Three Magi and a Restoration

So, today is the feast of the Epiphany, and what better excuse to post a couple of wall paintings showing the Adoration of the Magi. Or, to be more precise, not just the Adoration but also the Journey of the Magi.

Murals packing both the Journey of the Magi and the ensuing Adoration into one long, frieze-like composition were extremely popular in 15th-century Austria, especially in the country’s southern states Styria and Carinthia, as well as in neighbouring Slovenia.1 It is not quite clear why exactly these composition were so popular, but it may simply have had to do with the fact that they allowed painters and viewers to revel in lavish, elaborate mass scenes full of courtly splendour. Indeed, depicting the Magi and their entourage may have been the closest medieval artists ever got to something like Joseph L. Mankiewicz’ Cleopatra.

The Massacre of the Innocents & the Flight into Egypt (upper tier), The Journey & the Adoration of the Magi (lower tier), wall painting, 1435, Maria Saal (Carinthia), Cathedral

Just take a look at, for instance, this example in the “Cathedral” of Maria Saal (pictured above and below), which happens to be one of the few cases that can actually be dated with precision: As an inscription informs us, it was painted in 1435 on commission of a local nobleman called Wilhelm von Neuschwert.2 Stylistically, it shows the merging of the International Gothic style prevalent in Central Europe with Northern Italian, especially Veronese elements, so characteristic for the art of the Alpine region at the time.3

The Journey of the Magi, wall painting, 1435, Maria Saal (Carinthia), Cathedral

As befits Three Kings, the Magi and their servants are equipped in the most dazzling courtly fashion, sporting fancy long sleeves, expensive fabrics, belts with bells (a must-have fashion accessory of the day), and the kind of headgear that would make some of the ladies at Ascot jealous:

The Journey of the Magi, detail, wall painting, 1435, Maria Saal (Carinthia), Cathedral

The same kind of fashionable details are found in another mural of the same subject in St. Peter am Kammersberg. It is slightly older than the painting in Maria Saal, and can be dated on stylistic grounds to c. 1420/25.4

The Journey & the Adoration of the Magi, wall painting, c. 1420/25, St. Peter am Kammersberg (Styria), Parish Church

Again, look at those hats, not to mention the crests on the helmets,…

The Journey of the Magi, detail, wall painting, c. 1420/25, St. Peter am Kammersberg (Styria), Parish Church

…at the fabrics, the sleeves and – yes, again – the bells at one of the Magi’s belt:

The Journey of the Magi, detail, wall painting, c. 1420/25, St. Peter am Kammersberg (Styria), Parish Church

And look, they even brought their pet monkey and a black servant to add a dose of exoticism to their style:

The Journey of the Magi, detail, wall painting, c. 1420/25, St. Peter am Kammersberg (Styria), Parish Church

Now, I’m sure many of you, when viewing these details, will be reminded of other, more famous depictions of the subject, like those by Gentile da Fabriano or by Benozzo Gozzoli. And some of you may even think “Yeah, I’ve seen it all before, and seen it better”, and I probably wouldn’t contradict you on that.

Be that as it may, there is one detail in the mural in St. Peter am Kammersberg which, regardless of the painting’s artistic qualities, makes it an interesting case for understanding the making of late medieval wall paintings. If we look at the actual Adoration scene, we find that parts of the original composition have been painted over: Joseph, Mary, (the head of) baby Jesus, the architecture of the stable, and part of Mary’ throne clearly were renewed a later period.

The Adoration of the Magi, wall painting, c. 1420/25 & c. 1500, St. Peter am Kammersberg (Styria), Parish Church

Again, we can only date these renewed bits on stylistic grounds, but it seems that they were executed around 1500, i.e. seven or eight decades after the original painting. What caused this overpainting we can only guess. The original mural may have been damaged and the additions of c. 1500 simply a freehanded attempt at restoration. Then again, there may have been no damage at all, and the renewals intended to bring the by-then old-fashioned painting up to date. And what about the badly preserved donor figure (by the looks of it, a cleric) kneeling in the bottom right corner. Was it already a part of the original composition of c. 1420/25 and only renewed around 1500 as well? Or was this actually the person who commissioned the overpainting and had his portrait included to commemorate the event?

Perhaps the only thing that is obvious, though, is that at least all of Mary’s and Jesus’ bodies must have been included in the “upgrade”, and that the transition from the renewed parts to the original ones was never intended to be as brusque and weird as this:

The Adoration of the Magi, detail, wall painting, c. 1420/25 & c. 1500, St. Peter am Kammersberg (Styria), Parish Church

But perhaps it is, after all, a good thing that today the painting looks as awkward as it does and that baby Jesus appears to have a slight surplus of arms. This way, the overpaintings become all the more evident and are a vivid reminder that a lot of medieval wall painting was continuously work in progress, that murals were constantly repainted, renewed or tampered with some other way, be it that they were in need of repair, be it that someone with the necessary funds thought they could do with a bit of sprucing up. I’m sure the Adoration of the Magi in St. Peter am Kammersberg won’t be the last example for this practice you are going to see on this blog, but it certainly is and will remain one of the most distinct ones.

  1. Cf. for instance Gottfried Biedermann and Karin Leitner, Gotik in Kärnten, Klagenfurt 2001, pp. 168-170. []
  2. See Walter Frodl, Die gotische Wandmalerei in Kärnten, Klagenfurt 1944, pp. 83-84. []
  3. Something I’ve written about previously. []
  4. Elga Lanc, Die mittelalterlichen Wandmalereien in der Steiermark (Corpus der mittelalterlichen Wandmalereien Österreichs, Vol. II), Vienna 2002, pp. 547-550. []

One thought on “Three Magi and a Restoration

  1. Hi i have just stumbled across your very interesting site as i am about to try and do a dissertation on the restoration, recovery and removal of frescoes. I’m not sure of my approach yet but your site is proving most intriguing in its prominence given to ” off the beaten track” works that show themselves to be every bit as worthy as the well known Italian cycles, I look forward to reading through your articles, Regards Edward Wynne Birkbeck College London.

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