Limewood, original polychromy, retouched during the Baroque
Height 57 cm
As early as 1830, the Städelsches Kunstinstitut purchased four Late Gothic male busts in clerical garb. They include two bishops: Saints Ambrose and Augustine; a Pope Saint: Gregory the Great; and a cardinal: Saint Jerome. These men the four most important Church Fathers in the Western Christian Church, scholars of early Christendom recognized as authorities. The interpretation, commentary, dissemination, translation and defence of the Christian doctrine in word and text are directly associated with their names. Not coincidentally, all four Frankfurt busts have books as attributes. It is the Bible they read, leaf through or discuss, or, in the case of Augustine, seem to ponder, deeply immersed in thought.
Because of this direct connection to the word of Christ, Late Medieval depictions of Church Fathers were frequently located on pulpits or altars in churches—locations where the Christian message was of central importance. These Church Fathers in Frankfurt, for example, are from the main altar of the colleg ate church of Saints Peter und Alexander in Aschaffenburg. There they stood in the bottommost section—the predella—of the Late Gothic altarpiece, each placed in “different boxes”, as we are told by a written source of 1606. The reference is probably to built-in niche-like spaces from which the half-length figures gazed as if through windows.
The creator of these uncommonly lifelike and skilfully wrought busts was Hans Bilger of Worms, a sculptor certain to have trained on the Upper Rhine. Five altarpieces, meanwhile unfortunately lost, dating from between 1475 and 1496 and once located in Frankfurt, Kirchgarten near Worms, Höchst and Aschaffenburg, are known to have been his work.