The nearly life-sized 16th-century St. John the Baptist by the Master of the Harburger Altar was acquired at auction on December 6, 2011
The sculpture, nearly 60 inches tall, depicts St. John the Baptist standing on a small mound, painted to suggest a grassy hillock, cradling the Holy Lamb who turns toward the saint. St John wears a voluminous cloak over a roughly sewn shift made of a camel’s skin; the camel’s head can be seen resting between his feet. The limewood figure, which still retains considerable areas of original paint, very likely formed part of a carved winged altarpiece, perhaps flanking other saint figures, originally from the church at Schloss Harburg, a castle belonging to the House of Oettingen-Wallerstein, near Nördlingen in Swabia (southern Germany). It is part of a small, well-studied group of sculptures that may have made up the Harburger Altar and that all share the same distinctive sculptural treatment of billowing drapery and broken contours.
St. John the Baptist is an example of highly accomplished carving, in which the figure’s calm pose is contrasted with the twisting and broken silhouettes of the drapery, which in turn includes long smooth surfaces, especially across the saint’s left shoulder. Punches, gouges and chisels were used to create varying textures in the camel’s hair, the lamb’s wool, the long curls of the beard and the dense drapery masses. These techniques suggest the work of an artist trained in the orbit of the renowned and highly influential late-medieval sculptor Veit Stoss (about 1445-1473), active in Nuremberg and Cracow.
St. John the Baptist augments the Getty Museum’s collection of medieval sculpture and applied arts and complements its renowned collection of medieval manuscripts and paintings, and German and Austrian stained glass of the medieval and Renaissance period.
The sculpture will go on public display in early 2012.
Image at top: Saint John the Baptist, about 1515. The Master of the Harburger Altar (active around 1515). Painted and carved limewood. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.