Remenschneider’s Three Helper Saints (c.1500-05)

A carving less than two feet tall in the Cloisters, a branch of the Metropolitan Museum, depicts three saints whom the faithful would call on in time of need. What I noticed in viewing the piece this week is an optical illusion in St. Christopher's staff on the far left as it meets the water.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Tilman Remenschneider, Three Helper Saints: Sts. Christopher, Eustache and Erasmus (c.1500-05) Wood. Cloisters, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

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The stump of a broken branch visible just above the water resembles in form the heel and foot next to it dipped into the water. With the saint's right leg hidden from view in the rear, the staff can easily be mistaken for his other leg, made even more life-like by the addition of an eye-like knot to imitate the knee.

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Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Tilman Remenschneider's Three Helper Saints

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The staff intentionally depicts the craftsman's "alchemical" process. A piece of wood crafted to represent "wood" (the staff) seems to grow out of the life-giving waters and transform itself into a human leg. Or, put another way, we see in a lower corner of the work a stage in the creative process itself: a piece of wood as wood on its way to becoming life-like.

The Met comments that the detailing is so delicate that the sculpture would never have been painted.1 The lack of paint emphasizes wood as its medium and suggests that a master craftsman, through God, had given it life.

Captions for image(s) above:

Detail of Tilman Remenschneider's Three Helper Saints

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Self-referentiality is confirmed by the resemblance of the two other saints (far left) to the artist's own self-portrait (near left). It is especially notable in the chin and the mouth turned downward. The self depicted, though, is not the individual self that makes each of us different but the basic underlying self that we all share, that which makes us human, and which when uncovered in an artist can help form great works of art that touch us all irrespective of caste, race, creed or gender.

Captions for image(s) above:

Left: Detail of Tilman Remenschneider's Three Helper Saints: Saints Eustache and Erasmus
Right: Remenschneider, Self-portrait

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More Works by Remenschneider

Notes:

Original Publication Date on EPPH: 29 Jul 2011. © Simon Abrahams. Articles on this site are the copyright of Simon Abrahams. To use copyrighted material in print or other media for purposes beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. Websites may link to this page without permission (please do) but may not reproduce the material on their own site without crediting Simon Abrahams and EPPH.