"Birth of Christ"
Upper Rhine
Around 1520
Wood relief
Length 58 cm, height 50 cm,
Depth 18 cm

This museum relief can be attributed to the circle of the late Gothic master sculptor Hans Sixt von Staufen, who demonstrably worked from about 1515 to 1532, this being evident from archival evidence. In Staufen he probably ran a workshop, influenced by the carvings of the Würzburg School. He was probably also familiar with works by Tilmann Riemenschneider (ca. 1460-1531), who elaborately executed the surfaces in a similar manner.

The Holy Family is depicted in the foreground: Mary and Joseph frame the baby Jesus lying on Mary’s cloak. Between them are shown two figures in religious habitus, greatly reduced in size in meaning, who are possibly to be identified as the donors of the relief. Behind it, the ox and donkey look down on the central action from behind the fence of the stable. The stable architecture is represented by a gable roof made of tiles perspective open to the side. In the upper right field of the picture, a shepherd with his encamped dog guards his flock of sheep, which is represented by three little sheep on a hilly landscape. With his right hand he grabs his hat in an apparently surprised gesture; perhaps the moment is shown here when the shepherd learns the news of the birth of Christ.

Overall, the figures stand out primarily because of their individualized faces; large eyes peek out from behind concise upper eyelids, with the gazes of everyone present meeting at the baby Jesus, thus also directing the viewer’s gaze here. The hands folded in the gesture of prayer can further be understood as an invitation to the viewer to pay appropriate homage to this devotional image. A playful aspect is the wriggling baby Jesus who has raised his little hands and looks up at his mother. This establishes a direct eye relationship between mother and child, reflecting the intimacy of the relationship between Mary and Jesus. Joseph, although functioning as a compositionally equal figure, seems almost like a supporting character. Although he looks at the child spellbound, he does not have his hands folded in front of his chest, but seems to be holding a tool.

Stylistically, this is a masterpiece of the late Gothic period. Special attention was paid to the texture of the different surfaces and the artfully twisted strands of hair ending in volute-shaped curls of the idealized depicted Holy Family. The moving folds, such as Joseph’s large, puffy ear fold or the deeply furrowed crease and corner fold configurations in Mary’s cloak, are characteristic features of the master sculptor. Among other things, the Schutzmantelmadonna of the Lochererkapelle, which Sixt created as his main work from 1521-24, can serve as a comparative example. This is also carved as a deep relief with complex draperies and shows groups of donor figures, executed in realistic figure types.