Alonso Berruguete, Reinassance Sculptor - Page 16

Saint Anne’s mantle is decorated with simulated brocade made of
Fig. 7. Jörg Syrlin the
gesso overlaid with tin and decorated with gold leaf and glazes.
Elder, Design drawing
The extraordinary retable of Santa Ana in Burgos Cathedral is
Siloe brought the same technique to Burgos, laying down sheets of
for the (lost) high
thought to have been carved by Gil de Siloe (ca. 1440-1501) and
“prefabricated” painted and moulded gesso along garment borders.20
altar in Ulm Minster,
polychromed by Diego de la Cruz (fl. 1482-1500) between 1484
The use of low relief in gesso had been used to decorate early altar
and 1487 (fig. 6).13 A huge tripartite structure, at its centre is a Tree
frontals in Catalonia and Aragon, but the complex procedure used
of Jesse with the Meeting of Joachim and Anna at the Golden Gate and
by Siloe was new to Castile. In Germany its development produced
the Virgin and Child above it. It was commissioned by the bishop of
such highly-expressive works as the Wetzlar Pietà which evokes at once
Burgos, Luis de Acuña (who is portrayed kneeling in one of the
the sumptuousness of the Virgin’s robes and the horror of Christ’s
side panels), and it is housed in his funerary chapel dedicated to
wounds (see fig. 10). The appeal of these works to Castilian patrons
Sainte Anne and the Immaculate Conception. This retable is not
is clear from the donation of several similar German Pietàs
only the earliest surviving example of the massive carved wood
to religious institutions in the first half of the fifteenth century.21
Gil de Siloe’s Jesse
altarpieces present throughout Castile by the end of the century; it
is also like nothing else produced anywhere in Europe before it, at
Gil de Siloe created similar wounds with raised rivulets of blood
least nothing that survives to this day. Siloe himself, like his Jesse,
flowing from them on the figures of Christ on the Cross at the top
was a progenitor. His bloody and lacerated Christ on the Cross bears
of his altarpieces (fig. 9). In Germany, materials such as imitation
a direct relationship to the Christs produced later by Berruguete,
gems, glass and hair were also added, and both these and the use
and to the agonized figures of Baroque sculptors such as Gregorio
of gesso reliefs to depict wounds, scourge marks and tears would
Fernández and Juan de Mesa.
become a standard feature of Spanish polychrome sculpture in
Fig. 5. Felipe Bigarny, Saint Mark, polychromed wood,
Museo Nacional de Escultura, Valladolid.
the Baroque period.22 As Stefan Roller comments, these mimetic
Siloe’s background is not known although it is generally agreed
features embodied a “peculiar tension” between the world
that he came from Northern Europe. The closest works to
inhabited by the worshipper and the one he or she believed they
precede the retable are the carved and polychromed altarpieces
would experience after death:
produced in the Southern German regions of Swabia and
Franconia in the 1460s, 1470s and 1480s.16 Siloe’s figures are
“… this palpable proximity of a divine manifestation, this
similar, for example, to those of the Ulm sculptor Michel Erhart
real presence of sanctity in the same space as himself, must
(ca. 1440-after 1522), and the kings standing in the Burgos Tree
have been at once confusing and deeply impressive. The
of Jesse recall the angels on a trellis in a design by Jörg Syrlin the
more closely the sculptures related to the reality of the
Elder (ca. 1425- 491) for the lost high altar in Ulm produced
believer, the more direct and powerful...”23
in 1474 (fig. 7).17 The first documentary reference to Siloe in
Spain is in 1486, when Queen Isabella of Castile commissioned
Images were also known to aid memory and stimulate devotion.
from him a model for a tomb of her father and mother. That
According to Gregory the Great, images helped people to recall
model would result in the alabaster monument which can be
the story of Salvation.24 The Franciscans – who were highly
seen at the charterhouse of Miraflores, and Siloe also produced
influential in Spain – took this one stage further, encouraging the
the extraordinary carved and polychromed retable above the
faithful to use explicit images of the Passion so as to empathise
high altar. It is entirely possible, therefore, that Siloe saw (or even
with Christ and his mother.25 In this context, the skill of the artist
worked on) some of the altarpieces by figures such as Erhart and
in creating portraits was highly prized.26 Johannes Taubert noted
Syrlin before arriving in Burgos.
that this verisimilitude would become the defining characteristic
of Spanish Baroque polychrome sculpture and is still considered
Siloe’s Jesse is strikingly similar in design, technique and size to a
by many devout Spaniards to represent “verdad” or truthfulness.27
reclining Saint Anne from a Nativity of the Virgin produced in Lower
Consideration of these objects for them is partly concerned with
Franconia ca. 1480 (fig. 8). Here the chalk ground served not only as
artistic form, but also partly with faith and insight, although this
Fig. 6. Gil de Siloe & Diego de la Cruz, Retable of Santa Ana,
preparation for the painted surface but also as a sculptural aid which
deeper meaning is difficult to understand when the sculptures are
polychromed wood, Burgos Cathedral.
could be incised or punched with tools and moulded into reliefs.
displayed in secular contexts such as museums and galleries.

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