Tilman Riemenschneider transmitted words, thoughts and emotions through images with such force that, even today, his sculptures are considered to retain a visual potency unequalled by any other sculptor in German gothic or, indeed, renaissance art. He had a long career that began with his accession to Master in circa 1485 and ended abruptly in 1525 when Riemenschneider, who was serving on the Würzburg municipal council, was arrested after joining an unsuccessful revolt against the prince-bishop of the city. Although he survived the revolt he barely carved again and died six years later. During his career, Riemenschneider carved some of the most haunting and sensitive Christian images of the time. His multifarious figures of Christ, the Virgin and an array of saints were prominently displayed in churches around Germany, and their intense realism gave a sense that they lived and breathed before the attending congregations, thereby catalysing people's devotion to God. Many of Riemenschneider's works even managed to survive the aggression of the Reformation iconoclasm since they, more than any other, were considered to have the power to move people to devotion.
On the basis of stylistic comparisons, the highly sensitive limewood bust of St. Sebastian offered here is attributed to Riemenschneider and would appear to date from very early on in his career. Reduced from a full-length figure, it would almost certainly have formed part of an altarpiece similar to the St John the Baptist altarpiece dated to 1513 in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich (Washington and New York, op. cit., p. 42, fig. 11). The St Sebastian was carved with the vocabulary common to many early works by this master; a small oval face, curly shoulder-length hair, a large, down-turned eye that is asymmetrical with its pair and a long elegant nose that swells very slightly at the bridge and tip. The bust is also imbued with a human quality that is achieved through the delicate and multi-contoured carving of the cheeks, the flared nostrils, the beautifully pursed, symmetrical lips and the small child-like chin. The power of the piece also lies in the fact that, despite the saint's suffering and eventual martyrdom, the image is one of pathos and of quiet reflection, as well as of ecstasy and triumph in death. Like the sfumato technique in painting, this latter aspect can be witnessed in the way light and shadows strike the lips and the way they create what appears to be a smile, implying the rapture of martyrdom.
When the bust was first studied by Justus Bier in 1954 he proposed that on the basis of style it must have dated from the first decade of the 16th century. He subsequently changed this view and then proposed that better comparisons could be made with his works before the turn of the century. As one can see when looking at Riemenschneider's oeuvre from 1500 onwards, his faces become more rounded, with large, flat planes and with sharp, linear features; and while the faces are anguished they are also somehow blank and vacant. This can be seen, for example, on the face of the Crucified Christ dated to 1500-1510 in the Hessisches Landesmuseum, Darmstadt, and on the Mourning Virgin from circa 1510 in the Württembergisches Landesmuseum, Stuttgart (ibid., nos. 33 and 37 respectively). It also seems that in his mature years Riemenschneider opted for generic 'stock faces', which one can clearly see when looking at the three facial types on the eight-figure group of the Lamentation dated to 1510 in the Parish of Saints Peter and Paul, Grossostheim (ibid., no. 38). The St. Sebastian clearly predates the more generic facial types that featured so frequently in his later works. With this bust, one sees an expressiveness that is created by the definition of the eye-lids, the soft fleshy face with sinuously carved cheek-bones, the full cheeks and slight jowl. Such facial features can be variously found on the faces of Saints Luke and John and especially Mary Magdalene from the Münnerstadt Altarpiece dated to 1490-1492 (ibid., no. 13), on the Virgin dated to the late 1490s in the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, Kansas (Bier, 1982, op. cit., pls. 3A-B) and even on the Adam and Eve executed between 1491-3 in the Mainfränkisches Museum, Wurzburg (ibid., pls. 21A-D) thereby supporting an early dating for the present bust.
One of the most interesting aspects of this bust is that the St. Sebastian is significantly different from any other image of a male saint by this artist yet it bears enough stylistic similarities to his earliest and greatest masterpieces to show that it can be dated before 1500. That it differs from the handful of other known figures of St. Sebastian (Wurzburg, op. cit. nos. 59-61) demonstrates that the artist was experimenting with his medium and subject matter. There can only be speculation as to why Riemenschneider made the stylistic evolution away from this very human image, but that it actually happened is what makes this bust important since it comes from a period when one of the greatest sculptors of a generation was defining his style.