The Saint and the River (A Mural of St. Christopher pt. 2)

In my previous post, I presented an early-16th-century St. Christopher mural on the façade of a townhouse in Steyr, Austria, saying there were two aspects of it which could be described as unusual/interesting. One was the kneeling donor figure which I then went on to discuss at some length. Now, the other interesting thing is what’s going in the background landscape which is depicted in some detail. There is, for instance, a fine impression of a townscape, which is just realistic enough to tempt modern viewers to try and identify it as a real-world city.

Most tempting of all is the idea that it could actually be a “portrait” of Steyr itself, but apart from very general features there aren’t any convincing similarities that would justify any such identification.

There are other elements in the background landscape, however, that might reflect local circumstances. As usual, St. Christopher is depicted wading through a river populated by all kinds of strange fish and sea creatures, such as the sea snake visible in the following detail:

But, as you can see in the picture, there are other things in the water as well, just above the sea snake, and at first they almost look like some sort of horned Chinese dragons. But on closer inspection they turn out to be logs afloat in the river and what creates the illusion of a dragon’s head are just bits of branches still sticking out from the trunks. More logs can be seen to the right of St. Christopher where the artist also depicted three men in a boat using oars and/or poles to navigate the river. The man in the middle, it seems, is using his pole to push away one of the logs, probably to move it out of the boat’s way:

But there is another possibility to explain this detail, I believe: The men in the boat could actually be timber rafters or log drivers and their attempt to push one of the logs in a certain direction could be altogether more purposeful than just trying to get it out of their way. This may seem a bit far-fetched at first, but again, if one looks more closely, one realises that there are even more logs washed up (or lined up?) on the opposite bank of the river, behind the boat.

An even larger accumulation of timber can be seen to St. Christopher’s left, again on the opposite bank of the river:

Surely, this looks too purposeful to merely be stray pieces of timber, washed up along the riverbanks by accident. The hypothesis that what we have here is actually an early depiction of timber rafting or log driving1 is also supported by two external facts (external to the painting, that is). First, among his many other “duties”, St. Christopher was also the patron saint of rafters. Second, the town of Steyr is located directly on the river Enns…

A view of Steyr with the river Enns in the foreground, the parish church to the left and the impressive 16th-century city gate known as the Neutor centre-right (the gate, in case you’re wondering, once opened unto a bridge which is no longer extant)

…and there was a long history of timber rafting on that river that went on well into the 20th century. It is well-known that already in the early modern era, rafting played an important role in the economy of towns along the Enns, but unfortunately sources for the medieval period are a lot scarcer. We do know, however, that a rafters’ confraternity (Flötzerzeche) existed in Steyr as early as 13092 and that it still existed in the early 16th century when the St. Christopher mural was painted. Viewed before this background, I do believe that the wall painting in Steyr can indeed be identified as an early visual document relating to the practice of timber rafting on the river Enns.

  1. And even if the men in the boat were not themselves rafters or log drivers, the sheer mass of timber definitely points in this direction. []
  2. Although, admittedly, we only know it from Valentin Preuenhueber’s Annales Styrenses (p. 47), published in 1630, so not the best source imaginable for the early 14th century. []

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