Virgin Mary’s altar

First a stone altar was erected at the place of the legendary discovery of a host. Riemenschneider’s retable of Mary was set up on the stone altar much later at the beginning of the 16th century.
Riemenschneider formed the external structure in the shape of a late Gothic monstrance. The shrine is made of pinewood, the sculptures are of softer limewood. The abundance of so many details is really fascinating.

In the centre shrine you can see the main scene: the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin who is surrounded by the twelve apostles.

The coronation of Virgin Mary is represented in the superstructure above the shrine. At the top of the altar you can see the risen Christ as the Man of Sorrows.

The side panels show scenes from Mary’s life: on the lower left side you see the prophecy of Mary’s pregnancy. Above there is the so-called Visitation where Mary meets Elizabeth. The upper relief on the right wing shows Christ’s birth and below the Presentation of Child Jesus in the temple.

In the niches of the predella on the left, we see the Adoration by the three Wise Men, and the scene in the right recess represents the twelve-year-old Jesus teaching in the temple. There Riemenschneider has portrayed himself, sitting at Jesus’ feet in medieval clothing. The recess in the middle possibly served as place for the monstrance, perhaps it also intensifies the impression of a tomb where Mary is ascending from.

The so-called “light wonder” is connected with this altar. The retable was probably put up so that at the Assumption of Mary on 15th  August the light of the setting sun is brightly illuminating the ascending of Mary.

An experience which deeply moves the visitor.


Riemenschneider and Virgin Mary’s altar

Tilman Riemenschneider ( 1460 – 1531 )

... was a brilliant artist. He formed rigid logs into “living” and moving sculptures. Mary’s retable in Creglingen is considered to be his main work.

Riemenschneider was born in Heiligenstadt ( Thuringia ); he was trained to become a stone sculptor in Erfurt, and he came to Würzburg as an apprentice at the age of 18.

In 1483, he was admitted as a painter’s assistant in the Guild of St Luke. Two years later, he married his first wife Anna Schmidt and was appointed master.

This marriage enabled him to open his own workshop.

In 1521, Riemenschneider became even Mayor of Würzburg.

In the Peasants’ War in 1525, he supported the peasants. After the victory of the “Swabian Union”  over the peasants, Riemenschneider was captured, tortured and banned.
As a punishment, his hands were probably broken. In any case, no further work by Riemenschneider is known after 1525.

After his death in 1531, the master’s name soon fell into oblivion.

The era in which Riemenschneider lived

At the beginning of the 16th century, the Reformation considerably changed the history of the world. Later generations say: times have changed. Church and the world take on a different character and comprehension.

Riemenschneider knew the social evils in the country, he was aware of the many poor and uneducated people who could not enjoy any school education. And he knew the situation of the church as well where money often counted more than religious belief. People were frightened in order to buy their way out of misery with money. Dealing with indulgence and a well-developed nepotism are only two key-words which characterized Church at that time.

“When the money jingles in the box, the soul jumps out of the fire” ( Tetzel, a preacher of indulgence ).


Life of Tilman Riemenschneider

Riemenschneider was born in Heiligenstadt on Eichsfeld ( Thuringia ) in about 1460. His father was a “coin master“ ( director of a mint ). Riemenschneider was trained in Erfurt to be a stone sculptor – some years later Martin Luther studied there to become a priest.

Both did never meet although they were outstanding celebrities in their time.
Riemenschneider set off on his travels as a journeyman, and at the age of 18 he arrived in Würzburg.

In the following years, he continued to train himself in the sculptor workshops of the surrounding area. He wanted to learn his trade this way so that he could pass on something of his skill to others.

In 1483, he became a member as a painter’s assistant in St. Luke’s Guild which meant the beginning of his career.

Two years later, he married his first wife, Anna Schmidt, and was appointed as master at the same time. Now he had his own workshop that he had always dreamt of.

His life, however, did not proceed on a straight way. There were setbacks and difficulties, the financial situation did not always look good – and death intruded upon his life several times without mercy.
Riemenschneider was married four times. His first three wives had died before him. When you look into his eyes in his self-portrait in Mary’s altar in Creglingen, you feel something of the grief that had spread over his heart.
Riemenschneider’s marriages produced six children.

In 1521, he became Mayor of Würzburg, but in 1525, he was out of favour with the Prince and Bishop of Würzburg because of his support of the peasants in the Peasants’ Revolt.

The  Reformation  –  Riemenschneider’s fate

Riemenschneider was greatly appreciated as an artist. He even became Mayor of Würzburg when he was a member of the Upper Council.

The year 1521 is a decisive year. Martin Luther published his crucial papers, and the German language was more and more spread in writing, and new ideas gradually spread among the peasants.

The developing Peasants’ War finally led to Riemenschneider’s fall:

When the peasants gathered outside Würzburg, they wanted to storm Marienberg Fortress which was the Prince’s residence who also was Bishop at the same time. Riemenschneider knew the misery of the poor so that the Town Council refused to have the citizens fight against the peasants. The town of Würzburg was on the peasants’ side.

When the peasants’ revolt was finally suppressed by the troops of the “Swabian Union”, Würzburg surrendered unconditionally.

Riemenschneider  was accused, he was deprived of his property and he had to undergo a “painful hearing”, that is to say torture. His hands were possibly broken or mutilated. In any case, no work is known by him that could have been created after 1525.

Mary’s altar and the legend

The altar was probably carved between 1505 and 1510, following the Rothenburg Holy Blood Altar.

The altar owes its unusual site within the nave of the chapel to the ‘legend of the holy host’. According to that, a farmer, who was ploughing his field, found a host. That was taken as a hint for the holiness of this place. Therefore a chapel was built and stone altar was put up at the place of the discovery. This altar can still be seen today in the middle of the nave.

Then, at the end of the 15th century, master craftsman Tilman Riemenschneider from Würzburg was asked to provide a top part to this existing stone altar.

The top part itself (“retable”) has the external shape of a late Gothic monstrance. This may be the connection to the legend.

In the centre shrine the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is represented, and scenes from Mary’s life are depicted all around.

The altar is 9.20 m high, 3.68 m wide and 44 cm deep. The shrine is made of pinewood, whereas the sculptures are carved of the much softer limewood.


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