Byzantine art grew from the art of Ancient Greece, and never lost sight of its classical heritage, but was distinguished from it in a number of ways. The most profound of these was that the humanist ethic of Ancient Greek art was replaced by a Christian ethic. If the purpose of classical art was the glorification of man, the purpose of Byzantine art was the glorification of God, and of His Son, Jesus.
The Sculpture Collection possesses works from the Early Middle Ages to the late eighteenth century. Italian sculpture is a particular area of emphasis. Major medieval pieces, such as the Madonna by Presbyter Martinus and the Man of Sorrows by Giovanni Pisano, lead on to masterpieces of the early Renaissance.
Glazed terracotta by Luca della Robbia, Donatello's Pazzi Madonna and the portrait busts by Desiderio da Settignano, Francesco Laurana and Mino da Fiesole are all highlights of the collection as well as marbles and bronzes by Gianlorenzo Bernini, Alessandro Algardi or Pierre Puget dating from the Italian baroque period.
As in Rome and Ravenna during the period of the Constantinian basilicas, so also in the East during the long period of Byzantine Art, artists no longer conceived plastically, and the victory of pictorial over plastic art was complete. Moreover, the times were scarcely propitious to sculpture, since religion shunned statuesque representation of the Redeemer, the Madonna or Saints, which would have been too nearly related to the pagan cult.
Hence there are very few works known to us of sculpture in the round, of the Byzantine period (for example, the statues of angels in the interior of S. Mark's, Venice), or even of bas-reliefs of any size (for example the worshipping Madonnas of Ravenna and Venice, the inlaid figures of saints in the basilica of S. Mark, Venice). Ambones and sarcophagi are more numerous, and still more so are the plastic decorations of buildings, whilst we have immense numbers of bas-reliefs in ivory and metal, so that we may say Byzantine sculpture confined its energies within the bounds of architectural decoration and the lesser arts.
Classical artistic tradition of depicting nude figures was banished. The triumph of Christianity brought with it a Christian moral derived from its roots in Judaism and replaced this classical preoccupation with human body. The figures of God the Father, Jesus Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints and martyrs of Christian tradition were elevated, and became the dominant - indeed almost exclusive - focus of Byzantine art.
This is also connected with the most important form of Byzantine art, still dominant, - the icon. Icon creates reverence in worship and serves as an existential link to God. Icon has been called prayer, hymn, sermon in form and color. It's used as an object or veneration in Orthodox churches and private homes.
Late Gothic German sculpture is another prominent section with works by Hans Multscher, Tilman Riemenschneider, Hans Brüggemannn, Nicolaus Gerhaert van Leyden and Hans Leinberger. Statuettes made of alabaster, boxwood and ivory represent sculpture of the German Renaissance and baroque periods, and reflect in particular the preferences of the Great Elector and King Frederick III in the "Art Cabinet". The monumental wooden sculptures of St Sebastian and St Florian by Zürn dating from the Thirty Years War are particularly impressive works of craftsmanship.