Upper Rhine or Lake Constance
Walnut, remnants of original (?) polychromy
Height 34.5 cm
Few such groups survive: depictions of St John resting his head on Christ’s shoulder. The majority of them were made between about 1300 and 1350 for convents in the Swabian-Alemannic regions. The group in Frankfurt is from the Dominican Adelhausen cloister in Freiburg im Breisgau, where several Dominican convents had been united since 1687.
“Christ and John groups” are devotional images closely connected to the mysticism of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Like all devotional pieces, both sculpted and painted, they were aids to those seeking an individual experience of God. They served as a point of departure for meditative immersion as a means of achieving a vision of God and, ultimately, the soul’s unity with God. Here it is John, his eyes closed in deep contemplation, who serves as the identification figure and all but gives stage directions: meet Christ with the love of John, and give yourself to him with the same meditative devotion, and you, too, will experience the proximity of God with all you senses. Such sculptures always adhered to the same formula, with the figures turning toward each other physically. This scheme, which also included a certain manner of depicting the drapery and folds of the garments, must have been considered the perfect formal solution for revealing the inner connection between Christ and St John. There are, however, two slightly differing basic types. The possible original source for the Liebieghaus sculpture is a group—measuring 141 cm in Height—in the Museum Mayer van den Bergh in Antwerp, executed by Master Heinrich in Constance around 1290/1300. It is the finest and most impressive example, and the one closest to pieces in the Heiligkreuztal monastery, Stuttgart, Berlin and Freiburg. The sculpture in Frankfurt is the most reductive, smallest and most recent of this series.