What is truth?

Hans Leinberger, St James, c.1520-25, limewood, traces of pigment (Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum)
Hans Leinberger, St James, c.1520-25, limewood, traces of pigment (Munich, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum)

St James sits solidly and ethereally against the wall and gazes faraway, faraway towards the window. He thinks both inside and outside himself at the same time. He is never cold – his voluminous cloak ensures that. The folds of his cloak both envelop and draw attention to the book on his knee – the book he has written, the book with which his sensitive, vital fingers play. Perhaps he is missing the other figures with whom he once stood in community. Yet this is a turbulent time – Luther has published his ninety-five theses, may by now have been excommunicated, gone into hiding, presumed by many (the artist Dürer included) to be dead…yet what he has set in motion is not hiding or dead, it is about to tear Europe apart. St James ponders. What is truth? What is the Bible, of which he wrote a small part? What does the future, the end of that faraway yet focused gaze, hold? In the meantime there is art – the art that sees in a tree trunk a human form, a human mind, a spiritual reality, a means of expressing the depths of the human condition and the world in which we live. Art that takes these ideas and combines them with physical skill to create beauty and endless fascination – follow the lines of the carving, across the surface, into the depths, through and around and along the almost abstract patterns that are formed that prevent uniformity but create a cohesive whole. The silhouette is strong and simple; the facial expression is both introspective and outward-looking but calm; all the maelstrom of time and space and human emotion are contained within this calm exterior in those swirls and folds and vortices of carved drapery. The whole thing has a gentle sway. Rooted by those shoes – my Birkenstocks are a homage to those shoes! – held together by the beautiful face, the expression, the hat – and pivoting around those exquisite hands that bring our attention to the book, the centre of a star.

Who was Hans Leinberger? We don’t know. He melts in and out of our consciousness via a couple of brief documents and the fragments of his genius. That such great art exists without biography is in many ways a fabulous thing. Our celebrity-driven culture wants to know more, but we are denied – we are forced to look at the work of art, not the man who made it – the art is itself Leinberger’s surviving autobiography, and we need to know no more about him. A contemporary of Michelangelo…that’s one context. The final flourish (fioritur…) of a sublime tradition in German sculpture, yet not the swansong of anything – something this powerful transcends, defies such neat historical categorisations and chronologies.

There is more to say (always). This large sculpture looks so solid, and yet it is all an illusion – a surface that plays with our visual and emotional and intellectual responses. It is indeed carved from the huge trunk of a lime tree – but that trunk has been hollowed out, and what we see is really a kind of relief carving on a curved surface.

leinberger 3

It would have been attached to an altarpiece, and no one would have been reminded of this – today we can see the truth. But what is truth…?

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