Bridal Chests and Altarpieces – Two Upcoming Conference Presentations

On the list of things that are keeping me busy at the moment there are two conference papers due before the end of the month. So while I currently lack the time to come up with a ‘proper’ blog post, I thought it might be a good idea to share my abstracts for those papers here, partly to keep you updated on what I’m working on, partly to invite you to actually come and hear them if you happen to be in the area and have an interest in late medieval/early modern painting.

In case of the first paper, ‘the area’ is London where I will be presenting at a conference called Sister Act: Female Monasticism and the Arts across Europe ca. 1250 – 1550 held at the Courtauld Institute of Art on March 13-14, that is at the end of this week. (For more details and booking information see the Courtauld’s Events page.) Judging by the programme, this will be a really awesome conference, so if you have a chance to attend, make sure you don’t miss it. I’ll be on first thing Saturday morning, and my paper is titled Enclosed on the Altar: Two Clarissan Altarpieces from Fifteenth-Century Franconia. Here’s the abstract:

This paper will explore two mid-15th-century winged altarpieces made for the main altars in the Clarissan churches of Nuremberg and Bamberg respectively. As key monuments in the publicly accessible convent church, these altarpieces played a crucial part in representing the convent to the outside world, and accordingly they both depict the life of the Clarissan order’s foundress, St. Clare.

One of the subjects of my paper: The Church of St. Clare in Nuremberg (with its 15th century altarpieces still in place), engraving by J. A. Delsenbach, c. 1725 (image in public domain)

In spite of their common subject-matter, and in spite of close ties between the convents in question, the two altarpieces present radically different versions of the saint’s story. Both, however, employ the specific conditions of the medium (i.e. the possibility of opening and closing the wings of the altarpiece) to add structure to their narrative. In Bamberg, the outside of the wings is dedicated entirely to the early, worldly life of St. Clare, while the inside of the wings – hidden from view for most of the year and only opened on high feast days – shows her as a professed nun. Thus, the structure of the altarpiece itself, with its different levels of visibility, offers a highly original artistic reflection on monastic enclosure. In Nuremberg, on the other hand, the inside of the wings focuses on Clare as a mystic and visionary, while the outside shows her “public achievements”, i.e. the Approbation of the Rule and Miracles at her Tomb.

These diverging narrative strategies may be tentatively explained by considering questions of agency and audience. One could argue that particularly the scenes chosen for the outside of the wings were intended to attract potential donors (Nuremberg), but also prospective nuns (Bamberg). It is tempting to relate these different approaches to the agency behind the commissioning of the altarpieces: In Nuremberg, there was a strong involvement by lay donors, while in Bamberg responsibility seems to have lain more exclusively with the convent itself.

A couple of weeks later, I’ll be in Berlin at the Sixty-First Annual Meeting of the Renaissance Society of America (RSA), taking place on March 26-28. This is, of course, a major event many of you will have heard of and will probably attend anyway. I will be part of a session on Artistic Exchange in Unexpected Quarters: Art, Travel, and Geography in the Renaissance I on Friday, March 27, 8:30-10:00 am (yes, I know, another early morning slot). My paper is titled From Mantua to Millstatt: Paola Gonzaga’s Bridal Chests and Their Impact on “Northern” Artists, and here’s what it will be about:

When Paola Gonzaga married count Leonhard von Görz in 1478, her dowry included four wedding chests (cassoni) decorated with reliefs after designs by Mantuan court artist Andrea Mantegna. At Leonhard’s court in the Alpine town of Lienz, however, these outstanding examples of Italian art and craftsmanship failed to make any impression, and when Paola died in 1495/96 her husband was quick to donate them to nearby Millstatt Abbey. My paper focuses on the hitherto overlooked fact that a belated reception of Paola’s cassoni by Northern artists took place around 1515/20 in the ambit of Emperor Maximilian I, who had not only a pronounced interest in Italianate Renaissance art but also close ties to the otherwise isolated Millstatt Abbey. Thus, this case study illuminates the conditions under which artistic exchange became possible, demonstrating that it took more than the mere presence of ‘foreign’ objects to set cultural transfer processes in motion.

As usual with this big conferences, I’m sure there will be plenty of other exciting sessions going on at the same time as ours, but if you have an interest in both Northern and Italian Renaissance art, in artistic exchange and in the Alpine region, ours should be the one to go to :-)

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. []

Medieval Wall Painting News 3/2014

  • I’m afraid this instalment of the Medieval Wall Painting News begins with rather bad news: An important set of 14th-century wall paintings in the church of St. Catherine at Arnau near the Russian town of Kaliningrad (formerly Könisgberg) were essentially destroyed during a recent “restoration” campaign organised by the Russian Orthodox Church. For full details of this contentious matter see the report provided by the Art Newspaper on August 26.
  • Fortunately, elsewhere restorers take a different approach and actually do their job of preserving artistic heritage. Thus, in France, wall paintings from the Romanesque and the Gothic period in the church of Sainte Anne at Nohant-Vic were expertly restored during the summer months. There is a short article and video (in French) about the restoration here. The video is particularly interesting because it not only shows the church and its murals but also close-ups of the restorers at work, providing insights into the technical aspects of wall painting restoration.

The War of Cats and Mice, wall painting, c. 1165, St. John’s Chapel, Pürgg (Austria)

  • Meanwhile, back home in Austria, another phase in the long-term restoration of St. John’s Chapel in Pürgg was completed this summer. The chapel contains one of the country’s most important cycles of Romanesque wall paintings, executed sometime after 1160 and famous for its depiction of the War of Cats and Mice. The current restoration campaign, carried out in several stages, began in 2011 and is expected to be completed in 2017. An illustrated overview of this year’s work (in German) is provided on the website of the Bundesdenkmalamt, Austria’s Federal Monuments Office.
  • Also in summer, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona shared a photo of one of the Romanesque murals in its collections in course of restoration. The painting in question shows the Virgin Mary and the Apostles and dates to c. 1165 (which makes it roughly contemporary to the murals in Pürrg). It once adorned the apse of Sant Romà in Les Bons (Andorra) but was detached and brought to Barcelona in the early 20th century. In the church of Sant Romà itself, the medieval mural was replaced with an exact modern copy – which brings me neatly to the next item on the list…
  • One of the most important sets of Romanesque murals preserved in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya comes from the church of Sant Climent in Taüll. Painted around 1123, they were detached and brought to Barcelona in the early 20th century just like the mural from Les Bons (and many more from country churches all over Catalonia). Now, an initiative called Taüll 1123 has brought the paintings back to their original location in Sant Climent – well, at least virtually, through the technique of video mapping. Visitors of the church can now see the murals projected onto the very walls they once adorned and experience the space as it would have looked like in the 12th century. The effect, it seems, is quite spectacular, and the installation of this project in late 2013 has already led to an increase of 40% in visitor numbers. Moreover, this summer the project was awarded first prize in the category “audio-visual” of the prestigious Premi Laus by the Catalan Association of Graphic Designers and as a consequence received quite a bit of media coverage. For more details (in Catalan) on the project and the award see here and here, or go directly to the Taüll 1123 website.
  • Good news also arrive from Italy: After three years of restoration, the crypt of Otranto Cathedral has been reopened to the public. Dating to the 11th century, the crypt features frescoes ranging from the Middle Ages to the 16th century. For a short report (in Italian) and some photos of the newly restored crypt see here.
  • In similar, but perhaps even better news: The Aula Gotica [Gothic Hall] at Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome has finally been made accessible to the public. This hall was built as part of a cardinal’s residence in the 13th century and received an extensive painted decoration including depictions of the Zodiac, the Four Seasons, the Labours of the Months, the Ages of Man, the Liberal Arts, Saints, Virtues and Vices. When these frescoes were discovered under layers of whitewash and overpaint in 1995, it was one of those discoveries that forced scholars to completely reconsider everything they thought they knew about a) painting in 13th-century Rome, and b) 13th-century palace decoration. In short, it was one of the most important discoveries of the last two decades. However, once the meticulous restoration of the frescoes was completed in 2007, the hall remained closed to the public because the building complex is now part of a female monastery – and the nuns’ strict rules of enclosure wouldn’t allow any visitors inside. Now, thanks to the not inconsiderable investment of 150.000 euros, a new way of access to the Aula Gotica has been created, finally making it possible for visitors to arrive at the hall without disturbing the nuns’ monastic seclusion. Mind you, the hall is still only open two days a month, but that’s definitely better than nothing, isn’t it? For more details see here (in French, but with some great images) or here.

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. []

The Saint and the Friar (A Mural of St. Christopher pt. 1)

I always find it nice to stumble upon medieval wall paintings on the facades of old houses when strolling through a historic city centre. In most cases, of course, such façade paintings are far from spectacular and consist of “standard” representations of popular saints, most often the Virgin Mary…

The Virgin with Child as the Woman of the Apocalypse, late 15th century, wall painting on a house in the old town of Althofen, Carinthia (Austria)

Occasionally, however, one encounters an image which – while seemingly ordinary at first – reveals itself to be quite interesting once you look at it more closely. This is certainly the case with a mural I came across on a recent visit to Steyr, a small town in Upper Austria. One of the most important economic centres of the region from the Middle Ages onwards, Steyr has one of the best-preserved old towns in all of Austria, its often magnificent townhouses still bearing testimony to the wealth of its former inhabitants. Walking along its streets, one still finds many examples of façade decorations from the medieval and early modern periods,1 and among them there is this early 16th-century wall painting of Christopher:

St. Christopher Carrying the Christ Child, early 16th century, wall painting on the house Berggasse 36 in Steyr (Austria)

As is well-known, images of St. Christopher were incredibly popular during the later Middle Ages, because people ascribed all kinds of apotropaic effects to them. Most importantly, it was believed that seeing a picture of St. Christopher would prevent you from dying a sudden and unexpected death on that day,2 but it was also said to prevent you from getting tired and exhausted during a day’s work. Thus, depictions of the saint were pretty much ubiquitous. Typically, they were put up in places were many people would be able to see them, e.g. inside churches right next to or opposite from the entrance or even on the exterior walls where they were visible to passers-by. Finding a St. Christopher mural on the façade of a townhouse therefore doesn’t come as a surprise. It is, so to speak, a perfectly expectable variation of a widespread custom and at first glance not necessarily something to merit a blog post. Its iconography, too, is nothing out of the ordinary: The giant figure of St. Christopher carrying the Christ Child across a river is placed in the centre of the panel before a more or less elaborate landscape background – there must be hundreds, if not thousands of late medieval depictions of the saint following exactly the same scheme.

Upon closer inspection, however, there are two things in the mural in Steyr which can be described as unusual/interesting. First, there is the donor figure in the bottom left corner. Kneeling in adoration with a scroll containing an (alas, illegible) invocation emerging from his hands, this is of course pretty much your standard off-the-shelf donor figure. The interesting bit is that this tonsured male figure is wearing the dark habit and white cloak of the Carmelite Friars. Which wouldn’t be at all unusual if there had been a Carmelite monastery in Steyr, but there wasn’t. A Carmelite monastery had, however, been founded in 1494 in Mauthausen, about 30 kilometres north of Steyr. The most obvious explanation would therefore be that there was a connection between the donor figure in Steyr and the convent in Mauthausen, but what kind of connection that was remains unclear.

Unfortunately, from what I have found so far, no written documents regarding the owners and/or inhabitants of the house in question during the late medieval/early modern period appears to survive. The official list of protected monuments in Upper Austria isn’t too helpful either: It simply defines the building as a Bürgerhaus. While this literally translates as burgher’s house, I suspect that in this case it is merely used in the sense of townhouse, describing a certain type of building without necessarily making implications about the social status of its owners.

The house Berggasse 36 in Steyr – with its oriel on the first floor, this is indeed a typical example for an early modern Austrian “Bürgerhaus”. (The St. Christopher mural, by the way, is right above the door and therefore mostly hidden behind the oriel from this angle.)

This means, despite the Bürgerhaus moniker, the building could well have been a clergyman’s residence or used as the city establishment of a nearby monastery. The material evidence certainly points in that direction. This begins with the very location of the house – it is located in Bergstrasse, a small street leading towards the city’s parish church and in close proximity to said church. No fewer than five houses in this street are known to have been residences of clergymen who held prebends in the nearby parish church. So this was a quarter that seems to have been a preferred area of residence for the clergy (well, at least for the clergy with connections to the parish church).

The southern end of Berggasse in Steyr – Berggasse 36 is the second house on the right, at the end of the street one can see the roof and the (19th-century) tower of the parish church

But the most important bits of evidence are found in the façade decoration itself, more precisely in the decoration of the oriel. First, as you can see in the photo below, another image of a saint is painted on the side of the oriel. Due to its bad state of preservation it is impossible to identify the figure, but what can be said is that the saint is male, holding a book in one hand and a crozier ending in a cross in the other, and clad in a long, seemingly white kind of garment. With a high degree of certainty, the figure therefore must have belonged either in the category of apostles, of prophets or of monastic saints – either of which would have fit nicely in a Carmelite context.

Detail of the oriel on the house Berggasse 36 in Steyr

Second, and more importantly, a fragmented inscription is still partly visible on the front side of the oriel. Its surviving part reads: Deo ut domus fratris d(…). Since the rest of it is missing, it’s hard to determine its meaning, but what’s clear is that it mentions a) god, and b) a house of the brother/friar (domus fratris). When considered together with the donor figure in the St. Christopher mural, this strongly suggests that at the beginning of the 16th century, the house was indeed inhabited by a Carmelite friar. Whether he actually was from the convent in Mauthausen and what his business was in Steyr, however, has to remain a mystery – unless, of course, some kind of written document containing further information on the house should turn up. But even so, in the absence of source material other than the building itself, I must say I do find it fascinating how much we can deduce merely by looking closely at its decoration.

And, as mentioned above, there is more – apart from the donor figure, there is a second element in that image of St. Christopher which I believe to be highly interesting. But since this post is already quite long as it is, I guess it’s best to call it a day for now and leave the rest for another time in the not-too-distant future…

Update, August 6:
I have done some reading up on the Carmelites in Mauthausen and I must confess I now have doubts whether they could have had anything to do with the wall painting in Steyr. The thing is, their convent in Mauthausen was founded in 1494 by Ladislaus Prager, a local nobleman of considerable importance in the region, but the citizens of Mauthausen weren’t happy about the new convent and neither were the canons of the nearby priory of St. Florian – the problem being that Prager had installed the Carmelite Friars in a pre-existing church for which St. Florian Priory held the right of patronage. So a complaint was filed with the bishop of Passau, and in October 1498, the bishop requested the Carmelites to give up the church.3 After some more negotiations, the convent was finally dissolved in 1507. The affair, it seems though, was concluded only in 1514 when the Carmelites gave their house in Mauthausen to the canons of St. Florian in lieu of a monetary penalty the bishop had fined them to.

Now, on stylistic grounds, a dating of the wall painting in Steyr between 1494 and 1507 seems perfectly plausible, so yes, the Mauthausen Carmelites could have had something to do with it. On the other hand, however: If the convent only existed for a few years and ran into major complications quite early on and, allegedly, was extremely small to begin with4, then it doesn’t seem too likely that it could have branched out to nearby Steyr during the few years of its existence, does it?

An alternative explanation could perhaps be that the Carmelites came to Steyr after they were expelled from Mauthausen, not necessarily with the intention to settle there permanently, but perhaps using the house in Berggasse as a sort of temporary solution. But even though a date of “shortly after 1507” would still be perfectly acceptable for the St. Christopher mural, the painting alone is definitely not enough of a foundation for such a far-reaching and perhaps somewhat far-fetched hypothesis. The mural does however attest to the presence of the Carmelites in the region at the turn of the 16th century and I therefore believe that, one way or another, it has to be taken into account when discussing the brief history of the ill-fated Carmelite convent in nearby Mauthausen.

  1. … a selection of which I recently posted on the Facebook page of my German blog, in case you want to take a look. []
  2. Mind you, seeing the saint’s image still wouldn’t prevent you from dying per se, merely from dying suddenly, i.e. without a chance of receiving the last sacraments. []
  3. See here for details. []
  4. According to Wikipedia it only consisted of three friars. Unfortunately, so far I haven’t been able to track down the source for this information, so I’m not sure how trustworthy it is. []

The 14th-Century Wall Paintings in Zahling (Austria), or Who Needs Progress Anyway?

I have to say, I generally don’t mind living in academia’s good ol’ ivory tower, but every now and then even I need to get out and get some fresh air. So this past weekend I went walking in the hills of the southern Burgenland region, in Austria’s south-eastern-most corner. You probably won’t be surprised to hear, though, that I planned the route in such a way that I came by a church with medieval wall paintings in it. I hadn’t really intended to blog about these paintings because they really aren’t that noteworthy, but on second thought I believe they may be of a certain interest precisely because they are so ordinary…

Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

The wall paintings in question are found in the former parish church (now filial church) of St. Laurentius in a small village called Zahling or, in Hungarian, Ujkörtvelyes. In case you’re wondering about the bilingual denomination, up until the First World War this region was part of the kingdom of Hungary. However, its population has been German-speaking from roughly the 13th century onwards and therefore it was assigned to Austria when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was divided in 1918. To make linguistic matters even more complicated, the name Zahling is actually of Slavic origin – the Slovenian border is a mere 25 kilometres to the south – and first appears as Zolar in a document of 1346. No earlier mention of the place is known, but the church itself is clearly older. It has even been suggested that its tower may have begun its life as a Roman watchtower. But while several Roman burials have indeed been found in the area, this is pure speculation. What can be said with certainty, though, is that the present church is a mostly Romanesque structure, presumably dating to the (early?) 13th century and consisting of a western tower, a simple nave and a round apse, plus a small sacristy added at a later time.

St. Christopher, wall painting, c. 1300 (?), Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

On the outer wall, on the south side, one finds the fragment of a St. Christopher mural. It’s hard to say when it was painted, since it is in a pretty bad state of preservation. The very few authors who have written about it have limited themselves to describing it as frühgotisch (early Gothic),1 which in terms of time period may mean pretty much anything from 1250 to 1350. Judging by the saint’s face and by the shape of the leaves sprouting from his staff, this general assessment does seem plausible, with a date around 1300 perhaps being the most likely. But it’s really hard to arrive at a conclusive dating, and unfortunately the figure of Jesus on St. Christopher’s shoulder isn’t too much help either – to me, it looks suspiciously like it has been tampered with by its 1960s restorer(s).

Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria), View towards the apse

While the St. Christopher mural was already uncovered in 1966, a more spectacular discovery was made during the most recent restoration in 2007: As it turned out, extensive remains of medieval wall paintings are also preserved inside the church, more precisely in the apse. Here, a heavily fragmented series of apostles adorns the walls, two unidentified bishop saints are found in the splays of the small east window, and the calotte is taken up by Christ in Majesty surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists.

Apse Decoration, early 14th century, Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

Fragment of Two Apostles, wall painting, early 14th century, Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

In terms of iconography there’s nothing out of the ordinary here, then, nor can the artistic quality of the paintings be described as extraordinary. On the contrary, they have to be described as rather crude, exactly the kind of thing you’d expect in a small rural church in the middle of nowhere.

Christ in Majesty, wall painting, early 14th century, Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

Nonetheless, there is something odd about these murals – and I’m not talking about the curious circumstance that the Christ in the apse looks a bit like the young Billy Connolly. No, what I’m talking about are once again certain problems in defining the style of the paintings and in arriving at a conclusive date for their execution. Well, actually the dating per se is not so much of a problem if you stick to the maxim that the most modern element in a work of art is the one that defines the terminus ad quem, i.e. the approximate time of its execution. On that basis, the first expert assessments of the Zahling murals made immediately after their discovery have convincingly shown that they must have been painted in the early 14th century. This dating is supported by a number of different elements and motifs, for instance by the drapery of Christ’s mantle, the blue ground strewn with red stars or by the zigzag frieze marking the margins of the composition, all typical for that particular period of time.

Eagle (Symbol of St. John the Evangelist), wall painting, early 14th century, Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

Angel (Symbol of St. Matthew the Evangelist), wall painting, early 14th century, Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria)

What is strange, tough, is the fact that one also finds some oddly old-fashioned bits and pieces in this mural decoration. For example, the figures’ wide-open eyes with their expressive brows have an almost Romanesque quality to them. There are figures in 12th century painting with eyes like these! Or take the ornamental decoration on parts of the triumphal arch: It shows painted imitation marble of the kind known in German as Bohnenmarmor (which literally translates as bean marble, and if you look at the picture below it’s easy to see why it’s called that). Such Bohnenmarmor-decorations were once quite popular – but mostly around 1150 and not in the 14th century…

Painted Imitation Marble, Church of St. Lawrence, Zahling (Austria), early 14th century

And then, of course, there’s the overall iconographic programme: Christ in Majesty, the Evangelists and the Apostles – that’s your standard Romanesque apse decoration, but again something that had already gone out of fashion by the year 1300.

So what’s going on here? One possible explanation would be that there had been an earlier, Romanesque decoration in place and that the 14th-century artist was sort of quoting from it. But the more likely explanation is perhaps that this is simply an example for the longevity of established traditions in a ‘provincial’ environment. A painter (and presumably his local patrons) sticking to a familiar repertoire, blissfully ignorant of the fact that (parts of) it had already gone out of fashion in the major cultural centres of the time. So, while we as art historians tend to focus on artistic innovation and judge a given period by its most advanced, most high-end art, the murals in Zahling are a poignant reminder that what we usually focus on is ultimately highly elitist and often quite removed from the visual culture of, for want of a better word, the common man. In any case, in a region which isn’t particularly rich in surviving medieval works of art, the apse decoration in Zahling is an important addition to the corpus of 14th century wall painting in modern-day Austria as well as in medieval Hungary.

  1. Most importantly: Alfred Schmeller, Das Burgenland: Seine Kunstschätze, historischen Lebens- und Siedlungsformen, Salzburg 1968. All later mentions I’ve come across seem to have been copied from Schmeller. []