The Rijksmuseum’s Western sculptures include around 250 carved in wood, the majority of which originated in the Middle Ages. One of the earliest examples is the poignant Repentant Peter by the anonymous Brussels Master of Hakendover from around 1425.
Most of the wood sculptures originated in the Netherlands and Germany. Despite the refinement of their carving, they were generally polychromed; that is, covered with a ground layer and then painted with colours. In the course of time, this multi-coloured layer was often either damaged, overpainted or deliberately removed, as in the case of the six parts of the Altarpiece of the Life of the Virgin Mary made by Adriaen van Wesel for St. Jan’s Cathedral in Den Bosch. The Rijksmuseum’s holdings do, however, include works with their original polychromy, such as the exquisite late 15th-century Nativity by Hans Kamensetzer from Strasburg.
Taste changed gradually from the 16th century on and wood sculptures were increasingly left uncoloured. Attesting to this are the early 16th-century prayer nuts adorned with breathtakingly detailed scenes, the minuscule Holy Family by Jan III van Doorne and the enchanting Whippet by Artus Quellinus.