THE RIMINI MISSION—Art-Historical Questions, Insights, and Assertions

The conservation of the Rimini Altarpiece over a period of several years went hand in hand with in-depth art-historical research into the sculptural ensemble dating back to ca. 1430. Head of the Medieval Collection Dr Stefan Roller on the Workshop, Places of Origin and Presentation, and the Customers.

The sculptures’ origins

Since the acquisition of the altarpiece by Georg Swarzenski in 1913, the art-historical focus has been on identifying the Rimini Master and the location of his workshop. From the start, there were never any doubts as to the non-Italian origins of the sculptures, which were previously kept in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Rimini.

Scholars initially classified the ensemble as German, then as French. More recently, however, they have tended increasingly towards the Southern Netherlands as its place of origin, particularly after a purported alabaster specialist from Bruges, Gilles le Blackere, was proposed as the Master of the Rimini Altarpiece. It has meanwhile proven necessary to revise that identification. Nevertheless, in the course of our work, we have been able to confirm the supposition with regard to location. For one thing, in the Northern German / Netherlandish region there is an accumulation of objects related to the Rimini Altarpiece and still in their originally intended presentation venues today, as well as other, later relocated objects whose original venues are known or plausibly verified by the sources. The prosperity that prevailed at the court of the Burgundian duke and in the Flemish cities in general, but also the striving of both for self-representation, provided optimal conditions for artists of every medium. Bruges—the most prominent commercial centre north of the Alps in the first half of the fifteenth century—is an especially convincing candidate. It was there that one of the most important annual markets took place. And the city’s Europe-wide trade links and direct connection to maritime trade offer the most logical explanation for the spread of ‘Riminesque’ sculptures to places as far-flung as France, Poland, Sweden, Italy, and even the Canary Islands. What is more, and not least significantly, one of the Rimini Workshop figures is a sculptural adaptation of a highly unusual motif encountered in a retable that was painted for Bruges so shortly beforehand as to be quite conspicuous: and thus provides extremely compelling evidence that that city was home to the workshop in question.

As we meanwhile know, the alabaster came from the Steigerwald in Franconia—a fact that, at first sight, seems to contradict our geographical assumption. We must recall, however, that the Netherlandish economy had always had to rely on the import of raw materials. And wood was still being brought to the Netherlands from that very region as late as the eighteenth century. It will surely have been transported by way of the Main and the Rhine, the very route by which the alabaster presumably made its way to Flanders three hundred years earlier.

The Rimini Circle

Scattered across the globe, there are altogether an astonishingly large number of sculptures possessing a greater or lesser stylistic affinity to the Rimini Altarpiece (in which context the works’ poor condition makes precise assessment all the more complicated). And hitherto unknown examples continue to turn up. They differ substantially in terms of artistic quality and level of craftsmanship, and none are a match for the Frankfurt ensemble in those respects. This set of circumstances strongly suggests that other alabaster carvers existed outside the Rimini Workshop, probably linked by a regional style. Yet that style will have come to be shaped so convincingly by the Rimini Master that he in turn served as an example to which the others aspired. Whereas it is virtually impossible to distinguish between individual workshops, research has brought to light all the more clearly that they produced specifically for export. And their output—from small, serially made figures of mediocre quality to first-rate and highly ambitious special commissions—catered to the needs of a wide range of different customers.

To judge from outward appearances (in part confirmed by isotopic analyses), all of the objects consist of the same alabaster, which makes for a highly uniform ‘branding’ among the works of the Rimini Circle. It can be assumed that these alabaster carving activities came about in deliberate response to the glut of serially produced alabaster works from England that had already set in back in the fourteenth century. The idea of competing with the English evidently proved successful, at least for a brief period.

The customers and original place of presentation


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Until shortly before its purchase by the Liebieghaus, the Rimini Altarpiece was to be found in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Rimini-Covignano. It seemed highly improbable, however, that the ensemble was originally intended for that small pilgrimage chapel. These doubts led to speculation as to whether it might have been commissioned for the Franciscan church of San Francesco in Rimini. The rulers of Rimini, the Malatesta, who had their family tomb in that church, come to mind as potential customers. They would have had the necessary financial means, ambitions with regard to display of status, artistic standards, and personal connections to call attention to themselves in society with a work as exotic in character and superb in execution as this one. Just years after the installation of the medieval retable, however, the structural alterations of the church by the Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti may have robbed it of its significance and relegated it to storage until a new purpose finally presented itself in the Chapel of Our Lady in Rimini-Covignano decades later.

Following the completion of all conservational measures on the Rimini Altarpiece, this masterwork of the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung also received a new exhibition display. The sculptures are now on view in a custom-made housing 4.0 × 3.5 metres in size, with a shrine-like shape inspired by contemporary Netherlandish altarpieces. The new presentation does justice to the substantial art-historical rank of the Rimini Altarpiece. And the Calvary group and apostles, which already benefitted tremendously from their conservation in terms of aesthetics, now also profit from the new display. It frames, structures, and accentuates them and, quite in keeping with the intentions of the medieval customers and carvers, provides above all the Crucifixion—the central element of the Christian history of salvation—an appropriate stage in which it takes on a strikingly scenic quality.

The exhibition “THE RIMINI MISSION. Material, History, Conservation” was on view at the Liebieghaus from 3 November 2021 to 25 September 2022.

Photos: © Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, Frankfurt am Main


Dr. Stefan Roller

Head of the Collection Middle Ages

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