Veit Stoss

The German sculptor Veit Stoss (ca. 1445-1533) perfected the expressive late Gothic style in his early masterpiece, the high altar of the Virgin Mary in Cracow, Poland. His late sculpture shows his mastery of a new, abstract, Renaissance-inspired art.

Born either in Swabia or Nuremberg, Veit Stoss worked in Cracow, Poland, between 1477 and 1496, when he became a citizen of Nuremberg. In 1503 he falsified papers and was condemned to death. He was reprieved but branded on the cheeks with hot irons. He nevertheless continued to work in Nuremberg until his death.

Stoss's most impressive and important work is the high altar (1477-1486) of the parish church of the Virgin Mary in Cracow. It is an elaborate polychromed wood structure, with two sets of wings which depict in relief sculpture the life of the Virgin and of Christ. In the center is the Death of Mary in the presence of the Apostles. In the openwork Gothic superstructure Christ ascends into heaven with her soul, and at the top of the altarpiece Mary is crowned Queen of Heaven by the Trinity. The entire altarpiece is a blaze of gold and strong colors, especially blue, and the excitement continues in the style of the carving. Drapery folds, deeply undercut, break crisply and swirl about, forming animated patterns in light and shade. The altarpiece is a technical tour de force that overwhelms the beholder.

The first accredited works by Stoss after his return to Nuremberg are the three stone reliefs (1499) of the Passion in the choir of St. Sebald. They are of remarkable formal concentration and enormous power, as is the wooden crucifix from the same period and church (now on the high altar of the church of St. Lorenz).

High above this altar in St. Lorenz, suspended in midair, is Stoss's famous Great Rosary, or Salve Regina (1517-1518). A wooden chaplet of carved roses and medallions representing the Seven Joys of Mary surround the life-size figures of Gabriel and the Annunciate Virgin. The style is crisp and somewhat nervous in this very dramatic conception, which honors the Cult of the Rosary, promulgated in the late 15th century by the Dominicans.

There is just a hint of calm and relaxation, as well as a breath of the new spirit of the Renaissance, in the masterpiece of Stoss's late style, the Adoration of the Shepherds altarpiece (1520-1523), carved for a church in Bamberg (now in the Cathedral). The wood was purposely left un-colored, in the new Renaissance feeling for the medium that Stoss's contemporary Tilman Riemenschneider shared.

Stoss's genius was so strong that it was apparently impossible for forceful individuals to develop in his school in Nuremberg.


Further Reading on Veit Stoss

There is no biography of Stoss in English. Theodore Müller, Sculpture in the Netherlands, Germany, France, and Spain, 1400-1500 (trans. 1966), has excellent biographical and critical material on Stoss. Recommended for background are Charles Louis Kuhn, German and Netherlandish Sculpture, 1280-1800 (1965), and Hanspeter Landolt, German Painting: The Late Middle Ages, 1350-1500 (trans. 1968).