Wood Carving Art

Wood Carving Art – History and Techniques of Sculpting in Wood

What is wood carving art? We can see that wood carving artworks are as prevalent and beloved as ever by visiting some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries and auctions. Wood artwork has always piqued the imagination of designers and artists because of its accessibility and relative ease of carving. The evolution of the art of carving closely parallels that of art as a whole over time, from its usage primarily for devotional and religious wood carving sculptures to its metamorphosis into abstract shapes.



The History of Wood Carving Art

From being finely finished and colored to being prized for their organic beauty and texture, wooden sculptures not only took the shapes that artists envisioned but were also valued for their aesthetic appeal.

However, in addition to its basic features, wood artwork was loaded with other cultural and social connotations that influenced how it was utilized.

Wooden Sculpture Wooden Mambila figure from Nigeria; Siren-Com, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Wooden sculptures in Western art evolved from being used in profusion and being seen as a material of inferior cultural worth than, say, marble, to being lauded and frequently employed by contemporary artists. Today we will be exploring the history of the art of carving, as well as delving deeper into wood carving examples and wood carving techniques that were employed by artists over the years.


Wood Carving Sculpture in the Middle Ages

Although the practice of creating wood artworks dates back to prehistoric times when wooden sculptures served a specific ceremonial role – the earliest of these wood carving examples is the Shigir Idol, carved approximately 11,000 years ago – we’ll begin with the Middle Ages.

Christianity recognized the use of wood for religious reasons pretty early on, carving crosses and different holy images and saints out of it.

Oldest Wood Carving Art The Big Shigir Idol, stored in the Sverdlovsk Regional Museum of Local Lore (Yekaterinburg), is the oldest known wooden sculpture in the world. Radioactive dating conducted in 1997 showed that its age is about 11,600 years; Владислав Фальшивомонетчик, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Many of the wood carving sculpture treasures vanished throughout the years owing to their perishability and sensitivity to water, bugs, and fungi. The Middle Ages also limited the number of visual tales that artists could tell, which were mostly decided at religious conferences where dogmas were strictly obeyed and instructions about what was allowed and what was not governed most of the era’s artistic efforts. The Holy Blood Altar, the Gero Crucifix, and the Röttgen Pietà are a few of the many wood carving examples that stand out.

Germany was one of the most productive wood carving art regions, producing several masterpieces. Wood was crafted for rafters, altarpieces, portraiture busts, and reliefs in addition to figures.


Renaissance Wood Carving Art and Beyond

The prevailing tone and comprehension of humans’ place in the larger scheme of things changed from the peripheral to the core, so to speak, with the arrival of the Renaissance. The notion of Uomo Universale, a Universal Man who is the center of the cosmos, was created by Renaissance Humanism and one of its most important thinkers, Leon Battista Alberti.

This concept was immediately accepted by artistic practices, which began to move their attention away from religious themes and toward negative depictions of the human experience.

Wood Carving Examples Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene) (from 1453 until 1455) by Donatello, located in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence, Italy; I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The popularity of secular portraits and sculptures grew dramatically, but because of the desire to preserve one’s image for posterity, wood was not always the first choice of craftsmen. Nevertheless, the art of carving continued to evolve throughout this period, with Donatello’s wonderfully carved St John the Baptist (1457) in Venice and Penitent Magdalene (1453–1455) surviving today in Florence being two notable examples.


Wood Artwork Classicism

Following the revival of interest in ancient art sparked by Johann Joachim Winckelmann’s books, Classicism arrived with an insatiable appetite for marble.  Wood was confined to decoration and design as a result of the trend to copy ancient Greco-Roman sculptures, with Grinling Gibbons’ school of wood carving art in England being one of the most prominent.

Mantelpieces, door panels, and entrances were carved out of wood, and the 18th century saw a rise in the manufacturing of wooden cherub heads. The art of carving was introduced into the curriculum of art schools in various European nations around the turn of the 19th century.

What Is Wood Carving Wood carving by Grinling Gibbons in the apartments of King William III at Hampton Court Palace, United Kingdom; Camster2, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons 


Modern Wood Carving Sculpture

After the liberalization of art genres, which led to the diversification of materials, modern artisans returned to woodwork. Henry Moore, Constantin Brancusi, Xawery Dunikowski, Paul Gauguin, Barbara Hepworth, and Louise Nevelson are among the many artists known for their woodworking abilities.

Moore is renowned for his polished wooden sculptures, such as Reclining Figure from 1936; Gauguin followed Tahitian traditional wood carving techniques by making reliefs out of wood, while Nevelson produced assemblages of found wood components.

Modern Wood Carving Art Wood sculpture made by Alexander Grabovetskiy; Alexander A. Grabovetskiy, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Cultural Implications of Wood Carving Art

Wood was the main material for many creatives from Oceania, Africa, the Americas, and Australia, in addition to being employed in Western civilizations. Wood is one of the principal vehicles for expression in Aboriginal art, for instance, and the Middle East has a long legacy of woodworking.

Wood Carving Sculpture Detail of the Last Supper from Tilman Riemenschneider’s Altar of the Holy Blood (1501 – 1505), located in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany; Tilman2007, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Artists employ this material for a variety of reasons, including decorative objectives, and religious or ceremonial reasons, but its usage was misconstrued in the colonial setting as an indication of folkloristic and generally rudimentary cultural levels of people who used it.

While Europe gradually subordinated wood to the realm of ornamental design, other nations interpreted woodworking via folklore and tradition. African masks, which subsequently influenced Picasso and movements like Fauvism and Expressionism, were seen as ceremonial items with little or no aesthetic merit.

Adverse cultural aspects of wood artwork are now part of history, thanks to political and cultural shifts in the latter half of the 20th century and even beyond, and woodcarving is as appreciated, valued, and utilized creative methods as any other. While craftsmen continue to carve wood into magnificent art items, the interest in wood and its quality appears to be great.


Wood Carving Techniques

A specific carving knife is used to carve and pare the timber; a gouge with a curving sharp end is used to make depressions and curves; a specialized gouge is utilized that has a U-shaped edge; a straight-edge chisel is used for lines, and different hammers are utilized to carve the wood.

The sculptor begins by selecting a piece of wood that is suitable for the shape and dimension of his work. 

Wood Carving Art Tools A selection of woodcarving hand tools: 3 fishtail gouges, a v-parting tool, 4 straight gouges, 3 spoon gouges, and a carvers mallet; Aerolin55, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

He next cuts the wood to an approximate form with gouges of various diameters, which he refines with a range of tools such as veiners. After finishing the meticulous work, the sculptor smooths the surfaces with rifflers and rasps, as well as different grades of sandpaper. Finally, he dyes the sculpture with linseed or walnut oil, then paints it with resin, varnish, or wax to enrich and preserve it.



Famous Wood Carving Artists and Artworks

People from all across the world have utilized available materials like stone and wood to convey their most fundamental beliefs throughout history. As a result, art has flourished century after century, distinguished by subtle ideals that carry the traditions of our forefathers.

With the intention of sharing the beauty, knowledge, and talent blended by the brilliant master wood sculptors, we have produced a list of the most notable wood carving examples below.


Röttgen Pietà (1325) by Unknown

Date Completed1325
MediumPainted wood

The Pietà, which first appeared as a distinct devotional figure in the late 13th century, is one of the most deeply touching types of depiction in Christian art. The Pietà in the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn is one of the most well-known because it is extremely emotive. The Virgin is seen holding the dead Christ in her lap in this woodcarving.

The sorrow of loss has twisted her body. It is one of the first sculptures of its sort, and it is notable for its clear and strong depiction of anguish.

It’s difficult not to feel anything when looking at the Röttgen Pietà—perhaps aversion, terror, or dislike. It’s frightening, yet the more you stare at it, the more fascinating it gets. This is part of Gothic art’s beauty and drama, which attempted to elicit an emotional reaction from medieval audiences. The divinity of Christ was emphasized in earlier medieval depictions of Christ. Christ is on the crucifixion in these pieces of art, yet he never suffers.

These crucifixion pictures belong to a category known as “Christus Triumphans”. Christ stands erect and alert on the crucifixion, resistant to human anguish since his divinity overcomes all human components.


Mary Magdalene (1500) by Gregor Erhart

Date Completed1500
SculptorGregor Erhart
MediumPolychrome limewood
LocationMusée du Louvre, Paris

This well-known sculpture is also known as La Belle Allemande, and it is possible that it was inspired by a Dürer print from approximately 1500. The saint’s unified and peaceful corporeal nakedness highlighted and covered up by her tresses, and the gracefulness of her posture swiveling in a subtle contrapposto, expose an urge for fleshly beauty by now in the Renaissance spirit. The work was created by the sculptor from the late Gothic period, Gregor Erhart. The supporting angels were eventually removed from the artwork.

The Siegfried Lammle Collection placed the wooden figure for sale on the German art market in the late 1800s, and the Louvre Museum in Paris finally bought it in 1902.

Wood Artwork Mary Magdalene (1500) by Gregor Erhart, located in the Louvre Museum in Paris, France; Gregor Erhart, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Saint’s serene elegance and kind face indicate the delicate style of the Swabian late-Gothic tradition, while the thrust hip – suggesting a traditional contrapposto – and the symmetry and fullness of the naked body reflect a Renaissance-era striving for formal beauty.

He develops feminine curves, strained muscles, and great sensual awareness instead of a thin, unnatural body in the Gothic style.


Holy Blood Altar (1505) by Tilman Riemenschneider

Date Completed1605
SculptorTilman Riemenschneider
LocationRothenburg, Germany

In 1499, the town council of Rothenburg ordered the altar as a more magnificent presentation for the monstrance carrying the town’s revered Holy Blood relic. Tilman Riemenschneider, a well-known sculptor from Würzburg, was hired to sculpt the altar’s figures, while Erhard Harschner, a local artisan, built the basic framework and structure. The Altar had been finished by 1595 and put in the brilliant Holy Blood Chapel in the Church of St James’ western apse.

It stood 9.7 meters tall and, like the church’s windows and columns, appeared to rise to the heavens with a thin frame structure that contrasted with the substantial altars of the period.

Famous Wood Carving Art Holy Blood Altar (1505) by Tilman Riemenschneider, located in Rothenburg, Germany; Tilman Riemenschneider, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Visitors continue to flock to the St.-Jakobs-Kirche daily, since Rothenburg is the most popular stop on the Romantic Road, and the altar is an aesthetic highlight. The Holy Blood relic stays in position on top of the altar, even though the St James Church has been Lutheran for over 500 years and most tourists come to see the artwork.


The Descent from the Cross (1508) by Jacopo Sansovino

Date Completed1508
SculptorJacopo Sansovino
MediumGilt wax and wood
LocationV & A Museum

At the center, Christ is represented as being hoisted from the Crucifixion. The two crooks have already been apprehended. Two men stumble to the right under the burden of one of them, while the contrite thief is entangled in the ladder leaning against his cross. Two of the Maries and St John surround the swooning image of the Virgin. The “tools of the Passion” are scattered around the floor.

The picture is identical to that reported by Giorgio Vasari, the famed painter, and writer, who claimed that when in Rome, Jacopo Sansovino constructed a wax statue of the work for Perugino to utilize.

Wood Carving Techniques The Descent from the Cross (1508) by Jacopo Sansovino, located in the V & A Museum; I, Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This is most likely correct, as copies of a Perugino painting that is based on the current model still exist. This model seems to have also inspired an early painting by Andrea del Sarto in Venice. Sansovino was born and educated in Florence, although he spent time in Rome before moving to Venice in 1527. He rose to prominence as a notable sculptor and architect in the city, developing a large school of followers who predominantly worked in bronze and marble.

The model is placed in a wooden tabernacle that originates from the early 16th century. The figure was in Giovanni Gaddi’s possession in Florence around 1550, and Ignazio Hugford purchased it from Casa Gaddi in 1766. Huxford might be the one who repainted the now faded countryside on the backboard.

In 1855, the model was added to Ottavio Gigli’s collection, and it was one of the works purchased for the museum.


Angelic Salutation (1518) by Veit Stoss

Date Completed1518
SculptorVeit Stoss
LocationNuremberg, Germany

Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are surrounded by a swarm of little angels, many of whom are enthusiastically clanging bells or playing instruments. The sculptures are encircled by a garland of roses with eight medallions depicting episodes from both the Virgin’s and Jesus’ lives. Stoss designed a golden crown to hang above the frame, but it has since vanished. To illuminate Stoss’ sculpture, Tucher commissioned artisan Jakob Pulmann to construct and install an iron candelabra containing a small figure of Mary.

The ensemble was created on the cusp of the German Reformation, when Lutheran radicals started to wonder about the necessity for and purpose of sacred art, introducing concepts of iconoclasm.

Tucher and the city abandoned Catholicism in favor of Lutheranism in 1525. Since 1519, a green fabric has been draped over the work, except on holy days, when it is allowed to be exposed. The shroud had long been considered to have been forced by iconoclasts, but the discovery of a document written by Tucher in the 20th century found mention of payment for the fabric, showing that the veil was part of the initial design.

Art of Carving Angelic Salutation (1518) by Veit Stoss, located in Nuremberg, Germany; Veit Stoss, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

It was seen as solely devotional, with no liturgical purpose, in the late 1520s; it honored Mary rather than Christ and was concentrated on the rosary, which had fallen out of favor with Lutherans. It was costly to maintain, and it was suggested that the money spent on it should be better spent on helping the needy.

The work was generally spared demolition since it was considered the private property of the affluent and powerful Tucher family. Religious art commissioned by the aristocracy was generally spared in post-reformation Germany if it was taken into a personal collection. Despite this, it was permitted to stay – albeit cloaked – in a public space, demonstrating Nuremberg’s pride in its history. Only the crown was dismantled and demolished, while the centerpiece was partially covered and deactivated.

The project was still in jeopardy, and it was dubbed “a shame to Nuremberg.” To save money, a collection was started to replace the metal suspension with hemp. This rope, however, snapped in 1817. The “Angelic Salutation” was not completely exposed and made available to the public until the late 19th century.


Woodcarving of a Cravat (1690) by Grinling Gibbons

Date Completed1690
SculptorGrinling Gibbons
LocationV & A Museum

This life-size wood cravat is crafted in the style of Venetian needlepoint lace. It was carved to show off the carver’s talent. In architectural ornamental schemes linked with Gibbons, similar cravats may be found. This sculpture was most likely created to entice and exhibit possible patrons. The cravat was owned by Horace Walpole, a woodcarver who admired Gibbons’ art. Gibbons’ carving was displayed in a parlor at his family home in Norfolk.

Although this attribution is no longer recognized, Walpole believed that one of the ivory statuaries on his cabinet, one depicting Judith with the head of Holofernes, was also sculpted by Gibbons.

Gibbons’ cravat was on exhibit at Strawberry Hill’s Tribune Room with the Walpole Cabinet. It belonged to Horace Walpole’s inventory of unique tiny items. Walpole donned the cravat to welcome some notable Spanish, French, and Portuguese guests to his Strawberry Hill residence in Twickenham in 1769.


Sky Cathedral (1982) by Louise Nevelson

Date Completed1982
SculptorLouise Nevelson
MediumPainted wood
LocationSmithsonian Art Museum

The enormous size and dramatic effect of Nevelson’s wall sculptures complimented the artist’s great personality. Black paint appealed to the artist because it evoked “totality, tranquility, and magnificence.” The spectral traces of the fractured items are slowly picked up by the light, creating illusive handwriting over the velvety black surface. Sky Cathedral suggests “the celestial spheres, the areas between the land and the sea,” as described by Nevelson, which lie beyond our usual awareness. 

With her monochromatic wooden sculptures comprised of box-like structures and nested items, Louise Nevelson, a notable twentieth-century artist, established site-specific and installation art.

Her earliest all-black sculptures revealed a focus on shadow and space, creating a visual vocabulary that would come to characterize most of her work from the mid-1950s forward. Nevelson’s works investigate the related possibilities of sculpting and environment, encapsulating the external world’s objectification into a personal environment.


Wood has long been used to create sculptures, but it does not last as long as other primary materials such as stone and copper since it is susceptible to deterioration, pest damage, and fire. As a result, it is an essential hidden aspect of many nations’ art history. In most regions of the world, exterior wood sculptures do not stay long, hence the origins of the totem pole traditions are unclear. Wood is used in many of Japan’s and China’s most notable sculptures, as well as the vast majority of Oceanian, African, and other regional sculptures.




Frequently Asked Questions


What Is Wood Carving Art?

Wood carving art is a type of woodworking that involves using one hand to hold a cutting tool, two hands to hold a chisel, one hand to use a chisel and one hand to hold a mallet to create a wooden figure or figurine, or sculptural embellishment on a wooden object. The term can also refer to the final result, which can range from individual sculptures to hand-crafted moldings that make up a tracery.


What Role Did Religion Play in the Early Art of Carving?

Early on in its history, Christianity acknowledged the use of wood for religious purposes, carving crosses and various holy images and saints out of it. Because of their perishability and vulnerability to water, pests, and fungi, many of the wood-carved sculpture gems have perished throughout time. The number of visual tales that artists could tell was also limited during the Middle Ages, as most of the era’s artistic efforts were governed by religious conferences where dogmas were strictly followed, and instructions about what was allowed and what was not governed most of the era’s artistic efforts.


Cite this Article

Charlene, Lewis, “Wood Carving Art – History and Techniques of Sculpting in Wood.” Art in Context. June 23, 2022. URL: https://artincontext.org/wood-carving-art/

Lewis, C. (2022, 23 June). Wood Carving Art – History and Techniques of Sculpting in Wood. Art in Context. https://artincontext.org/wood-carving-art/

Lewis, Charlene. “Wood Carving Art – History and Techniques of Sculpting in Wood.” Art in Context, June 23, 2022. https://artincontext.org/wood-carving-art/.

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