Germany Figurative Arts – Epoch of Transition
The transition period, which is that of the most recent Romanesque style, goes from the death of Frederick Barbarossa (1190) to the extinction of the Hohenstaufen dynasty, embracing that tragic and heroic fifty years which saw the greatest cultural and political expansion of the German people and finally the collapse of the imperial idea. Several historical factors, belonging to the first half of the century. XIII, as the politics of the Hohenstaufen aimed towards the south, the crusades, commercial prosperity, the contact with the new philosophical and ecclesiastical currents coming from France, exert an indirect influence on art, broadening its intellectual horizon and deepening its sense of life. Two factors mainly acted on German art in this period: France and Byzantium. If the importance of Byzantine art consisted in preserving the ancient tradition and that of French art in the contribution of perfectly elaborated new formal schemes, the effect on German art was essentially the same, that is, a liberation from the hindrances that held it bounded and a deepening of her own values, which led her to autonomous and original creations of the highest order. It is, perhaps, precisely the decades of this transition period, in which for almost every single work of art the exotic model or inspiration can be determined, the most fruitful and most original era of German art.
In architecture, the decisive impulse came from French Gothic art, however, not always received overwhelmingly, but often modified and adapted according to the needs and national character. At the same time there was the development of a late Romanesque style and the acceptance of the primitive Gothic style side by side without a clear division but, as is natural, the second of the two currents increasingly gained ground and importance at the expense of the the other, whose territory was mainly around the lower course of the Rhine and had Cologne as its center. Here San Martino Maggiore and the Santi Apostoli arose, which were enriched with an almost Baroque superabundance of details; more homogeneous of these two churches, whose structure was determined by previous constructions, is that of San Gunberto, rebuilt between 1210 and 1247. An independent variant of the combination of the concentric plan with the basilica plan – normal in this group of churches – is represented by the church of San Gereone. To these buildings that still stand up to the comparison with the great Gothic cathedral of Cologne today, there are others which, while participating in the solution of new problems, linger in the Romanesque style: the churches of Xanten, Neuss, San Cassio in Bonn, the church of the Cistercians in Heisterbach, the church of the Virgin in Andernach and more. Going up the Rhine we have the domes of Speyer, Mainz, Worms, Strasbourg, Basel and others, which, although started earlier, participate in the new movement by modernizing or reworking the system of their vaults. They do not form a homogeneous group like that of the Lower Rhine, but represent attempts to graft the primitive Gothic style penetrated by northern France onto the Romanesque forms. In the other German regions the Romanesque style was even more tenacious; and above all in the eastern regions the action of the new current manifested itself only in overloading the old forms and in inserting the new into the old in an inorganic and occasional way. The main buildings of northern and central Germany (Bamberg, Naumburg, Magdeburg, etc.) show in many ways the old style mixed with sporadic traces of the new; nor can one see transition there, since there is no intimate link between the two. Instead the Cistercian churches present a more organic development, connected as they were with the convents of Burgundy. In the first phase of their extraordinary diffusion between 1200 and 1250 – while remaining faithful to the architectural peculiarities of the churches of the order (lack of towers, straight termination of the choir, desired sobriety in the decoration) – they adapted in essential lines to the needs of local architecture; but later, with the intensification of the Gothic influence, they accentuated their international character more: they became a means of spreading the Gothic style, but, due to the rigid monastic requirements, they remained extraneous to a real development of architecture gothic. Several of these grandiose Cistercian monasteries belong to the most grandiose creations of this time; above all that of Maulbronn.
In its first diffusion in Germany the action of French Gothic was rather vague and generic, often being reduced to providing only decorative details; in a later phase, however, the influence was immediate and profound. But the sense of space remains German: and the French forms were modified by local traditions and personal tastes. The German architects, although educated in the examples of French Gothic cathedrals, did not limit themselves to repeating the style, but drew an example of countless new solutions. Among the most important monuments are the chapter church of St. George in Limburg on the Lahn, St. Matthew in Trier, the abbey church of Offenbach, St. Elizabeth in Marburg on the Lahn, the cathedral of Wetzlar, the cathedral of Paderborn. The profane buildings of this period are very few;
In sculpture as in architecture, local conservative tendencies and innovative tendencies connected with the French Gothic were intertwined; and in contact with foreign art, the national creative forces seemed to free themselves. Byzantine art was also of no small importance with its products of the minor arts, arousing the sense of monumentality and intimate expression. In Saxony – the region richest in sculptures – the triumphal crosses of Halberstadt and Wechselburg, the reliefs on the barriers of the Halberstadt choir, as well as various sepulchral monuments attest to the Byzantine influence. In the Golden Gate of Freiberg, on the other hand, French influences are already sensitive both in iconography and in the realistic figures of the resurrected. At the same time the sculptures destined for a portal of the Magdeburg cathedral show an unsuccessful and fragmentary attempt to transplant imitations of the new French Gothic plastic in an environment not suitable for hosting them. But the pride of the German plastics of the transition period (and perhaps of the entire German plastics) are the sculptures of the cathedrals of Bamberg (from which those of Mainz derive), of Strasbourg and of Naumburg, all belonging in their main nucleus, to the decade that it goes from 1230 to 1240. Arising independently of each other, they all depend on France where their authors learned the art. For Naumburg we are able to trace the activity of the main artist up to Laon and for Bamberg to determine the immediate prototype in Reims; to Strasbourg, then, the geographical situation sufficiently explains the multiple relations with France. And yet in those sculptures, whose shape seems more connected to the Romanesque, characters that distinguish them from the French, in particular the intense search for expression, are not lacking. In comparison with sculpture, painting was of secondary importance. We can distinguish a Byzantine phase, characterized by a search for monumental solemnity (e.g. in Limburg, around 1235) and a Pre-Gothic phase, in which the search for a more intense life is expressed through an extraordinarily moved drapery, with folds even baroque (Soest’s frontal in the Deutsches Museum in Berlin; frescoes from the church of St. Gereon; miniatures from the Saxon-Thuringian school, such as those from the Psalter of St. Elizabeth in Cividale).
For the minor arts, if the previous period left important works of textile art (in Halberstadt, Quedlinburg, etc.) and goldsmithing (imperial crown in the Vienna treasury), the transitional age has numerous great reliquaries, adorned with sculptures and enamels, the authors of which are largely known: Goffredo di Huy (reliquary of Eribert in Deutz) and Niccolò di Verdun (frontal of Klosterneuburg, dated in 1181; reliquary of the Three Magi in Cologne), both joined to France; Wiberto da Aachen (chandelier in the cathedral); Eilberto (reliquary of San Vittorio in Xanten) and Federico di San Pantaleone (reliquary of San Maurino), both operating in Cologne.