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. []

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. []

A room full of heroes: Giacomino da Ivrea’s frescoes at Marseiller (Valle d’Aosta)

While writing my previous post, I came to remember another set of wall paintings I visited several years ago in the Valle d’Aosta, Italy (and I will explain why they came to my mind a little further on). The frescos in question are found in the casa forte [manor house] of the Salluard (or Saluard) family in a small village called Marseiller (Verrayes) and were presumably painted sometime in the 1430s or around 1440. Most likely they were commissioned by Jean de Salluard, notary to the Bishop of Aosta and thus an influential figure in the region. In a 1968 article, Augusta Lange first ascribed the paintings to Giacomino da Ivrea (c. 1400/1410 – c. 1470),1 a local artist first documented in 1426 who left several cycles of wall paintings in the Piedmontese province of Ivrea and in the neighbouring Valle d’Aosta.2

Giacomino da Ivrea, Saint Anthony Abbot and Saint Christopher, fresco, c. 1426, Ivrea Cathedral (Image by Laurom via Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License v. 2.5)

The attribution proposed by Lange has been widely accepted although it is not without problems. The problems arise mostly from the fact that Giacomino’s documented work only depicts religious subjects (cf. the image above), while the frescoes in Marseiller belong to the realm of secular art, depicting for the most part knights in armour – due to these differences in subject matter there is actually very little that may serve as a point of comparison. Then again, Giacomino’s authorship of the paintings in the manor house is supported by the fact that Jean de Salluard also commissioned him with the decoration of the Cappella di San Michele in Marseiller. But anyway, this post is not intended to be about problems of attribution, so for the sake of convenience let’s just accept Lange’s proposition and refer to the artist as Giacomino…

So, without further ado, let’s enter the painted room on the ground floor of the manor house in Marseiller…

The former Casa Forte dei Salluard at Marseiller (Verrayes) in the Valle d’Aosta – would you have expected to find 15th-century wall paintings behind that door on the right?

The Painted Room in the Casa Forte dei Salluard – the door on the right is the one seen from the outside in the previous image

… a room which, by the way, might well be called a camera picta, although its original owner(s) probably would have viewed it as a modest-sized sala (hall) rather than a camera (chamber). And, as you can see in the pictures, today it is merely a partly-painted room, while the larger portion of its decoration has been lost. Enough survives, though, to still discern the overall concept of the murals: The dado zone of the walls is taken up by the kind of illusionistic decoration known as Tumbling Blocks which had already been a popular feature in wall paintings in Roman Antiquity. Then, the main part of the wall depicts the figures of chivalric heroes, standing on ornamental stone slabs before a highly decorative backdrop, the undulating pattern of which is probably intended to create the impression of a tapestry. The same background is used for the uppermost tier containing a heraldic frieze.

The best-preserved part of Giacomino da Ivrea’s frescoes in the Casa Forte dei Salluard, showing three heroes and the coat of arms of the Visconti

The coats of arms that are still extant belong to the Visconti of Milan, the Duke of Burgundy, and the King of France. Old photographs document two more blazons, vanished today, i.e. that of the Margraves of Saluzzo and one depicting an eagle, probably referring to Emperor Sigismund of Luxembourg.3 Thus, the heraldic frieze visually places Jean de Salluard among both the local and international elite of his day and underlines his social aspirations by suggesting affiliation with a rank of noblemen that he presumably didn’t have access to in real life.

Turpin and ‘Renadus’, fresco by Giacomini da Ivrea, Casa Forte dei Salluard, Marseiller

A similar strategy of social identification and ambition seems to be behind the choice of subject for the heroes adorning the walls. Thankfully, all the figures were once identified by inscriptions, and enough of these survive to conclude that the entire room was once decorated with heroes from the circle of Charlemagne, immortalized in such epics and chronicles as the Chanson de Roland and the Historia Karoli Magni et Rotholandi (also known as the Historia Turpini). The two best-preserved figures in the paintings are labeled ep(iscop)us torpini and renadus d(…). While the first one may thus be easily identified as Turpin of Reims, establishing the latter’s identity is slightly more problematic: While Lange suggested the name of Renaut de Montauban, hero of the romance Les Quatres Fils Aymon, more recently Marco Piccat proposed Rainaldus de Albo Spino,4 a character who on the one hand is slightly more obscure than the aforementioned Renaut, but on the other hand actually appears in the Historia Turpini and can therefore claim a stronger connection to the other heroes depicted in Marseiller: Apart from Turpin himself, the ones still identifiable by inscription are Oli(vier) and Mellun (d)’Ayngl(er).

As is well known, the heroes and stories from the ambit of Charlemagne enjoyed long-lasting success all throughout the later Middle Ages. More particularly, they seem to have been especially popular with the counts and dukes of Savoy to whose territory the Valle d’Aosta belonged: Duke Amedeo VIII, for instance acquired a liber Croniquarum Francie – a book of the chronicles of France – in 1434, and an inventory of his possessions from 1440 lists a magnum tapissium Caroli Magni – a large tapestry of Charlemagne.5 When considering these circumstances, it seems likely that the frescoes in Marseiller are a slightly more rustic echo of the kind of palace decoration one would have found at the nearby Savoyan court.

Giacomino da Ivrea, Detail from the series of the Nine Worthies: Joshua (fragmented), King David and Judas Maccabeus, fresco, c. 1440/50, from the Castello di Villa Castelnuovo (Image by Laurom via Wikimedia Commons, used under the Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike License v. 2.5)

The prevalence of such painted decorations in the castles, palaces and manor houses of the upper classes is also demonstrated by another set of wall paintings attributed to Giacomino da Ivrea.6 Now in the Museo Archeologico del Canavese in the city of Cuorgnè, these frescoes (pictured above) once adorned the great hall in the castle of Villa Castelnuovo in the village of Castelnuovo Nigra, about 25 kilometres/15 miles west of Ivrea. Executed around the middle of the 15th century, they depict the then-popular subject of the Nine Worthies, i.e. the nine greatest heroes of all times – three from Greco-Roman antiquity (Hector, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar), three from the Old Testament (Joshua, King David, Judas Maccabeus) and three from the Christian era (King Arthur, Charlemagne, Godfrey of Bouillon).7 The crudely painted, rather stiff figures of these knights in armour greatly resembles those in Marseiller, even though in Villa Castelnuovo they were arranged in a sort of garden setting before a plain white background. However, the upper margin of the paintings is once again marked by the now familiar undulating-ribbons-motif which is so prominent in the Marseiller manor house. And while this may seem a more or less unremarkable detail, it is in fact quite interesting – and it is also the detail which provides the link between this post and the previous one.

As you may recall, the last post discussed 14th-century wall paintings which, for whatever reason, took up ornaments that had been widespread in the 12th and early 13th centuries but had since long gone out of fashion. Now the thing is, something similar appears to be going on with Giacomino da Ivrea and those wavy-ribbons-ornaments.8 As far as I’m aware, this type of ornament isn’t usually found in 15th-century painting, but one does find it in murals from around the year 1200.9 So, once again, the question is: What’s going on here? Now, what I’d like to believe is going on is this: By consciously taking up an antiquated motif from Romanesque art, the artist attempted to underline the fact that the people in the frescoes are heroes from a mythical past. There is only one problem with this theory… Well, actually, there are two: First, the theory is in itself highly speculative. Nonetheless, one would perhaps still find it plausible if we were talking about artists like Jan van Eyck or Pisanello. But, and that’s the second problem, can we really assume that someone like Giacomino da Ivrea was capable of such sophistication? I mean, Giacomino may have been of a certain local prominence, but ultimately he is a figure of merely provincial stature and – as I believe is evident from the images in this post – his paintings are rather crude and lack refinement. So it may be more plausible after all that he was simply an artist of a conservative persuasion, looking to models from the past rather than boldly striving towards new modes of expression.

Actually, that Giacomino was a rather conservative artist is quite apparent from some of the more prominent characteristics of his paintings, too. For instance, the setting of the Nine Worthies at Villa Castelnuovo clearly owes a lot to the frescoes of the same subject in the Castello della Manta near Saluzzo, painted around 1415 by an anonymous artist for the Margrave of Saluzzo.10

The Nine Worthies (plus the first two out of the Nine Great Heroines from Antiquity), fresco, c. 1415, Castello della Manta, so-called Sala Baronale

In Marseiller, too, we find an obvious reference to the art of the previous generation, in this case to Giacomo Jaquerio’s decoration of the courtyard in the Castello di Fenis, again dating to c. 1415. Giacomino’s depiction of St. Georg Slaying the Dragon inserted among the heroes of French romance at Marseiller clearly is based on Jaquerio’s painting of the same subject at Fenis…

Giacomo Jaquerio, Saint George Slaying the Dragon, fresco, c. 1415, Castello di Fenis, Courtyard (Image in Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Giacomino da Ivrea, Saint George Slaying the Dragon (plus the coat of arms of the Duke of Burgundy), fresco, c. 1435/40, Casa Forte dei Salluard, Marseiller

But what a difference there is between the two pictures! When one looks at Jaquerio’s dynamic yet at the same time extremely elegant rendition of the scene, one almost feels sorry for Giacomino’s clumsy attempt to do his model justice.

Of course, what we also have to take into account are the tastes of the people who commissioned these frescoes. Just consider that the Castello di Fenis is only a few miles from Marseiller and that its owners, the noble Challant family, had close connections not only to the Savoyan court but also to the bishops of Aosta. It is more than likely therefore that Jean de Salluard – the bishop’s notary, as you may recall – knew the fresco decoration in Fenis and it may well have been his wish that Giacomino take Jaquerio’s murals as his model. It is well known from other cases that patrons frequently required artists to follow particular models, and in many surviving artists’ contracts the models that are named stem from the previous generation of artists. In that respect, then, the works of Giacomino da Ivrea also bear witness to the continuing influence of artists such as Jaquerio and the anonymous Maestro della Manta, who had created a highly elegant brand of court art in the Piedmont and the neighbouring Valle d’Aosta in the first quarter of the 15th century – a brand of court art that was still deemed relevant and worthy of imitation for decades afterwards. But of course we also need to remember that, as mentioned above, Giacomino was already active by 1426, and Jean de Salluard also must have been a grown man by the early 1420s, as is confirmed by a document of 1423. This means that their artistic tastes were formed precisely at the time when Jaquerio and his contemporaries dominated the field, and it is thus not too surprising that this should have remained their point of reference even later in their life.

Another point of comparison: Giacomino da Ivrea’s attempt at rendering brocade on the tunic of ‘Renadus’…

… and the decidedly more stunning attempt at doing the same in the frescoes at the Castello della Manta

At this point, I believe, I ought to come to something like a conclusion but, to be honest, I’m not quite sure what it is. The thing is, I guess, that I’m growing more and more frustrated with a history of art that is ultimately limited to a history of the most modern, most high-end art of its time. Now, I’m not saying we shouldn’t be studying high-end art – Jaquerio is definitely one of my favourite painters, and the frescoes in the Castello della Manta are among the most beautiful works of art I’ve ever had the pleasure to lay my eyes upon. The point is, though, if we want to fully understand the visual culture of a certain time and place, we shouldn’t focus exclusively on high-end art and we need to pay attention not only to artists like Jaquerio, let alone van Eyck and Pisanello, but also to ‘minor’ figures such as Giacomino da Ivrea. But I believe I already said something along these lines at the end of my previous post…

  1. Augusta Lange, Notizie sully vita di Giacomino da Ivrea, in: Bollettino della società piemontese di Archeologia e Belle Arti XXII, 1968, pp. 98-102, esp. p. 101. []
  2. For an overview of Giacomino’s work see Franco G. Ferrero and Enrico Formica, Arte medievale in Canavese / Mediaeval Art in the Canavese Conutry, Ivrea: Priuli & Verlucca Editori, 2003, pp. 82-91. []
  3. Cf. Marco Piccat, I frammenti dell’Historia Turpini di Marseiller (Verrayes) in Valle d’Aosta, in: Iconographica 1, 2002, pp. 127-134, esp. pp. 130-131. []
  4. Cf. Lange (as note 1), p. 101, and Piccat (as note 3), pp. 129-130. []
  5. Cf. Piccat (as note 3), pp. 130-131. []
  6. Or, more precisely, to the artist responsible for the paintings in Marseiller who we have agreed on calling Giacomino. []
  7. For these paintings cf. Il ciclo gotico di Villa Castelnuovo – Intervento di salvataggio e valorizzazione, Turin: Edizioni Nautilus, 2006. []
  8. Yes, I am struggling to find adequate terms to describe this type of ornament. And no, this has nothing to do with my English – I have no idea what to call it in German either. []
  9. For instance in the Church of St. Margaret in Lana (South Tyrol/Alto Adige), a picture of which you can see here. The ornament in question is placed prominently on the arch of the central apse. []
  10. Ok, technically for the bastard son of the Margrave, who ruled in lieu of his underage nephew, but let’s not be too pedantic about these things. []

The Weird and the Beautiful, part 1

I believe when one starts a new blog, it is customary to set up some kind of introductory post. However, I have always been terrible at smalltalk, I have already explained the scope and content of this blog in the About section, and I have just detailed my reasons for setting up this site in a lenghty farewell post over at my old blog. So, seeing as everything you might need to know is just a click away, I guess I’ll just skip the formalities here and get straight down to business…

That said, where to begin? Well, the header image might be a good place to start. As I’m sure many of you have realised, it shows a detail from an image of St. George slaying the dragon. This particular depiction is found in the Parish Church of Mariapfarr in the Austrian state of Salzburg, more precisely in the Lungau region. Mariapfarr’s foremost claim to fame lies in the fact that here, in 1816, a young priest by the name of Joseph Mohr wrote the lyrics to what would become one of the most popular Christmas carols of all time, Silent Night. Apart from that, however, it is also an important pilgrimage site both literally for local Catholics and metaphorically for medieval wall painting aficionados like myself.

Mariapfarr Parish Church, view from the presbytery towards the 15th century nave

What makes the church of Mariapfarr so special is that it houses not only one but several sets of remarkable medieval murals, executed on three different occasions between c. 1230 and 1430. Thus, it offers something like a brief overview of Austrian wall painting from the 13th to the 15th century all in one place. Let me begin with the most recent of them, the decoration of St. George’s Chapel, a small space adjacent to the presbytery. After all, this is where the header image comes from…

St. George Slaying the Dragon, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

The chapel is first mentioned in 1421, and on stylistic grounds it can be argued that its painted decoration must have been executed soon thereafter, most likely around 1425. Its most notable element are the scenes from the legend of St. George on the north wall, showing the famous episode of the saint slaying the dragon as well as his martyrdoms. And yes, you read correctly, that really is martyrdoms in the plural: According to legend, it took his torturers several attempts to end the saint’s life, including putting him to the wheel and chopping him into pieces which where then put to boil in a cauldron. However, it was only when they beheaded him, that George finally died (which kind of makes you wonder whether the makers of Highlander knew about his story, doesn’t it?).

The Martyrdom(s) of St. George, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

Oddly, though, there is a certain beauty even in this gory martyrdom scene. But, of course, these paintings are done in a style most commonly known as the International Gothic, but sometimes also referred to as the Beautiful Style. I have to say that, with its delicate lines and ornamental qualities, this actually is one my favourite styles in all of art history. There is a certain fairytalesque quality to paintings of that era that I do find highly appealing, and the ones in Mariapfarr are, I believe, particularly beautiful. One of the things I like about them is the intensity of the colours. This is due to the fact that they were actually painted in buon fresco, a technique common in Italy at the time but rather exceptional among Northern painters before c. 1500.

The fresco technique is not the only Italian element in these murals, though. In terms of both style and dress St. George and the princess, for instance, are clearly indebted to the art produced in North Italian centres such as Milan and Verona. The most striking element, however, is constituted by the fictive church stalls painted on the dado:

Painted Church Stalls on the Dado, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

Such illusionistic tricks had first been invented by Italian artists like Pietro Lorenzetti in the first half of the 14th century, but they were soon picked up by Northern painters as well, and by c. 1400 they had become stock motifs especially in wall paintings of the Alpine region. After all, the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps do border on Italy, and it is therefore no surprise that Southern influences have always been especially dominant in these border areas. In this context, I should perhaps point out that the frescoes in St. George’s Chapel in Mariapfarr can, with a high degree of certainty, be attributed to the workshop of Friedrich von Villach (active c. 1415 – 1450). This is relevant insofar as the town of Villach is really no more than ten miles from the Italian border which makes Friedrich’s knowledge of Italian art seem almost self-explanatory.

It has to be said, however, that Friedrich von Villach did not fall back on his obvious Italian experiences indiscriminately. For in St. George’s Chapel we also find a depiction of Christ as the Man of Sorrows which was clearly done by the same workshop but in a much more Northern, Bohemian-influenced style:

Christ as the Man of Sorrows with the Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist, surrounded by the Arma Christi, with God the Father appearing in the clouds above, Fresco, c. 1425, Mariapfarr Parish Church, St. George’s Chapel

What we have here, then, is an artist who is familiar with both Northern and Southern painterly traditions and able to choose freely from these diverse influences, presumably depending on what he found fitting for a given subject. Friedrich von Villach’s work is therefore an important reminder fact that “personal style” is not necessarily something written unalterably into an artist’s DNA, but quite often the result of conscious choices.

Ok, so much for the beautiful. I’m afraid, though, this post is already long enough as it is, and it’s probably best to leave the weird for another occasion. So, stay tuned for part 2!