St Barbara
Michel Erhart and workshop

ca. 1490

Limewood, original polychromy, partially painted over
Height 45 cm

Property of the Städelscher Museums-Verein e.V.



Executed around 1490 in the workshop of the famous carver Michel Erhart of Ulm, the bust of St Barbara was purchased for the Liebieghaus on the art market in Bamberg in 2011. It differs from its pendant—the bust of St Catherine in Vienna—in that its polychromy has survived in relatively good condition. This was one of the main reasons for its purchase, particularly in view of the numerous interesting technical details that are of significance for Erhart works and account for his figures’ typical vibrancy and lifelike quality. Examples are the very realistic-looking porosity of the skin achieved by dabbing on the paint and the characteristic painterly representation of the eyes and lips.

Closer examination of the bust raised numerous technological questions leading to the wish for an experimental copy or reconstruction. The aim was to recreate the sculpture’s original appearance—without signs of age, damages or later changes. Above all, however, the reconstruction was to aid in learning, as exactly and authentically as possible, how the bust had been made and what materials had been used to make it.

Comparative investigations of Erhart sculptures with original polychromy in Paris and Hamburg provided a basis for the project. It was the high altar of Blaubeuren, however, whose original polychromy has come down to us in excellent condition, that supplied the fundamental reference data for the reconstruction. The analysis of material samples taken from the Liebieghaus bust and the Blaubeuren altar provided the scientific foundation for the experiment. Practical endeavours based on these analyses and the visible findings ultimately led to the creation of a bust which presumably comes very close to the original sculpture—not only in terms of the technical aspects of its production, but also with regard to its visual appearance.

The warmly glowing gold of the crown, chalice and cloak, the two-dimensionally azurite-blue gown with its glittery gold sequins, the imitation of dark red, twinkling and rich blue gemstones, but also the whitish skin of the face flushed on the cheeks, chin and nose and the finely modelled lips and eyes: in this degree of perfection and intactness, the various attributes initially appear somewhat artificial—if not to say kitschy—and take some getting used to. Before long, however, these details come together to form a homogeneous and convincing whole. In subdued light or candlelight, the extreme colour contrasts become softer, the semi-matt dabbed-on flesh tones appear rosier, and the Zwischgold-gilded hair with its coat of pigment resembles the shimmering gold-blond hair of panel paintings of the time and contrasts far more strongly with the reflecting gold surfaces than in bright daylight. The overall result is a figure of a saint characterized by a surprisingly realistic appearance and a remarkably lifelike quality.