Ignaz Günther

Ignaz Günther (1725-1775) was the foremost German rococo sculptor. His elongated forms and pastel polychromy combine Viennese sophistication and the gaiety of Bavarian folk art.

Ignaz Günther was born in Altmannstein near Ingolstadt on Nov. 22, 1725, the son of a cabinetmaker and sometime sculptor, who was also his first teacher. Günther was sent to Munich in 1743 and apprenticed to the sculptor Johann Baptist Straub, who had a large workshop and trained many artists. In 1750 Günther set out as a journeyman, going first to Salzburg and then to Mannheim, where he worked with Paul Egell, whose dramatic style he admired greatly, until Egell's death in 1752. Günther then enrolled at the academy in Vienna in early 1753, with Mathias Donner, brother of the great Georg Raphael Donner, among his teachers, and in November he won a first prize.

Günther returned to Munich to work on his own, but few of his early works remain. His first major commission was the high altar in Rott am Inn (1760-1762), where he produced some of his masterworks:notably the Holy Trinity above the high altar, the supremely elegant figures Emperor Heinrich and Empress Kunigunde in white and gold flanking it, and the realistic St. Peter Damian and St. Notburga in vivid color on the side altars. These were followed by his major works in Weyarn, a small parish church not far from Munich, where his famous Annunciation (1764) is to be seen; one of the chief examples of European rococo sculpture, its gracefully curving forms are made doubly thrilling by the beauty of the polychromy and the elegance of the faces and gestures of the Madonna and the archangel Gabriel. The highly emotional Pietà at Weyarn (1764), also in polychromed wood, is a dramatic version of the subject, not without its naive touches. Other works at Weyarn are an Immaculata, a Mater Dolorosa, some statues of saints, and the figures decorating several of the altars, notably the cherubs and cherub heads, with their fat cheeks and pensive expressions.

Günther's polychrome Guardian Angel (1763) for the Bürgersaal in Munich is probably his greatest, and certainly his most famous, work. The angel reveals a debt to Georg Raphael Donner's revival of mannerist canons of form, derived from the study of late Renaissance sculpture, which Günther had absorbed during his student days at the academy in Vienna. Its elongated and supernatural elegance is heightened by the contrast with the charmingly realistic little Bavarian child it leads by the hand.

Günther also produced models for the ducal porcelain works of Nymphenburg (1771), as well as other works in Munich, such as altars in the church of St. Peter and five portals for the Cathedral, the Frauenkirche. In 1773 he was appointed court sculptor. In 1774 he produced the Pietà at Nenningen, one of the most moving works of art of the rococo period—an era not usually characterized by depth of feeling. A comparison with the Weyarn Pietàreveals how much Günther's art had deepened in emotional feeling and how subtly he was able to suggest profound tragedy without recourse to theatrical gestures or expressions. He died in Munich on June 26, 1775.


Further Reading on Ignaz Günther

The best work on Günther is the monograph, in German, by A. Schönberger, Ignaz Günther (1954), with excellent photographs. Satisfactory discussions in English are in John Bourke, Baroque Churches of Central Europe (1958; 2d rev. ed. 1962); Nicholas Powell, From Baroque to Rococo:An Introduction to Austrian and German Architecture from 1580 to 1790 (1959); and Eberhard Hempel, Baroque Art and Architecture in Central Europe (1965).