Two Busts of Prophets
Michel Erhart

ca. 1490

Limewood, originally polychromy
Height 43 and 44,5 cm



These busts of two old men are among the most important pieces of Swabian sculpture. The bearded man with the chaperon on his head has opened his mouth to speak and is pointing to a banderole he holds in front of himself. The other, with a toothless mouth, gazes sullenly at the viewer. A cape surrounds his head and shoulders. He too is holding a banderole, the characteristic attribute of Biblical prophets. Each banderole probably once showed the respective prophet’s name or the first words of a typical Biblical passage which would have served to identify him.

Although purchased separately, in 1908 and 1913, the busts belong together, an assumption confirmed threefold: by their size, material and style. The last-named aspect permits us to assign the uncommonly lifelike busts, exhibiting such subtle perception of nature, to one of the most important sculptors of the Late Gothic period: Michel Erhart, who was active in Ulm. Erhart must have studied on the Upper Rhine, probably in Strasbourg with Niclaus Gerhaert von Leyden, the most significant and innovative sculptor of his time. Erhart’s style is all too clearly marked by the latter’s interest in the development of space and the sculpture’s lifelike rendering. Like Gerhaert, Erhart was a virtuoso in the working of stone and wood. His earliest pieces are the grandiose busts of ancient philosophers and sibyls on the choir stalls built between 1469 and 1474 for the Ulm Cathedral.

Their formal dependence on Gerhaert’s busts—for example, the “Bärbel von Ottenheim” in the Liebieghaus—is obvious. The same is true of these two busts of prophets. In this case, however, the material and the former polychromy suggest the works are from an altarpiece rather than a choir stall. They were executed around 1490/95, during the absolute heyday of Erhart’s workshop.