The Weird and the Beautiful, part 1

I believe when one starts a new blog, it is customary to set up some kind of introductory post. However, I have always been terrible at smalltalk, I have already explained the scope and content of this blog in the About section, and I have just detailed my reasons for setting up this site in a lenghty farewell post over at my old blog. So, seeing as everything you might need to know is just a click away, I guess I’ll just skip the formalities here and get straight down to business…

That said, where to begin? Well, the header image might be a good place to start. As I’m sure many of you have realised, it shows a detail from an image of St. George slaying the dragon. This particular depiction is found in the Parish Church of Mariapfarr in the Austrian state of Salzburg, more precisely in the Lungau region. Mariapfarr’s foremost claim to fame lies in the fact that here, in 1816, a young priest by the name of Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to what would become one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time, Silent Night. Apart from that, however, it is also an important pilgrimage site both literally for local Catholics and metaphorically for medieval wall painting aficionados like myself.

Mariapfarr Parish Church, view from the presbytery towards the 15th century nave

What makes the church of Mariapfarr so special is that it houses not only one but several sets of remarkable medieval murals, executed on three different occasions between c. 1230 and 1430. Thus, it offers something like a brief overview of Austrian wall painting from the 13th to the 15th century all in one place. Let me begin with the most recent of them, the decoration of St. George’s Chapel, a small space adjacent to the presbytery. After all, this is where the header image comes from…

St. George Slaying the Dragon, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

The chapel is first mentioned in 1421, and on stylistic grounds it can be argued that its painted decoration must have been executed soon thereafter, most likely around 1425. Its most notable element are the scenes from the legend of St. George on the north wall, showing the famous episode of the saint slaying the dragon as well as his martyrdoms. And yes, you read correctly, that really is martyrdoms in the plural: According to legend, it took his torturers several attempts to end the saint’s life, including putting him to the wheel and chopping him into pieces which where then put to boil in a cauldron. However, it was only when they beheaded him, that George finally died (which kind of makes you wonder whether the makers of Highlander knew about his story, doesn’t it?).

The Martyrdom(s) of St. George, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

Oddly, though, there is a certain beauty even in this gory martyrdom scene. But, of course, these paintings are done in a style most commonly known as the International Gothic, but sometimes also referred to as the Beautiful Style. I have to say that, with its delicate lines and ornamental qualities, this actually is one my favourite styles in all of art history. There is a certain fairytalesque quality to paintings of that era that I do find highly appealing, and the ones in Mariapfarr are, I believe, particularly beautiful. One of the things I like about them is the intensity of the colours. This is due to the fact that they were actually painted in buon fresco, a technique common in Italy at the time but rather exceptional among Northern painters before c. 1500.

The fresco technique is not the only Italian element in these murals, though. In terms of both style and dress St. George and the princess, for instance, are clearly indebted to the art produced in North Italian centres such as Milan and Verona. The most striking element, however, is constituted by the fictive church stalls painted on the dado:

Painted Church Stalls on the Dado, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

Such illusionistic tricks had first been invented by Italian artists like Pietro Lorenzetti in the first half of the 14th century, but they were soon picked up by Northern painters as well, and by c. 1400 they had become stock motifs especially in wall paintings of the Alpine region. After all, the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps do border on Italy, and it is therefore no surprise that Southern influences have always been especially dominant in these border areas. In this context, I should perhaps point out that the frescoes in St. George’s Chapel in Mariapfarr can, with a high degree of certainty, be attributed to the workshop of Friedrich von Villach (active c. 1415 – 1450). This is relevant insofar as the town of Villach is really no more than ten miles from the Italian border which makes Friedrich’s knowledge of Italian art seem almost self-explanatory.

It has to be said, however, that Friedrich von Villach did not fall back on his obvious Italian experiences indiscriminately. For in St. George’s Chapel we also find a depiction of Christ as the Man of Sorrows which was clearly done by the same workshop but in a much more Northern, Bohemian-influenced style:

Christ as the Man of Sorrows with the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, surrounded by the Arma Christi, with God the Father appearing in the clouds above, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

What we have here, then, is an artist who is familiar with both Northern and Southern painterly traditions and able to choose freely from these diverse influences, presumably depending on what he found fitting for a given subject. Friedrich von Villach’s work is therefore an important reminder fact that “personal style” is not necessarily something written unalterably into an artist’s DNA, but quite often the result of conscious choices.

Ok, so much for the beautiful. I’m afraid, though, this post is already long enough as it is, and it’s probably best to leave the weird for another occasion. So, stay tuned for part 2!


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