ASU art history Professor Corine Schleif proffers a new theory on an old sculpture
The image in stone relief is arresting, but not for its beauty. A woman on bended knees, head tilted upward, is restrained by a man from behind while another man at her front appears to reach his arms out toward her. It’s hard to know exactly what his arms are meant to be doing, though — at some point in history, they were chiseled away.
For at least two centuries, scholars have accepted the idea that the man’s arms are reaching out to grasp the neck of the woman, at various times presumed to be either Saint Beatrice or Saint Ludmila, both of whom were strangled to death according to Christian canon.
Now, after taking a closer look at the work of art displayed on a stone pillar in St. Lorenz church in Nuremberg, Germany, Arizona State University art history Professor Corine Schleif is proffering a new theory as to the woman’s identity. Schleif believes it is Saint Apollonia, patron saint of dentists and those suffering from tooth ailments, whose own teeth are said to have been violently extracted or shattered as part of her torture and murder at the hands of an Alexandrian mob in the third century.
Schleif described the day during the summer of 2017 that she and ASU doctoral candidate Bevin Butler took a tour of Nuremberg churches while conducting research there, when the realization struck her “like the scales falling from her eyes.”
Earlier in the day, Schleif had accompanied Butler to a church where they observed tapestries as part of Butler’s research for her dissertation on nuns' textiles. One tapestry in particular portrays six so-called virgin martyrs, one of whom is known to be Saint Apollonia, depicted with a pair of pliers in her mouth. With that image fresh in their minds, Schleif and Butler next visited St. Lorenz church.
There, Schleif was eager to view and discuss with her student some of the works of late-14th-early-15th century German sculptor Adam Kraft, about whom she has been working on a book for several years. In addition to the enormous Eucharistic tabernacle, they also stopped to take in the defaced stone relief.
“We were standing in front of it,” Schleif said, “and I was telling Bevin, ‘OK, you see how this person's arms are missing here?’ — when you’re an art historian, you do these silly things like act out works of art — so I said, ‘We have to imagine what his arms were doing and why he's in this pose and what the rest of the sculpture looked like that's missing.’
“And then all of a sudden I thought, ‘What were his arms doing?’”
The pair stopped to consider the question. Upon closer inspection, they realized the man behind the woman wasn’t strangling her with the piece of cloth he held — he was restraining her.
“We were literally, the two of us, sort of miming it out,” Butler said. “Which I’m sure was entertaining for everybody there trying to have nice vacation and here we are acting out this weird martyrdom.”
What’s more, there seemed to be a chunk of stone sticking out of the woman’s mouth.
“The mouth has some stone that's left on it that can't just be her mouth,” Schleif said. “Her lips are parted and there’s a bunch of stone there that wouldn't belong there unless there was something else there, attached to her mouth.”
Recalling the image of Saint Apollonia on the tapestry, Schleif’s suspicion turned toward certainty.
To be absolutely sure, she traveled to a town a few kilometers outside of Nuremberg to view a panel painting there that was thought to be based on the Kraft stone relief. Fortunately, the image on the panel painting is still completely intact, including the arms of the man, one raised high above his head, chiseling away at the hapless saint’s teeth.
“It was clearly Apollonia,” Schleif said.