Veit Stoss, The Bamberg Altarpiece, 1520-1523
The so called Bamberg Altarpiece (German: Bamberger Altar) was… not intended for any of the Bamberg churches at all. In fact, the retable was commissioned for the church of the Carmelites in Nuremberg, whose convent in this city was at the time headed by Stoss’ own son, Andreas. Nepotism? Possibly but not necessarily - at that time Stoss was still the best woodcarver in the city (Nurmeberg’s other accomplished sculptors, Adam Kraft and Peter Vischer the Elder, worked in stone and bronze, respectively).
How did the altarpiece end up in the Bamberg Cathedral, then? At the time of its creation Reformation was growing in popularity and strength in the city of Nuremberg. This meant that the radical, iconoclastic reformers also had bigger influence. While denizens of Nuremberg refrained from violent destruction of religious images, many artworks were removed form churches and confiscated by the city council. This was the fate of Stoss’ altarpiece - it was confiscated in 1525, the year when Nuremberg officially became a Protestant city. At about the same time, the council also banished Andreas Stoss for his defense of Roman Catholicism. In 1542 (nine years after Veit Stoss’ death), the council allowed for the heirs of the sculptor to sell the altarpiece to the Bamberg Cathedral. Unfortunately, many pieces were destroyed or lost during its transport - for example only four of the eight reliefs supposed to decorate the altar wings have survived (two from the inner side, and two form the outer side). The predella and most of the crowning part were lost as well - the few elements that have survived were not included in the reconstructed altar, but have been preserved separately.
The altarpiece is dedicated to Christ-Salvator, who was also the patron of the Carmelites’ church in Nuremberg. The retable had a very complex iconographic program related to the Catholic doctrine of Salvation, most likely prepared by Andreas Stoss in cooperation with his father. Scenes for the live of Christ and Mary depicted in the central shrine and on the altar wings have been put in context of the “bookends” of human history, the Creation of Adam, depicted in the predella, and the Last Judgment, which has been the central theme of the crowning part.
Source: Zdzisław Kępiński, Wit Stwosz, Warsaw 1980. (There is also a German edition released in Dresden one year later).
Photos by Berthold Werner and Tilman2007 (x,x)