Wood in the Middle Ages




Wood is omnipresent but often invisible in our everyday lives―from modern industry, fuel, and construction to paper goods, furniture, and even art. It is unfortunate, therefore, that the fundamental importance of wood and timber in the medieval world is often neglected because it survives only in certain environmental conditions in the archaeological record, or in an unpredictable result of preservation and luck through the centuries. | Erica Kinias

Sources of Wood in the Forests of Medieval and Early Modern Europe

The use of wood as a raw material in the medieval world for a wide variety of functional and artistic purposes was almost as widespread as living nature itself. The material was used for the construction of buildings and ships, furniture, musical instruments, and even the tools necessary to complete the work. It was also a desired material by medieval carvers for the making of sculpture. In Germany and Central Europe, lime (or lindenwood) was preferred, while in the Mediterranean region poplar was frequently used. Oak, and less often walnut, was favored in England, Flanders, and the Netherlands, and also preferred in France from the eighth until the fifteenth century, before elm and beech became desirable.1 While one may think that wood was both plentiful and nearby throughout the medieval landscape, timber for building and sculpture in Western Europe was often imported from a considerable distance.  

Because of their extensive use, medieval forests were becoming increasingly farmed in densely populated areas, such as Flanders.2 This overuse led to deforestation and the search for timber sources farther afield.  Developing sea trade and inland water traffic connected new timber sources with Northern European markets. The massive scale which timber was exported, for example, can be seen in the changing size of cargo holds on ships—three hundred tons by the fifteenth century and one thousand tons by the sixteenth century.3  

Dendrochronology—the scientific discipline of studying tree-rings—now provides valuable information that allows one identify the provenance and date for objects made of wood.4 Identifying similar growth-ring patterns that occur in particular soil conditions and climate allows us to link wood from trees that grew in the same geographical location. Tree rings also allow us to discern the year in which the tree was cut down and the rings ceased to be produced. From dendrochronology, we now know large quantities of high-grade oak needed to supply Western Europe came from the south coast of the Baltic region—today Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia.5

Typically, Baltic timber was derived from inland sources, and once felled would be floated down the rivers to ports such as Gdansk (Poland), which was ideally located at the head of the large Vistula River system. Timber would then be loaded on large seagoing vessels and subsequently transported to trading centers throughout Northern and Western Europe, including Spain and Portugal. It was relatively inexpensive to procure and transport timber to Baltic ports, and the entire process—from cutting in the forests to transactions in markets in London, Antwerp, or Amsterdam—could occur in several months. As forest reserves became depleted, though, the timber industry shifted north and east, and the importance of Riga (Latvia) increased in the Baltic trade; later, in the first half of the seventeenth century, Norway became a great timber exporter as well.6  

Oak, a material favored by medieval woodworkers, was valued because it is extremely durable. Unlike walnut, which was less durable and smaller in size, oak also had the advantage for woodcarvers of having a uniform wood grain, achieved by small growth rings that lacked irregularities. These lower-density oaks were also preferred since they had less shrinkage and swelling that occurred with changes in the surrounding humidity. For woodcarvers, this was particularly important, as cracks and shears could compromise their work, whether the sculptures were painted (polychromy) or not.7  

Two particularly fine examples of medieval oak sculptures in the RISD collection merit our attention. While the Spanish Corpus from the Crucifix is from the second half of the twelfth century and perhaps too early to be of Baltic origin, another sculpture of German manufacture, Christ in the House of Simon (ca. 1515) may have come from that relatively distant region of primary forests. | Bill Skinner


The medieval use of one particular species of hardwood from the genus Tilia, commonly referred to as lindenwood or limewood, underscores these complex cultural and economic perceptions of the materiality of wood.

Across most of medieval England, France, and the Netherlands, oak, pear, and walnut species were for used for wood sculpture for their subtle differences in strength, appearance, and availability. It was, however, the broad-leafed, fast-growing lindenwood—almost ubiquitous across most of Western Europe―that held a near reverent value to the master sculptors of late medieval southern Germany. By the late fourteenth century, cultivation of the Summerlinda, or Tilia platyphyllos, a species of lindenwood that was marginally softer and lighter than that of its sister species, Tilia cordata, which grew in the north, was highly regulated and markedly more expensive than oak.8 This lindenwood variety, when cultivated for more substantial sculptural pieces such as altar retables, had remarkable uniformity of growth and subsequently a uniquely fine and stable materiality. Due to this small growth pattern, lindenwood was less dense than other hardwoods such as oak, and medieval carvers working with lindenwood recognized how this uniformity allowed masterful dexterity and skill to express an almost full range of expression and proportion. With its propensity to warp more completely during the seasoning process and less over time, and its tensile strength that allowed for complex, large-scale arrangements, lindenwood had certain obvious advantages over more popular woods. The rarity and expense of high-quality lindenwood, combined with its use by southern German sculptors working with retable altarpieces and statuary, is complemented by the material’s mythical, folkloric connotations, which were deeply rooted in German linguistic and cultural history.9

Among the more than five dozen medieval artifacts in the RISD collection, just four are identified as being lindenwood.10 The more notable of these lindenwood pieces is the sixteenth-century Pietà, attributed to the southern German master carver Tilman Riemenschneider. Despite being comparatively diminutive in size at roughly 18 centimeters high, the Pietà implores the onlooker to step closer to Mary holding up the crucified Christ and be immersed in a painfully intimate moment. From the fluidity with which the weight of the figure’s drapery falls across the composition in a variety of angles to the subtlety and range of expression in the two figures’ faces and posture, one can sense that this is not only an achievement of a meticulous master carver―it is a communion between the technical and aesthetic knowledge of the materiality of lindenwood at work. It is because of lindenwood’s singular uniformity of color that late-medieval carvers began to leave their works unpainted—a monochrome brown-tinted glaze and natural age of lindenwood incorporated into the artistic expression of the carver.11 Lindenwood represented more than just a base material—it represented a complex range of cultural, natural, and economic meanings within the medieval world. | Erica Kinias


Treatment and Installation 


Many, though not all, medieval wooden sculptures were painted in several different colors, and sometimes adorned with gold leaf. This was a laborious process with multiple steps. After a statue was carved, it was covered with glue and then linen. The linen ensured that the surfaces of the statue would be smooth enough to receive an even layer of paint. On several works in RISD’s collection, such as the statue of an Apostle, the paint has chipped to reveal the linen. Once the linen was dry, several layers of gesso were applied. This mixture of glue and pigment would be smoothed after each layer was dry. 

Once the gesso was applied, there were two options. If the sculpture was not gilded, paint would be applied directly on the gesso layers. Depending on the level of realism in the sculpture, details such as a veins or rosy cheeks would be added before
layers of skin tone. The clothing would also be painted in several different colors. For the parts of the sculpture to be covered in gold leaf, a layer of red bole would be placed over the gesso layer. Bole, a mixture of clay and glue, helps secure the gold leaf to the statue. Once dry, the bole would be reactivated with water and gold leaf carefully laid over it. It would then be burnished, or polished, to give it a sheen. Some sculptures, like RISD’s Virgin on the Half Moon (42.001), were completely gilded.

Later medieval sculptures were often decorated using the estofado technique, combining painting and gilding. This technique was most common in Spanish sculptures and generally used to decorate clothing.  The steps of this process were the same as gilding part of a statue. However, the gold leaf was then covered with several thin layers of tempera paint, a pattern was transferred to the surface of the sculpture, and the tempera paint was scratched away to reveal the gold leaf underneath. The armor on RISD’s Saint George was decorated using this technique.

Once painted or gilded, a sculpture would not have had the same colors all its life. It was common for a sculpture to be repainted as its colors faded or the style changed. Many of the sculptures in the RISD collection show evidence of this painting and repainting, including the seated Madonna and Child sculpture. | Lia Dykstra

Church Treasuries and Museum Installation

Like modern museums, churches in the Middle Ages actively collected a variety of objects, including statues, which were curated for display or stored in medieval treasuries. Much like modern museum visitors, medieval devotees often interacted with these sculptures by contemplating each individually. The reverent nature of these contemplations, though driven by faith, mirrors the reverence with which modern Western culture interacts with historical objects. In this way, the traditions of viewing these sculptures have been fairly consistent. Yet, while modern museums often arrange sculptures on uniform platforms or in cases ranged around the walls or floors for visitors to view at eye level, in the Middle Ages these sculptures adorned various heights and locations within churches and homes, and were often meant to be paraded, adorned, or moved. 

Medieval churches displayed wooden sculptures in a variety of ways. Often they were designed to stand alone or in groups in niches or above altars or screens. Sometimes, however, they formed part of the church furniture and were intended to be viewed as part of a narrative whole. Christ in the House of Simon, attributed to Benedikt Dreyer, for example, originally constituted one of five scenes on the altarpiece in the Church of Saint Michael in Lendersdorf, Germany. As one might imagine, the way in which these objects were displayed determined how and when an individual could view them. Praying individually in front of a statue like RISD’s St. Barbara displayed in a niche would create an intimate experience that could not be had with the larger-than-life Crucified Christ hanging high above an altar. Of course, some wooden sculptures, even of religious themes, were found outside of the church, as workshops and sculptors produced smaller, more transportable works for private viewing and contemplation within the home. The Pietá attributed to Tilman Riemenschneider and the small Virgin and Child may have been produced for just such a purpose. 

The use of these objects throughout their histories recorded on the object itself specifically because of the materiality of wood, which retains the marks of its use more readily than stone. The Head of Christ or a Saint in the RISD collection, for example, reveals that devotees had, at some point in its history, rubbed the nose, which gives it its distinctive sheen today. This physical interaction with reliquary statues was a common practice in the Middle Ages for those in pursuit of intercession or blessings. There were also more dynamic interactions with these sculptures, for wood, being light, allows for more adaptable interactions than stone. A large crucifix like the RISD Museum’s Crucified Christ could be hung on a wall or above an altar, as well as taken down and used in procession. Similar adaptability has been suggested for Annunciation pairs, such as the Annunciate Virgin and the Angel of the Annunciation in the RISD collection. In fact, the base of the Annunciate Virgin extends well below the line of her dress, which may suggest that the sculptor designed her to be inserted into a stand but easily removed for more dynamic use. St. Maurice also seems likely to have been designed for a dynamic use, specifically as a processional figure to be carried above the crowd. The odd proportion of the figure to the horse, obvious when seen from above, would have been partially corrected when viewed from below. Here the function of the object determined the way it was carved, altering its appearance to fit the anticipated viewing context. Today, these visual subtleties, as well as the life given to these works through generations of interaction, are lost in the uniformity and stasis of the museum setting. | Laura Chilson-Parks


Wood Sculptures in the RISD Museum

The Chronology and Iconography of the Collection: Sequence of Collecting, Types of Objects Selected

The RISD Museum collection of medieval wood sculpture consists of twenty-two objects, collected over a period of fifty-four years. Although seemingly small in scope, the collection is remarkably representative of the various functions, techniques, and styles of wood carving that would have been found in the medieval era. Most objects originated in Germany or Spain—both major centers for medieval woodcarving production—and a small number can be traced to Italy, France, and Brussels. 

The collection is mostly concentrated on devotional sculpture. These works represent a wide array of figures from medieval Christian tradition, ranging from the crucified Christ to Saint Roch to figures whose identity has been obscured over the centuries through their fragmentation and decontextualization. Besides three positively identified sculptures of Christ, the Virgin Mary appears most frequently in the collection, with no less than six sculptures representing the rich flowering of Marian iconography and devotional sculpture that followed the rise of the cult of the Virgin in the Middle Ages.

One of these Marian statues, a polychromed Virgin and Child, was the first medieval wood sculpture to enter the RISD collection in 1915. Half of today’s collection was assembled by the end of the 1930s, comprising seven more figural sculptures by unknown makers, including three lindenwood sculptures, and two fifteenth-century wooden chests. With these additions, the collection began to reflect the many secular and non-secular functions and contexts for medieval wood sculpture. During the wartime flood of objects into the art market, RISD acquired another lindenwood sculpture, a sixteenth-century table, the celebrated twelfth-century Corpus from Crucifix, and its largest donation of medieval wood sculpture to date: a set of five Spanish polychromes. Postwar collecting brought the first sculptures attributable to specific artists (Benedikt Dreyer and Tilman Riemenschneider) as well as some of the most enigmatic sculptures in the collection that continue to invite new scholarly inquiry into their history and iconography. 

The last medieval wood sculpture arrived in 1969. Since then, the museum has acquired a nineteenth-century Spanish Colonial polychrome sculpture that represents the spread and preservation of medieval wood carving techniques into the New World and the modern era. | Josie Johnson

The Collection

The collection of medieval sculpture in the RISD museum spans roughly hour hundred years (1150 to 1550) and contains works from the most prolific centers of artistic production in Western Europe at that time, namely present-day Italy, Spain, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. But how do we know where and when these works originated, or who made them?

While most works of art enter a museum with at least some documentation on its history and provenance, some have more obscure backgrounds. Any information about such objects’ origins has to be deduced from the object itself. Local or temporal traditions and know-how lead to different formal characteristics in artistic production. For example, the physiognomy and drapery of the Angel of the Annunciation (37.114) have led scholars to conclude that the work was made in Siena around the middle of the fourteenth century. The use of certain techniques or materials can elucidate an object’s initial context, as is the case with the John the Baptist (16.022). Because this sculpture is made of limewood, it is likely that it was made in the south of Germany, a region where sculptors favored this species. We often find works ascribed to a century and a country (e.g., “Spain, 1150–1250”),12 but at times a specific school or decade are suggested (e.g., “Germany (Bavaria or the Tyrol), ca. 1500”).13 14

Stylistic analysis also allows for connecting works to individual artists. However, the criteria for attribution become more complex as the specificity of our judgment increases. We can hope to discern artistic individuality on the level of invention (poses of figures, for example), or on the level of execution (the way locks of hair are depicted). Popular artists are a tricky endeavor in this respect, however, as their contemporaries often tried to emulate them.15 Art historical opinions remain, therefore, extremely valuable. They can be supported with a broad range of arguments, making them more plausible. Moreover, consensus among experts is often the only way to confirm an attribution. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that the degree of certainty in attributions can vary, and because they are opinions, they can be contested or change over time.16  | Koen Builkens


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Baxandall, Michael. The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980.
Chapuis, Julien and Michael Baxandall. Tilman Riemenschneider, Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages. Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1999.
Gillerman, Dorothy. “Gothic Sculpture in American Collections, The Checklist: I. The New England Museums (Part 2),” Gesta 22, no. 2 (1981).
Green, Harvey. Wood: Craft, Culture, History. New York: Viking, 2006.

  • 1Kristof Haneca, Katarina Čufar and Hans Beeckman, “Oaks, Tree-Rings and Wooden Cultural Heritage: A Review of the Main Characteristics and Applications of Oak Dendrochronology in Europe,” Journal of Archeological Science 36 (2009): 6.
  • 2Hans Beekman, “The Impact of Forest Management on Wood Quality, the Case of Medieval Oak,” in Constructing Wooden Images: Proceedings of the Symposium on the Organization of Labour and Working Practices of Late Gothic Carved Altarpieces in the Low Countries (Brussels: University of Brussels Press, 2005), 107.
  • 3Tomasz Wanzy, “The Origin, Assortments and Transport of Baltic Timber,” in Constructing Wooden Images: Oroceedings of the Symposium on the Organization of Labour and Working Practices of Late Gothic Carved Altarpieces in the Low Countries (Brussels: University of Brussels Press, 2005), 115.
  • 4M. G. L. Baillie, A Slice Through Time: Dendrochronology and Precision Dating (New York: Routledge, 1997), 21.
  • 5Wazny, , “The Origin, Assortments and Transport of Baltic Timber,” 117.
  • 6Ibid., 121, 123.
  • 7Beekman, “The Impact of Forest Management,” 99.
  • 8Michael Baxandall, The Limewood Sculptors of Renaissance Germany (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 25–29.
  • 9Ibid., 31.
  • 10See objects 16.100, 16.101, 16.022, and 1959.128 in Dorothy Gillerman, “Gothic Sculpture in American Collections, The Checklist: I. The New England Museums (Part 2),” Gesta 22/2 (1981), 356–59.
  • 11See Tilman Riemenscheider, Julien Chapuis, and Michael Baxandall, Tilman Riemenschneider, Master Sculptor of the Late Middle Ages (Washington, DC: National Gallery of Art, 1999).
  • 12Crucified Christ, 43.195.
  • 13Bishop Saint, 16.101.
  • 14https://risdmuseum.org/art-design/collection/statuette-bishop-16101
  • 15For a discussion on attributions and intuition, see: M. Friedlander, On Art and Connoisseurship, (trans. T. Borenius) London, 1942. Expert opinions have been subject to neurological research recently: J. DeMaere, “Neurosciences et Connoisseurship,” PhD diss., Ghent University, 2011.
  • 16This was the case with the Pietà, Asc. no. 59.128.