Creativity, Riemenschneider and living like ants

Yesterday, I saw blue flashing lights reflected in my computer screen and looking out across the street I saw the ambulance arriving. An elderly neighbour had been taken seriously ill and was rushed off to hospital. Shocking and a nightmare time for friends and family, but for the wider world just another day. It made me think of our daily lives with the mostly bland routines that occupy us and the Henry David Thoreau comment:

It is not enough to be busy. So are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?


So, what are we busy about? At best, in a post-industrial, post-modern, virtually post everything time, perhaps, it is thinking, creating and caring. Often when I listen to music, watch a film, or visit an exhibition I’m struck by an individual’s drive to make and present their work to others. At the same time it is interesting to observe audiences keen to engage and consider this output.

section of Berlin Wall
Section of the Berlin Wall at the British Museum Exhibition – ‘Germany – memories of a nation’

A couple of weekends ago I went to the ‘Germany – memories of a nation’ exhibition at the British Museum. It was curated by Neil MacGregor and considered 600 years of German history through a selection of objects. It was advertised as

Explore art by Dürer, Holbein and Richter, and marvel at technological achievements through the ages which gave the world Gutenberg’s printing press, Meissen porcelain, the Bauhaus movement and modern design icon the VW Beetle.

The Four Evangelists  by Tilman Riemenschneider
The Four Evangelists
by Tilman Riemenschneider.
Carved limewood with honey-coloured glaze.
Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany.

St Luke by Riemenschneider
St Luke by Riemenschneider.
Carved limewood with honey-coloured glaze.
Bode Museum, Berlin, Germany.
The main reason I went was to see ‘The Four Evangelists’ by Tilman Riemenschneider. Despite timed entry tickets the exhibition was rather crowded. I’m not sure whether a close, intimate feel to the exhibition was intended, but it left me with an overall impression of the space being tight and cluttered. Nevertheless, it was worth seeing the Riemenschneider limewood sculptures up close.

Riemenschneider (1460-1531) worked from Würzburg, Germany, and was a leading guildsman sculpting in wood. Traditionally, religious works such as altarpieces carved in wood were covered in gesso, painted and gilded. During the second half of the fifteenth century in Southern Germany sculptors working in limewood were commissioned to make unadorned, plain pieces. German Protestantism had brought about a change in attitude towards imagery. Instead of an image being an ostentatious, embellished focal point of devotion, works with an emphasis on sober instruction were favoured. A preference for the unpainted together with the qualities of limewood (a light, close-grained wood) facilitated the advancement of delicate and fine carving. Riemenschneider honed his technique and developed a style that featured sensitive and expressive faces.

Seeing ‘The Four Evangelists’ (normally in Berlin) in the exhibition was a treat. The sorrowful face of St Mark complete with small bags under his eyes and the intensely, thoughtful downcast face of St Luke brought a humanity to these religious figures.

Another Riemenschneider work that can be found in the BM’s main collection is ‘The Adoration of the Three Wise Men’.

The panel is part of an alterpiece thought to have been commissioned between 1505-10 for the Marienkappelle in Rothenburg, Germany. Again, the work is varnished limewood and the facial details are exquisite.

We cannot all be busy sculpting outstanding masterpieces, but I believe many of us would find the world far less tolerable without our own small acts of creating.

Virgin Mary by Riemenschneider. A 15th-century expressive face from the world of Northern Renaissance sculpture.
Virgin Mary by Riemenschneider.
A 15th-century expressive face from the world of Northern Renaissance sculpture.

Josiah Wedgwood and the Portland Vase

Portland Vase
The Portland Vase – the original glass-cameo vase on display at the British Museum.
In 1784 Sir William Hamilton, the diplomat and polymath brought a Roman antique vase to England where he sold it to the Duchess of Portland. This first century Roman cameo-glass vessel became known as the Portland Vase. Although Roman (thought to date from 5-25 AD) it is not mentioned in the historical record until the beginning of the 17th century. Hamilton bought it from the family Barberini who had owned it for 150 years whilst he was British Ambassador to the Court of Naples.
portland vase displayed
The Portland Vase in its display case. It is 24 cm (9 1/2″) tall and 17.7 cm (7″) in diameter.

In 1786, the vase became the property of the Third Duke of Portland who lent the vase to Josiah Wedgwood. Wedgwood was already a renowned ‘star’ of the times and a very successful businessman having made and developed major innovations in earthenware and stoneware pottery. He had developed a cream-coloured glaze over a cream-coloured body known as Creamware and when in 1765 Queen Charlotte commissioned a service from him the range was renamed ‘Queen’s Ware’. From 1772 he began work on developing what we now know as Jasperware. Jasperware is a durable, unglazed porcelain with bas-relief white cameo decoration. Metallic oxide colouring agents are used to stain the white Jasper and Jasperware is usually light blue, but it can also be pale green, lilac, yellow, black or dark blue. And, it was with this dark blue that Wedgwood chose to make his copy. It took four years of trials and experimentation until a reproduction of the Portland Vase was completed in 1790. The British Museum also has a Wedgwood Jasperware copy of the Portland Vase on display in the rooms showing 18th century ceramics.

The original Portland Vase and the Wedgwood copy became an 18th century cultural hit taking London ‘society’ by storm and made Jasperware the most sought after ceramics in England and on the Continent. It isn’t entirely fair to make a direct comparison between the glass-cameo and the porcelain vases as being made with different materials there are different restrictions, but the Wedgwood version is a beautiful piece even if it isn’t quite as detailed and delicate as the original.

The Jasperware Portland Vase is a technical triumph and copies allow the beauty of the original to be shared. This is also an example of where the inspiration to copy a work from antiquity furthered the technical knowledge of the 18th century. It was such a success that it also secured the ever resourceful and inventive Josiah Wedgwood a permanent place in the history of ceramics. A famous name that still survives with Wedgwood Jasperware products made and collected in the 21st century.