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. []

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 Weird and the Beautiful, part 2

The more I think about it, the more I wonder whether “The Weird and the Beautiful” wouldn’t have been the perfect title for the blog as a whole. Of course, the subjects I am going to discuss here will be pertinent one way or another to my work as a researcher in late medieval art, but on a more basic level most of them will likely be things I find either particularly weird or exceptionally beautiful. Anyway, seeing as the first part of this post dealt with the beautiful, you know what to expect from today’s instalment…

So, we left off in St. George’s Chapel in the Parish Church of Mariapfarr, Austria. Now, if one steps from the chapel into the adjacent presbytery of the church, one finds bits and pieces of 13th century paintings spread across its walls.

Mariapfarr, Parish Church, South Wall of Presbytery, 1st Bay with Fragments of 13th-Century Wall Paintings (top left: Entry into Jerusalem; top right: Last Supper; bottom right: Crucifixion) and Doorway Leading to St. George’s Chapel

These bits and pieces belong to what was once a cycle of the Life of Christ, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the Crucifixion. As you can see in the above photo, though, they are heavily fragmented, and the only scene to survive in a more or less complete state is the Nativity on the north wall.

Nativity and Fragment of the Adoration of the Magi (the Magi themselves having been swallowed up by the rib-vault inserted in the 14th century), Wall Painting, c. 1230-1240, Mariapfarr, Parish Church, North Wall of Presbytery

Several motifs in this scene find close parallels in other works of art datable to c. 1220-1230 – for instance, the way Joseph has turned his head while resting it on his hand is also found in a manuscript illumination by the so-called Berthold-Master:

Berthold Master (active 1210-1232): Nativity, Evangeliary from Weingarten Abbey, Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart H.B.II 46, fol. 12v (Image provided by the Württembergische Landesbibliothek Stuttgart under a Creative Commons BY-SA licence)

Parallels such as this have allowed scholars to date the paintings in Mariapfarr to about 1230 or a little later, perhaps towards 1240. The “little later” is due to the fact that the murals already show traces of the so-called Zackenstil (which may be translated as the Jagged Style). Based on Byzantine models, this style was incredibly successful in 13-century Central Europe, and if you take a look at the following detail, you’ll instantly see why art historians have called it the way they did:

Detail of Nativity and Adoration of the Magi, Wall Painting, c. 1230-1240, Mariapfarr, Parish Church, North Wall of Presbytery

It is still (and probably always will be) an unresolved issue whether the Zackenstil is best defined as Late-Romanesque, Early-Gothic, Something-in-between-the-two, or all-of-these-things. What is clear, though, is that it first appeared at the beginning of the 13th century in Eastern Germany (Saxony and Thuringia) and that it went on to become the dominant mode of expression in all painterly mediums from roughly 1240 to 1280, especially in the Alpine region. With their dating of presumably 1230-1240, the Mariapfarr murals have to be counted among the earliest surviving exponents of the Zackenstil in Austria, and therefore they have a rather prominent place in the history and historiography of medieval Austrian painting.

So far, so normal. As mentioned in the first part of this post, however, there is yet another set of wall paintings in Mariapfarr, and that is where things finally get weird…

Mariapfarr, Parish Church, South Wall of Presbytery, 2nd Bay with Fragments of 14th-Century Wall Paintings

On a stylistic basis, this last set may be dated to approximately 1360-1370. Rather than constituting a cohesive cycle, it consists of bits and pieces of seemingly independent images scattered across the presbytery walls, partly covering the remains of the 13th-century paintings, but themselves in a fragmentary state. The best-preserved parts are two standing figures flanking a window on the south wall (pictured above).

St. Catherine, Wall Painting, c. 1360-1370, Mariapfarr, Parish Church, South Wall of Presbytery

To the right of the window, there is a conventional depiction of St. Catherine of Alexandria. She is shown standing under a house-like canopy, holding her usual attributes – the wheel in her right hand, the sword in her left – while her enemy, the heathen emperor Maxentius, lays crouched beneath her feet. To her side, we see a kneeling ecclesiastical donor.

To the left of the window, meanwhile, we see an image of the Virgin Mary, of the type that is known as the Virgin of Mercy or, in German, Schutzmantelmadonna (which translates as Protective Mantle Madonna):

Virgin of Mercy, Wall Painting, c. 1360-1370, Mariapfarr, Parish Church, South Wall of Presbytery

This particular kind of iconography became increasingly popular during the course of the 14th century. It is, basically, an intercessory image, where Mary appears protecting a flock of believers under her mantle, intervening on their behalf before God the Father. This is, of course, based on the Catholic conception that no matter what you do, you will always be sinful and therefore in need of God’s mercy, but I won’t go any further into the theological details…

Let’s focus on the image instead, beginning with an important preliminary observation: When it comes to the Virgin of Mercy, there are two distinct iconographic types. The first, probably more common one shows Mary holding up her mantle with both hands, like this:

Virgin of Mercy, Wall-Painting, c. 1340, Church of St. George, Rhäzüns, Switzerland (Image by Adrian Michael, published on Wikimedia Commons under a Creative Commons licence)

Since in depictions such as this, both her hands are occupied with the mantle, Mary is not shown holding the Infant Jesus, a rare occurrence in medieval art outside of narrative contexts.

It seems, though, that from an early point artists and their patrons found the idea of a Virgin without Child rather odd, and soon enough a second type of the image developed, this time including the Infant Jesus. In this second type, one frequently finds angels holding up Mary’s mantle because, obviously, she needs to use at least one of her hands to hold her baby son – like this:

Virgin of Mercy, Manuscript Illumination, c. 1410-1430, The Bedford Hours, British Library, London, Add MS 18850, f. 150v (Image in Public Domain provided by the British Library via Wikimedia Commons)

Now, on the whole, the Virgin of Mercy in Mariapfarr belongs into the second of these categories. After all, she is carrying her son in her arm. However, if you look a little closer, you’ll realise that this is not Baby Jesus, as it’s supposed to be, but a very grown-up, yet oddly minute Christ as the Man of Sorrow:

Detail of Virgin of Mercy, Wall Painting, c. 1360-1370, Mariapfarr, Parish Church, South Wall of Presbytery

Since this, as mentioned above, is an intercessory image, the inclusion of the Man of Sorrows pointing towards his side wound is not entirely incongruous with the painting’s intentions. Also, in medieval art, one frequently finds attempts to link Jesus’ infancy to his passion – just think of Nativity scenes where the crib looks suspiciously like a sarcophagus. Indeed, when Margarethe Demus-Witternigg published the mural from Mariapfarr in 1951,1 she could even point to a surprisingly similar drawing dating to only a few years later (c. 1380), executed presumably by an artist active in Southern Germany. This drawing, now in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, shows the Virgin holding a baby-sized Man of Sorrow just like the painting in Mariapfarr does. (For copyright reasons, I am unable to include an image of the drawing here, but you can view it at www.bildindex.de.)

However, while the drawing in Nuremberg is remarkably similar to the mural in Mariapfarr, there still remains one crucial difference: In the former we have a plain standing Virgin, in the latter it’s a Virgin of Mercy. So far, therefore, ever since Demus-Witternig’s initial publication, the few authors who have dealt with the image in Mariapfarr have agreed that it is absolutely unique. From my own knowledge of medieval art I can only agree with this notion as well. This definitely is one of the weirdest pictures I’ve ever come across and I’ve really never seen anything like it… Have you?

Seriously, if you’re aware of anything like it, I’d love to hear about it. After all, this is one of the main reasons why I blog here – to draw attention to highly interesting yet virtually unknown works of art like this and, hopefully, to get some feedback on the unresolved issues they entail. And what better medium could there be for doing this than the internet?

  1. Margarethe Demus-Witternigg, Zur Schutzmantelmadonna in Maria Pfarr, in: Österreichische Zeitschrift für Kunst und Denkmalpflege 5, 1951, pp. 35-37. []