Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu — 2: Silesian Sacral Art 12th-16th Century Wood Sculpture

I had no idea what I had gotten myself into. I’m still lost from what I’ve seen. I seem also to have privileged the wood sculpture over the paintings in the Muzeum Narodowe we Wrocławiu collection of 12th-16th Century Silesian Sacral Art. The next post on the paintings isn’t nearly as substantial, despite being about a third of the exhibition. But the collection is about the sculptures, the majority from Wrocław, and many, many of them are the finest I’ve seen anywhere.

During and after, I was thinking about the effect religious art has on the viewer. To see St. Catherine or St. Barbara over and over becomes like seeing a friend in different circumstances, or maybe a favourite actor in various roles. This repetition seems fundamental to religion, whether Christian with its iconography, set prayers, Islam with its, Buddhist or others. The repetition engenders a physical and emotional response, particularly visually in art, and particularly when the art touches the sublime as so many of the works here do. Entering a cathedral in the 14th century and being confronted by larger than life works in vibrant colour arrayed around and above, many with signifiers of their suffering and martyrdom, and frequently flanking the centrepiece of Jesus in his brutal and unending torment must have been overwhelming. Even in a museum, out of their original context and closer to, approachable as equals than saints, it’s still unnerving, their power.

It begins quiet, calm, modest, through a door into a corridor, both sides lined with small works, a couple of them attractive in their strong use of blues and reds. I should say also the rooms twist and turn through each other, and the attendants always like to point you in the right direction (and they were very helpful and friendly). There was also an International Gothic style Virgin and Child which I haven’t included here, without the child, the extreme S-curve of her body is made clear by this absence.

Into the first main room. The beginning was a ruse. A two-metre Knight (Workshop of the Master of the Apostles’ Figures, from Convent of Poor Clares), smiling and probably originally with sword but now looking like they’re joyously toasting the arrival, possibly with a reliquary in their chest (like Stark from Iron Man). There’s another room to the left, so caught as I was by the Knight, I didn’t look right until exiting and backtracking (already deeply impressed by the pieces in there, like the gorgeous, smiling Virgin and Child Enthroned on Lions), and then: The wall. Ten metres of eight Saints, all from the Workshop of the Master of the Apostles, each of them alone worthy of a principal place in any other museum I’ve seen, but here merely one of eight (possibly of nine or ten with the gap).

It was when I turned from that, having had a sit-down to recover from what I was seeing, that I had the beginnings of realisation of what I’d gotten myself into.

I call these Caroline Walker Bynums. Crucifixions, Pietàs, Jesus bleeding. Not merely bleeding as an ordinary person, but blood hanging in bunches of grapes or pearls, or fountaining gloriously, or running in improbable floods and streams, all signifiers of what she wrote about in documenting mediæval Germanic Christian blood cults. And here, the Wrocław Workshop again, a Pietà from St Dorothy’s Church. blood hanging like masses of dripped wax, wounds opening like mouths, and not only the usual five. Here, across torso, arms, legs, hands and feet, mouths opened from below, each with three long drops of blood, each mouth no more than a hand-width from the next. And the spear wound, more than a wound or mouth or opening. A space, a thing outside the world, it could engulf this world irrespective of its smallness. It contains the whole world also.

This is by far the most exquisite work of this type I’ve ever seen. I got lost in it, took me quite a while to venture to the next room for which I was again completely unprepared.

The Wrocław Workshop again. I should expect their any such colossal work comes from them. The Crucifixion from the Roof-beam of St. Mary Magdalene’s Church. It’s also a ruse, to see this first would be a letdown, the rooms filled as they are with so many smaller ones. It’s also a preparation. The detail though is remarkable, seeing this was a work meant to be many metres above the faithful’s heads, it contains as much as the smallest, and each face, stance, dress is rich in expressiveness.

After this, there are a succession of moderately-sized sculptures and paintings. In the Lamentation from both the Wrocław Workshop of the Master of the Annunciation Polyptych of St. Elizabeth’s Church, and the Workshop of the Master of the Dormition of Swidnica Polyptych from Lwówek Sląski, as well as others, the attention to skin colour and tone is notable. The latter’s Jesus is blue-white of death, lips especially, while the living around him move from pale northern European to Mediterranean to Semitic, each carefully painted to display the reflection and shadow convincingly. The artistry and sensitivity really is profound.

Amongst all this are works that sit outside the usual, so many I’d have to write a book to do justice. So many details, the jade-coloured wings on an angel, the trio in the Dormition, several Adoration of the Magi with beautiful Persian and African Magi. The Half-Figures of the Magi from the Circle of the Workshop of the Master of the Annunciation Polyptych from Drozków is one, his joyous, open face is transfixing.

The Wrocław Workshop again, almost what the collection circles around. The Road to Calvary from St Mary Magdalene’s Church Wrocław in 1500 fills an entire room. Each of the ten figures is life-size or larger, the faces, legs, tilt, tension, and movement of the bodies, armour, tunics, all this magnificent work is merely a frame for Jesus on his hands and knees dragging the cross, staring squarely, tortured, abject, horrified at me.

So much and I’m barely a quarter of the way through. I did pass only fleetingly through the latter stages of Polish and European 16th-19th century art, and didn’t even go into the contemporary Polish are collection. As for the paintings in this collection, that’s the next post.