Medieval Wall Painting News 4/2014

I realise that this edition of the Medieval Wall Painting News is a bit behind schedule, but anyway, here are the stories about medieval murals which made it to the news in the last quarter of 2014:

  • On the very last day of the year, Zsombor Jékely reported on the completion of one of the largest restoration projects in Slovakia, i.e. that of the wall paintings in the church of Turňa nad Bodvou. Dating to c. 1420, these paintings are of rather high quality and constitute an important addition to the corpus of murals in the International Gothic style. For more information and more images see Zsombor’s post on his Medieval Hungary blog.
  • Another important restoration campaign was recently completed in France, more precisely in the Chapelle Saint Martial in the Papal Palace, Avignon. Executed in 1344-1346 by Matteo Giovanetti for pope Clement VI., this is one of the most important cycle of wall paintings of its time in France, if not in all of Europe. Fittingly, there is an entire website (in French) dedicated to the chapel and its restoration.1
  • Speaking of restorations, in November the internet also brought us this fascinating piece (in Italian) about the latest findings on the technique employed by Giotto in his famous Arena Chapel frescoes – or, as that report suggests, perhaps not-quite-frescoes-after-all. This was published on a new-ish website called RestaurArti dedicated to the latest news on Italian art (of all periods) with its focus on matters of restoration and safeguarding the country’s architectural and artistic heritage. If you read Italian, you should definitely have a look!
  • Incidentally, already in October, RestaurArti also reported on newly discovered wall paintings in the Cappella del Presepe in Matera Cathedral. Judging by the photos provided, these murals seem to date from the 14th century, and they are justly praised as an extraordinary discovery.
  • Another new discovery was reported from Lausanne, Switzerland: A fragment of early 14th-century wall painting was uncovered in what was once a domestic space in a nobleman’s town-house. As is typical for secular decorations of that time, it consists of a fictive drapery in the dado zone and an ornamental pattern covering the main part of the wall. For more information (in French) and a photo of the fragment see here.
  • Another fine set of frescoes from the first half of the 15th century was recently uncovered in the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo in Abrantes, Portugal.2 Although far from extensive, these paintings are of great importance nonetheless, at least in a local context – after all, the survival rate of pre-1450 murals in Portugal is close to zero, so this really is a rather exciting find. For more information (in Portuguese) and a couple of images see here or here.
  • The last piece in the “new discoveries” section comes from Spain, more precisely from the church of Sant Pere in Ripoll where 40 painted dragons were uncovered on the ribs of the church’s Gothic vaulting. The paintings themselves are dated 1561, so strictly speaking they are not medieval. However, I decided to include them here nonetheless, since I believe they form a great example of how a medieval space was re-interpreted and re-appropriated in the early modern period. Pictures and some more information (in Spanish) can be found here.
  • To conclude, the final news item in today’s post comes from a rather unexpected source, the Daily Mail: Titled – in that inimitable matter of fact style the Mail is famous for – How I saw off satanists and rescued one of England’s finest churches…, it is the admittedly fascinating story of the restoration of St. Mary in Houghton on the Hill, Norfolk, which brought to light some of England’s earliest surviving wall paintings, believed to date back to the late 11th century. To be sure, the discovery and restoration of the murals is not itself a recent event (having taken place in the 1990s), but the Daily Mail piece is, so I figured it ought to be included here as a slightly unusual case of “medieval wall paintings in the news”. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s worth a read…

 

 

  1. I must confess that the restoration was actually already completed in early 2014, but I’d somehow missed it back then. Considering the frescoes’ great importance, however, I feel compelled to still report on them now, even though this is, strictly speaking, old news. []
  2. It has to be mentioned, though, that some of the reports published online give a different date of execution and speak of “late 15th-century frescoes”. Based on the images I’ve seen, however, I definitely agree with the pre-1450 dating. []

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. []