Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2016
Aleksandra Lipińska Moving Sculptures: Southern Netherlandish Alabasters from the 16th to 17th Centuries in Central and Northern Europe Studies in Netherlandish Art and Cultural History. Leiden: Brill, 2014. 407 pp.; 205 ills. Cloth $142.00 (9789004270930)

Aleksandra Lipińska has written an important book on Netherlandish sculpture that addresses many issues that are already of interest to historians of Netherlandish art and culture. Her topic is alabaster carving, a seemingly modest intervention until we realize that alabaster was the primary stone for all’antica sculpture in the Low Countries during the sixteenth century. It was also the material that introduced this antique manner in three-dimensional form to the region. In a way, Lipińska’s title, Moving Sculptures: Southern Netherlandish Alabasters from the 16th to 17th Centuries in Central and Northern Europe, resembles that of Michael Baxandall’s The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980)—the emphasis on the material, so important for Baxandall’s interpretations, has the paradoxical effect of minimizing the apparent scope of his project.

Yet, like limewood in Germany, alabaster would become the principal material for elite sculpture in the Low Countries. Alabaster tombs replaced the gilded bronze forerunners of Netherlandish rulers; alabaster reliefs were among the most innovative genres for the developing techniques of visual narrative. By the mid-sixteenth century, these small reliefs had become prolific and highly valued export products of the Netherlandish art industry. They were shipped to all parts of Europe, but they enjoyed a particularly favorable reception in central and northern Europe. Patrons collected both independent reliefs and assemblies of these works set in elaborate classical frames as small huisaltars (domestic altarpieces) or epitaphs.

There was movement across Europe not only of artworks but of artists as well. Netherlandish sculptors trained in the technique found ready employment in Silesia, Mecklenburg, Greater Poland, East Prussia, and Scandinavia. The Church of St. Elizabeth in Wrocław (Breslau) is practically a museum of these works and of their imitations. Two major Netherlandish sculptors were active there: Hans Fleiser at mid-century and Gerhard Hendrik at the close of the century. Numerous churches throughout central Europe still hold important examples, despite considerable losses over time.

Lipińska accomplishes many different goals and adopts varied approaches in her book. In part 1, she analyzes the properties of the stone and its reputation since antiquity. She provides the first coherent narrative in English of the development of “Renaissance” (all’antica) sculpture in the Netherlands, including helpful if brief accounts of the leading practitioners. She considers the development of serial production of alabaster reliefs in Mechelen during the second half of the sixteenth century and the large-scale export of these pieces abroad.

The first chapter treats the physical properties of alabaster that made it such a coveted material. Polished, it could resemble marble; left untreated, its translucence gave it an appealing jewel-like quality. Its milky-white color had long allowed the stone to stand as a favored metaphor for a beautiful woman’s skin and complexion (34); alabaster was a natural material for the erotic female statuettes of Willem van den Broecke (Paludanus) (81–84). Lipińska discusses the various quarries where alabaster was excavated and the resultant trade in the stone.

Alabaster could be confused with marble. Lipińska surveys the relation between the two materials through a number of interesting cases, including the commissioning of the tombs of Margaret of Austria and her late husband, Philibert II of Savoy, at Brou (34–43). Marble was required for the upper of the double effigies, while alabaster served for the lower bodies. Lipińska admirably analyzes the complex network of factors that led to this decision, presenting a nuanced interpretation of the status of the stone at the time.

Lipińska next introduces the early exponents of alabaster sculpture in the Netherlands. The stone had been popular for statues and altarpieces in the fourteenth and early fifteenth century; the so-called Rimini Master famously used the material for his finely carved statuettes around 1400 (46–50). But alabaster soon lost favor and was employed relatively rarely until the early sixteenth century, at which point it became closely associated with the voguish antique manner. One of the early conduits of this “Renaissance” mode was Jean Mone, an artist originally from Metz in Lorraine but likely trained in Spain (57–67). Brought to the Netherlands by 1521, most probably at the behest of Charles V, Mone was soon named “artist to the emperor” and patronized by the Netherlandish high nobility. He pioneered the use of alabaster in antique sculpture in two important genres: altarpieces composed of numerous small reliefs and tombs with antique architectural and ornamental fittings. A number of independent reliefs exist that are close in style to his documented altarpieces and likely come from his workshop. Indeed, he seems to have pioneered this genre.

The following generation saw the rise of Jacques Du Broeucq, also named “artist to the emperor,” and Cornelis Floris, brother of the famous painter Frans Floris, who dominated sculpture in Antwerp and exported important tombs to rulers around the Baltic. Both of these important artists employed assistants, many of whom later settled in towns in northern Europe.

The narrative alabaster panel, the mainstay of the Mechelen cleynstekers, served many functions. Lipińska points out that these works were also favored in civic and domestic contexts, decorating mantelpieces (67–69). The early reliefs of the Story of Susannah and Daniel adorn the famous mantelpiece to Charles V in the Bruges Vrije, but they are not alone. Two other fireplaces with such panels come from the private house, Huis de Moelenaere, in Antwerp from the end of the 1540s. Another one, much transformed in later years, stands in the Antwerp Town Hall. Mone himself likely carved the alabaster ornamental frieze on the mantelpiece for the Mechelen town house of Jan IV van Cortenbach (now in the Hallepoort Museum, Brussels, though Lipińska does not clearly agree). And she notes that a mantelpiece formerly in Szczecin, Poland, was likewise decorated with alabaster scenes after engravings of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by Virgil Solis; there must have been many more.

Part 2 investigates the export of Netherlandish alabasters to central and northern Europe. Lipińska discusses the consequences of religious and political transformation among the north German and Polish elite for their patronage of these Netherlandish works. She manages to cover the chief genres of the medium: tomb sculpture, historiated relief, and portraiture. And she considers the rise of sumptuous “alabaster chambers” in the residences of the northern European nobility. Here Lipińska is interested in concepts of cultural transfer, the ways in which artifacts and ideas are transformed in their new site and actively modify the local culture. Rather than merely assemble a catalogue of surviving pieces spread throughout churches and museums, Lipińska analyzes a number of concrete commissions in several different regional centers: the bourgeois cities of Breslau, Gdansk, and Lwów, and the court cities of Freiberg, Berlin, and Stadthagen, among others. For each case, she addresses the interconnected roles of the various agents: patrons, administrators, and artists. Often these projects involved many participants, as in the shrine of the Elector Moritz of Saxony (205–19). The Dresden court painters Benedetto and Gabriele Tola designed the monument, and the Lübeck goldsmith Hans Wessel oversaw execution, casting bronze gryphons himself and outsourcing the stone carving to Anthonis van Seron of Antwerp. Van Seron’s beautiful alabaster muses, ancient warriors, and ornamental reliefs added significantly to the sumptuousness of the work. Black marble was used for the corpus, which held inscriptions recounting Moritz’s glorious deeds. This was truly an international project, incomprehensible in terms of traditional nationalist scholarship. It is interesting that this Lutheran monument features a textual commemoration of Moritz’s actions, whereas the Catholic funerary monument to Emperor Maximilian I in Innsbruck employs pictorial reliefs (in alabaster by the Netherlander Alexander Colin).

Another interesting case is the altarpiece in the palace chapel at Stadthagen (193–96). The church had purchased a carved wood altarpiece from the Netherlands in the fifteenth century, yet it became an obstruction to a later index of courtly magnificence, the tomb for Count Otto IV of Schamburg-Lippe, carved in 1580 and designed by the Netherlander Arend Robyn. The older altarpiece was truncated, so as not to obscure sight of the tomb, and a crest was added, containing one of the newly fashionable alabaster reliefs also from the Netherlands. Many simpler works—individual alabaster reliefs set in classical frames—were personalized by members of the northern European bourgeoisie as private altarpieces or epitaphs. Wings would be added with portraits of the family, often by local painters, converting these current all’antica sculptures into more traditional “triptychs,” which may have aided their acceptance in their northern homes.

If I would modify any of Lipińska’s findings, it might be her rejection of a close connection between alabaster sculpture and Italian Renaissance works of art: “There are no grounds, however, for supposing that the fashion for alabaster was directly connected with the imitation of specific works of Italian art, as paradoxically, in spite of the centuries-long tradition of extraction and treatment of the material, there are no examples of works in alabaster in the main stream of Italian sculpture in the 15th or 16th centuries” (31–32). Yet if Tuscan and Roman sculptors rarely used alabaster, Lombard artists much more frequently did so, and Lombardy was the focus of attention of both French and Habsburg territories in the Italian peninsula. Furthermore, as Mone’s career demonstrates, one of the paths of the Low Countries to “Renaissance” sculpture lay through Spain, which had an established tradition of alabaster carving and frequently rendered early all’antica works in this stone. Finally, the availability of alabaster in the Netherlands, its color, and its relative lack of polychromy made it a promising material to emulate both ancient and current Italian sculpture, even if these prototypes themselves were of marble.

Moving Sculptures is an impressive and much-needed book. It addresses a great number of concerns that have become central to the discipline: the materiality of artworks, the art market, the consequences of the Reformation for the visual arts, concepts of civic and courtly identity and their markers, and many others. Lipińska’s book also manages to offer a concentrated overview of Netherlandish antique sculpture, its main genres, and its chief practitioners.

Ethan Matt Kavaler
Professor, Department of the History of Art, University of Toronto