(active 1181-1205)

Winged Altarpiece (transferred from a pulpit)

Gilt copper, embedded enamel
Augustiner Chorherrenstift, Klosterneuburg

An inscription added to the enamel plaques now decorating a winged altarpiece in Klosterneuburg Abbey, near Vienna, records that they were transferred there in 1331 from an 'ambo'. The earlier inscription signed by Nicholas of Verdun bears the date of their completion, 1181. The original 45 plaques, all made of champlevé enamel, were probably arranged across the three projecting sides of the pulpit; a further 10 plaques were added at the time of the remodelling in 1331.

The altarpiece bears an extensive typological scheme, with Old and New Testament scenes arranged in three rows, and busts of angels, prophets and Virtues in the spandrels of the trefoil-headed arcades. The central register, the most important, is inscribed sub gratia and shows the events of the New Testament, from the Annunciation to Pentecost and the Second Coming of Christ at the Last Judgement. The registers above and below bear scenes related in theme and content to those of the New Testament, but from the periods before and after the revelation of the Law to Moses, ante legem and sub lege respectively. The sequence of scenes is delineated by a system of counting marks, and the programme is described by the inscriptions surrounding the scenes, thus forming a sermon in pictures.

Although the plaques are executed in a uniform, classicizing style, they are not the creation of a single master. The names of six goldsmiths are known as witnesses to documents at Klosterneuburg in the 12th and 13th centuries, and the work of five or six different artists on the enamels has been discerned through stylistic analysis. Two of these artists produced work of exceptional quality and set the artistic tone of the piece, but it is unclear which one is to be identified with Nicholas of Verdun himself.

The Klosterneuburg pulpit is the largest and most important example of champlevé enamelwork to survive from the Middle Ages. The deep blue backgrounds gleam in contrast to the copper gilt surfaces of the figures in the foreground, and the graphic technique gives an impression of supple, lively movement, yet at the same time achieves a sense of volume. While this is a general tendency in art of the second half of the 12th century, the naturalistic treatment of the figures is unprecedented. From the evidence of surviving works, the Klosterneuburg pulpit appears to have initiated the classicizing style of c. 1200.

© Web Gallery of Art, created by Emil Krén and Daniel Marx.