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. []