothenburg goes beyond a discussion of the famed sculptor and his workshop, Boivin’s book has much to offer in its exemplar of how intricate webs of significance could flexibly accommodate multiple patrons and works to create a meaningfully coherent network of spaces that made up a medieval town.



1. See for instance the essays in Virginia Chieffo Raguin, Kathryn Bush and Peter Draper, eds., Artistic Integration in Gothic Buildings (University of Toronto Press, 1995).

2. See Jacqueline Jung, The Gothic Screen: Space, Sculpture and Community in the Cathedrals of France and Germany, ca. 1200-1400 (Cambridge University Press, 2013), p. 4; Paul Binski, Becket’s Crown: Art and Imagination in Gothic England, 1170-1300 (Yale University Press for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, 2004), pp. xii, xiv; and Westminster Abbey and the Plantagenets: Kingship and the Representation of Power, 1200-1440 (Yale University Press, 1995); and Paul Crossley, “The Integrated Cathedral: Thoughts on ‘Holism’ and Gothic Architecture,” in Evelyn Staudinger Lane, Elizabeth Carson Pastan and Ellen M. Shortell, eds., Four Modes of Seeing: Approaches to Medieval Imagery in Honor of Madeline Caviness (Ashgate, 2009):157-73; p. 66.