There is a room in the V&A which is magic. There are many spaces there that are magic. But this room is the one largely devoted to Medieval carving and sculpture. My favourite was this.
I mean what a face.
I’ve seen living, breathing people less alive than this man Rudolf II von Scherenberg (c. 1401 – 1495) Stare at it and you see more than a face, you can imagine his soul. But it takes courage to stare at him too long. He makes you feel like a peasant. This is real art, not the idealized templates you see in classical busts. Genius or craftsman, the artist responsible is decribed further down.
There was another example of wonderful detail: a large carving of Count Ekkehard of Naumburg. Again what struck me was the meticulous attention to detail – even down to the frown lines on his forehead. I was unable to capture this on the camera so googled and discovered another example that says it all: Uta von Naumburg who died in 1046.
Who can doubt that this is an accurate reproduction of a real life woman, someone still so alive that when Umberto Eco was asked what woman from European art he would most like to spend an evening with he answered without hesitation, “In first place, ahead of all others, with Uta von Naumburg.”
And I agree.
Which is creepy because Walt Disney used her as the model for the beautiful but sinister queen in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.” So what does that tell you about my taste in women?
Everyone has heard of Michelangelo. Few people have heard of Riemenschneider, perhaps because his name sounds like a sneeze. It’s a shame because Riemenschneider was brilliant, and his fate is a warning. In his day he achieved both wealth and fame and between 1520 and 1524 was Mayor of Wurzburg. Having carved that splendid tribute to a former Prince Bishop of Wurzburg - Rudolf II von Scherenberg - the ageing artist must have thought he was being justly rewarded.
His nemesis came in the form of the Peasant’s war in Germany when, perhaps to escape fire and destruction, he and the council made an alliance with the peasants. Watching, was Konrad von Thungen, Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg who overlooked the city from his castle. 8000 peasants were massacred by the Prince Bishop and his allies and the entire city council and Riemennschneider were imprisoned and tortured. Both of his hands were broken, and after he was eventually released his creative career was over.
Tilman Riemennschneider was a genius in the wrong place at the wrong time.
No one should ever be too scared to voice their opinion – whether it be right, wrong, or downright foolish. And no one should impose their views on another. We don’t break hands in his country but we do verge on the Orwellian in inhibiting free speech.
This guy here, from a late medieval carving clearly had no trouble in making his point.
Which leads me on to my last random thought.
Is there such a thing as ‘negative racism’. I pondered the issue as I watched ‘The Big Arguments’ on TV with my Sunday bagel and coffee. They were talking about something called ‘British identity’ and a corpulent northerner said something absurd about how you couldn’t be ‘British’ if you didn’t support constitutional monarchy. It was plainly wrong, I mean wasn’t Oliver Cromwell called ‘God’s own Englishman’? But he had expressed his opinion and was then, immediately sneered at by the preposterous Benjamin Zephaniah.
Corpulent Northerner wasn’t having it. He pointed a finger. ‘Listen Sunshine…’. He got no further. Chicken Licken day arrived with force. The sky fell down with an almighty crash. The furious, Zephaniah accused the luckless northerner of being racist and demanded an instant apology, and I swilled coffee and bagel round my mouth wondering what on earth was going on.
‘Sunshine’ is a northern term. I was called sunshine, sometimes affectionately by female bus drivers (When I’m in a nursing home they’ll call me ‘darling’.) I have been called ‘Sunshine’ in a semi threatening way, more usually in mock irritation. I’ve used the same phrase to my children on occasion: ‘just you listen to me, sunshine!’ Though they never do. The point is I am not black, nor are they. We retain our northern pallor.
I object to words being re-categorised on a whim, and I wondered whether Zephaniah had got confused with the now archaic ‘shine’ as a derogatory term, or was just feeling in a bullying mood. Either way, the BBC apologised to him but not corpulent northern man, and it seems to me that I can, for the moment, continue to use the term ‘sunshine’ to all and sundry unless Benjamin Zephaniah is in range, or until that, too, is added to the stock of words we may no longer use.
What would Tilman Riemennschneider have thought of it? What indeed would have the Prince Bishop of Wurzburg, Rudolf II von Scherenber have said?