Theses Doctoral

“A whole chapel cast and engraved with images”: New Perspectives on the Tomb of Saint Sebald in Nuremberg

Gans, Sofia

This dissertation critiques the concept of art-historical periodization through a monographic study of the brass tomb of St. Sebald in the Church of St. Sebald in Nuremberg, Germany. From the time it was designed and cast between 1488 and 1519 by the Vischer family workshop, this object has been considered a sculptural masterpiece, often called the first Renaissance sculpture north of the Alps. And yet, it has not been the subject of a monograph since 1970. The tomb is unique; no other saint’s tomb from the Holy Roman Empire displays such a dominant use of architectural forms. No other is cast in costly brass. No other employs classical and pagan motifs and ornament. And no other saint’s tomb remains preserved in a Protestant church. The Vischer family executed the tomb at a time when certain Nuremberg artists and intellectuals became interested in the forms of the Italian Renaissance, and the tomb displays an arresting blend of traditional Gothic, Germanic elements and Italianate figure types and themes. It is an object that preserves a period of transformation for a great city in visual form. Through examination of the specific religious, economic, political, and cultural context in which the tomb was commissioned, the formal vocabularies employed in its design, the technology that was harnessed to cast it, and the ways observers have reacted to it throughout history, I distance the work from assumptions made by previous scholars intent on viewing the work as a Renaissance sculpture deeply indebted to Italianate notions about art and artists.
The first chapter of this dissertation considers the specific ways in which the Vischer workshop cast the tomb of St. Sebald, and the relationship of those techniques to the rest of the workshop’s objects, other founders in Nuremberg, and traditional casting techniques in German-speaking lands. The second chapter examines the tomb of St. Sebald as a site of saintly veneration, examining the ritual and economic aspects of the cult of St. Sebald in Nuremberg in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century and the ways these factors may have affected the form and function of the brass tomb monument. My third chapter discusses the formal elements of the tomb, considering not only the classicizing ornament and pagan narratives, but also the ways that the Vischers employed traditional Gothic structural and decorative programs. This chapter also considers the specific motivations the patrons of the tomb may have had in encouraging these elements, and how they play off one another in a way that conforms to traditional hagiographic narratives. Finally, the fourth chapter traces the circulation of plaster casts of the whole tomb and its parts in the nineteenth century as a way to understand how the tomb and related objects were used to construct a sense of German national identity at the dawn of Germany as a unified nation. Through these various strands of investigation, a clearer picture of the role the tomb of St. Sebald played both in the time and place of its creation and the centuries of its continued existence will emerge, distinct from generalized conceptions of medieval or Renaissance artistic production.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Art History and Archaeology
Thesis Advisors
Murray, Stephen D.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 15, 2018