A memorable exhibition devoted to "Late Gothic Art in the Upper Rhineland" was held in Karlsruhe in 1970, but it was not until the end of the decade that exhibitions on the late Middle Ages became more frequent. These have since met with increasing success, while monographs on great sculptors have likewise been appearing more frequently. In short, much of the vast territory represented by the 15th and 16th centuries in Europe has been explored and made known – and this work continues. Between the 1970s and 2010, we have notably enriched our vision and our knowledge of these works.
This exhibition on Nicolaus van Leyden (known as Gerhaert to German art historians) being held in Strasbourg in the Œuvre Notre-Dame Museum, the repository of several masterpieces of medieval sculpture, is for me a high point of the fascination for one of the greatest creators of the 15th century, a period which he turned into a sort of threshold of the modern period. Everything in the late Middle Ages that suggested an ending, everything that was a mere continuation of previous achievements, is here transcended by the vision of man reflected in his work.
The sculptures executed in Strasbourg between 1462 and 1467, particularly the figures leaning on a window-sill as though deliberately offering themselves to the spectator’s gaze, constitute one of the most striking innovations in western art of the late Middle Ages.
True, the artist did not invent the motif himself but he was the first to deploy it with the sense of observation of the human face introduced by the painters of the Southern Netherlands. By setting his busts in the real space of a façade rather than the fictional one of a picture, Nicolaus van Leyden gives them a presence and a life of their own. While the Florentines had developed geometrical perspective several decades earlier, Nicolaus van Leyden in the 1460s brings to sculpture the illusion of prolonging the real world and engaging in a dialogue with us.
For the curators of the exhibition, the expression "a modern eye" has more than just one meaning. It evokes the gaze of these busts, present in the real world, but also the vision of an inspired artist, no longer restricted to the figures of the Christian world, but extending to man himself, to human psychology analysed in all its facets by the tools of a virtuoso sculptor. All of which leads us to conclude that Nicolaus van Leyden is, in some degree, no longer merely a part of the Middle Ages but already a modern artist.
Membre de l’Institut, professeur au Collège de France
Co-curator of the exhibition