27 September, 2009

Monday 7th July 2008, St. Sebald, Nuremberg, Germany

Nuremberg's oldest parish church is St. Sebald.  Building began in 1230 on the site of the church of St. Peter, and St. Sebald's was first recognised as a parish church in 1250 with the original Romanesque structure completed between 1274 and 1275.  The present Gothic shape of the church dates from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

One might expect to find artifacts of spiritual significance within Nuremberg's oldest parish church, however, the contents of St. Sebald are perhaps more interesting for their secular connections.  Of particular interest are the various works of art close to the eastern choir where the altar of St. Peter is located, the most prominent being the tomb of St. Sebald.

Surrounding the tomb is a shrine cast in brass.  Initially designed by Peter Visher the Elder, the shrine dates from the 1480s, but was completed by Visher's workshop over several decades with alterations by Visher's sons Hermann and Peter Visher the Younger.  While the shrine is largely in the late Gothic style, Italian Renaissance influence can be seen in the Classical figures - such as Hercules and various putti - that adorn the artwork.  These are largely attributed to Peter Visher the Younger who is known to have visited Italy some time before the shrine's completion in 1519.

While the shrine shows the incorporation of outside influences into Nuremberg, it is also significant because of the figure of Peter Vischer the Elder nestled at the base of the work closest to the altar of St. Peter.  An early example of an fourteenth-century artist-included self-portrait can be found in the triforium of St. Vitus cathedral in Prague, however, such self-portraits begin to become more common in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries and can also be seen in the works of Visher's Nuremberg contemporaries Albrecht Dürer and Adam Kraft.  This is perhaps indicative of the desire of these artists to elevate their status above that of mere artisan.

Indeed, at this time Nuremberg's artisans were heavily controlled by the secular administration (or City Council), which outlawed the establishment of guilds common in other parts of Europe.  This was possible due to the domination of the council by merchant families, who were clearly keen on perpetuating their wealth and power.  Their wealth enabled the commissioning of works such as the shrine of St. Sebald, and as such, the patronage of the objects surrounding the altar of St. Peter - the stained-glass windows in particular - read like a veritable "who's who" of Nuremberg's families.

St. Sebald's church contains some of the earliest surviving stained-glass windows in Europe, many dating from the late 1300s (the Behaim family window as early as 1379).  The survival of these windows may be attributed to Nuremberg's patrician families who were responsible for their upkeep.  Furthermore, by a controlled and early introduction of the Reformation to Nuremberg in 1525, the council ensured that the transition to Protestantism was smooth, thus preventing their destruction by puritans (as was common in other parts of Europe where stained-glass windows were connected with idolatry).

By commissioning or constructing artworks such as those in St. Sebald's, those involved were seen to be "doing good works" by providing holy objects for veneration.  However, through twenty-first-century eyes it is difficult to see beyond what appears to be shameless self-promotion.


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