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 :-)

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. []

Medieval Wall Painting News 2/2014

  • Perhaps the most spectacular news this quarter comes from Egypt, where four different layers of (Christian) religious wall paintings ranging from the 8th to the 12th centuries were uncovered under 18th-century plaster in the church of the Deir Al-Surian Monastery. This appears to be a highly important discovery for a number of reasons, e.g. for including some unusual iconographic compositions, for the use of encaustic technique or for including graffiti in Coptic, Syriac, Greek and Arabic. For the full fascinating story read this extensive piece in Al-Ahram Weekly.
  • Exciting new discoveries are also reported from France, where restoration works in the church of Notre-Dame in Chemillé-Melay (Maine-et-Loire) have brought to light murals of the 12th century, most importantly a battle scene in the transept and the Baptism of Christ surrounded by the Four Evangelist in the crossing. As works continue, the conservators hope to uncover even more paintings in the chancel where a first survey has already revealed promising traces of figurative scenes. For a more detailed report (in French) see here.

An apostle’s head, detail from the recently uncovered wall paintings in Kameňany/Kövi (see below). Photo borrowed from Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog, used under Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA 3.0

  • In the Slovakian village of Kameňany (or Kövi in Hungarian – remember, Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the First World War) important wall paintings dating to c. 1400 have been uncovered in the Parish Church. There’s a series of apostles in the apse, there are female martyrs as well as the Wise and Foolish Virgins in the jambs of the triumphal arch, while in the nave one now finds a Virgin and Child with St. Anne and a fragmented Last Judgement (the latter, to be precise, now in the attic above the Baroque vault). For more details, photos and an assessment of the discovery’s importance see this excellent (as usual) piece on Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog.
  • Speaking of Hungary: The Future for Religious Heritage (FRH) network recently reported on a fundraising campaign initiated last year by the congregation at Abaújvár, Hungary, to help finance the uncovering and restoration of the medieval murals in their Parish Church. Presumably dating to the early 14th century, these paintings include scenes from the Lives of Jesus and of several saints. See here for the post on the FRH-website or here for more information on the campaign and some photos of the paintings in question.
  • Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, the wall paintings in Abaújvár are not the only ones in dire need of conservation: In Italy, news portal h24notizie recently featured a piece (in Italian) on the Trecento frescoes in the chapel of San Silviano in Terracina (Lazio), depicting figures of saints and, probably, the Virgin Mary. In this case, the local authorities had already promised to provide the necessary funds for a restoration a full ten years ago, in June 2004, but despite an appeal launched in March 2010 by an initiative called Terracina Rialzati, so far nothing has been done.
  • In happier news, in Toledo, Spain, the restoration of late Romanesque wall paintings of the 13th century in the church of Cristo de Luz has recently been completed. For more information (in Spanish) and for photos of the paintings (Christ Pantocrator in the apse and several saints along the walls) see here or here.
  • As the German Press Agency (dpa) reports, the restoration of the wall paintings in the chapel of St. Liborius in Creuzburg (Thuringia) was recently completed and, after seven years of work, the chapel is now open to the public again. Presumably painted in the first years of the 16th century (the chapel itself was completed in 1499), the murals show scenes from the Passion of Christ and from the Life of St. Elisabeth of Thuringia. For images of the restored paintings and more information on the chapel (in German) see here.
  • Also in Germany, an extensive restoration campaign is underway in the church of St. Martin in Linz am Rhein to save the church’s rich heritage of wall paintings of the 13th to 15th centuries. This is a particularly challenging undertaking since the murals look back on a long but not always happy history of conservation and over-painting going back to the 19th century. For a more detailed account (in German) and some pictures see here.
  • Meanwhile, back in Austria, a large-scale restoration campaign – started in 2013 and scheduled to be completed in 2016 – is underway at Bruck Castle in Lienz, the late medieval residence of count Leonhard von Görz. In April and May of this year, conservators took a first survey of the wall paintings in the castle chapel, executed in the late-15th century by Simon von Taisten. Restoration work on the paintings is expected to resume in autumn. For some pictures of the murals and of the conservators at work see this short news piece (in German) on the website of the city of Lienz.