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. []

Medieval Wall Painting News 3/2014

  • I’m afraid this instalment of the Medieval Wall Painting News begins with rather bad news: An important set of 14th-century wall paintings in the church of St. Catherine at Arnau near the Russian town of Kaliningrad (formerly Könisgberg) were essentially destroyed during a recent “restoration” campaign organised by the Russian Orthodox Church. For full details of this contentious matter see the report provided by the Art Newspaper on August 26.
  • Fortunately, elsewhere restorers take a different approach and actually do their job of preserving artistic heritage. Thus, in France, wall paintings from the Romanesque and the Gothic period in the church of Sainte Anne at Nohant-Vic were expertly restored during the summer months. There is a short article and video (in French) about the restoration here. The video is particularly interesting because it not only shows the church and its murals but also close-ups of the restorers at work, providing insights into the technical aspects of wall painting restoration.

The War of Cats and Mice, wall painting, c. 1165, St. John’s Chapel, Pürgg (Austria)

  • Meanwhile, back home in Austria, another phase in the long-term restoration of St. John’s Chapel in Pürgg was completed this summer. The chapel contains one of the country’s most important cycles of Romanesque wall paintings, executed sometime after 1160 and famous for its depiction of the War of Cats and Mice. The current restoration campaign, carried out in several stages, began in 2011 and is expected to be completed in 2017. An illustrated overview of this year’s work (in German) is provided on the website of the Bundesdenkmalamt, Austria’s Federal Monuments Office.
  • Also in summer, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona shared a photo of one of the Romanesque murals in its collections in course of restoration. The painting in question shows the Virgin Mary and the Apostles and dates to c. 1165 (which makes it roughly contemporary to the murals in Pürrg). It once adorned the apse of Sant Romà in Les Bons (Andorra) but was detached and brought to Barcelona in the early 20th century. In the church of Sant Romà itself, the medieval mural was replaced with an exact modern copy – which brings me neatly to the next item on the list…
  • One of the most important sets of Romanesque murals preserved in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya comes from the church of Sant Climent in Taüll. Painted around 1123, they were detached and brought to Barcelona in the early 20th century just like the mural from Les Bons (and many more from country churches all over Catalonia). Now, an initiative called Taüll 1123 has brought the paintings back to their original location in Sant Climent – well, at least virtually, through the technique of video mapping. Visitors of the church can now see the murals projected onto the very walls they once adorned and experience the space as it would have looked like in the 12th century. The effect, it seems, is quite spectacular, and the installation of this project in late 2013 has already led to an increase of 40% in visitor numbers. Moreover, this summer the project was awarded first prize in the category “audio-visual” of the prestigious Premi Laus by the Catalan Association of Graphic Designers and as a consequence received quite a bit of media coverage. For more details (in Catalan) on the project and the award see here and here, or go directly to the Taüll 1123 website.
  • Good news also arrive from Italy: After three years of restoration, the crypt of Otranto Cathedral has been reopened to the public. Dating to the 11th century, the crypt features frescoes ranging from the Middle Ages to the 16th century. For a short report (in Italian) and some photos of the newly restored crypt see here.
  • In similar, but perhaps even better news: The Aula Gotica [Gothic Hall] at Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome has finally been made accessible to the public. This hall was built as part of a cardinal’s residence in the 13th century and received an extensive painted decoration including depictions of the Zodiac, the Four Seasons, the Labours of the Months, the Ages of Man, the Liberal Arts, Saints, Virtues and Vices. When these frescoes were discovered under layers of whitewash and overpaint in 1995, it was one of those discoveries that forced scholars to completely reconsider everything they thought they knew about a) painting in 13th-century Rome, and b) 13th-century palace decoration. In short, it was one of the most important discoveries of the last two decades. However, once the meticulous restoration of the frescoes was completed in 2007, the hall remained closed to the public because the building complex is now part of a female monastery – and the nuns’ strict rules of enclosure wouldn’t allow any visitors inside. Now, thanks to the not inconsiderable investment of 150.000 euros, a new way of access to the Aula Gotica has been created, finally making it possible for visitors to arrive at the hall without disturbing the nuns’ monastic seclusion. Mind you, the hall is still only open two days a month, but that’s definitely better than nothing, isn’t it? For more details see here (in French, but with some great images) or here.

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.

Medieval Wall Painting News 1/2014

So, as announced yesterday, here is the first instalment of my Medieval Wall Painting News, covering reports from January to March 2014. Ok, technically speaking, the first item on the list is actually last year’s news, but it has continued to make the rounds all over the internet well into 2014, and in any case I believe it is important enough to be included here:

  • In St Cadoc’s church, Llancarfan, Wales, a restoration campaign started in 2007 has revealed an important set of late 15th-century wall paintings showing St. George Slaying the Dragon, the Seven Deadly Sins and Death and the Gallant. The paintings are remarkable both for their interesting moralizing iconography and for their state of preservation: While many medieval wall paintings in Britain have suffered from ill-considered restoration attempts of the 19th and, especially, the mid-20th century, the murals that have now come to light in Llancarfan have been spared such interventions.
    For a more detailed account see this entry on Ellie Pridgeon’s medievalwallpaintings blog (including a link to a short video on the discovery by the BBC) or go directly to the project website. As updates about the restoration have continued to arrive throughout the first half of 2014, there have been many more reports on a number of websites, online papers and social media, but I’ll just link to this recent piece by James A. Cameron which has the big advantage of being written by someone who has actually seen the paintings himself.

Detail of St. George, St Cadoc’s, Llancarfan (image by James A. Cameron)

  • In Italy, local newspaper La Tribuna di Treviso reports (in Italian) on newly uncovered frescoes in the church of the Madonna dei Broli in Farra di Soligo (Veneto). Dating to the late 13th or early 14th century, they are now considered to be the earliest wall paintings to survive in the diocese of Vittorio Veneto. They show the Resurrection of Christ and several saints, one of whom may be St. Francis in conversation with the wolf of Gubbio. For more photos of the church see this page (which also suggests that a first phase of restoration already took place in 2012).
  • Moving on to Germany, in Leipzig late 15th/early 16th-century murals from the cloister of the city’s former Dominican monastery have been made accessible to the public in the foyer of a university building, the so-called Neue Augusteum. The paintings had been saved when the cloister was demolished in the 19th century, but they had been in storage ever since. Having been restored in 2005-2009, they have now been returned to their original location – the Neue Augusteum was built on the site of the Dominican monastery – where they can be viewed during the university’s regular opening hours. They depict scenes from the Bible, a Life of St. Catherine and a Genealogical Tree of the Dominican order. For more information (in German) and some glimpses of the paintings see here or here.
  • Similarly good news arrive from Hungary where after 13 years of restoration works the palace chapel of Esztergom is finally open to visitors once more (for visitor information see here). While the chapel is already remarkable for its 12th-century architecture, to top things off it also has some of the finest 14th-century Italianate wall paintings in all of Central Europe. For more details see this post on Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog.
  • Finally, a rather spectacular discovery has been made in Cyprus where researchers from the University of California were surprised to find a layer of asbestos in the 12th-century wall paintings in the monastery of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. While the use of asbestos since ancient times is well-documented, this is the first known instance of its use in wall painting or, in a wider sense, construction work, making this a highly important find not only for the history of art but also for the history of science and technology. It is not yet entirely clear why asbestos was applied in the murals at St. Neophytos at all, but the research team suggested it may have been added to give more shine to certain areas of the paintings.
    Needless to say, this piece of news was also widely reported on, but as so often perhaps the best summary is provided by The History Blog. Or you could of course just go and read the research team’s original paper which is available on academia.edu.

Medieval Wall Painting News – An Introduction

One of the fascinating things about studying medieval wall paintings is that there are always new discoveries. And by this I don’t mean just the usual advancement of knowledge brought about by new research and new approaches, but the simple fact that on a regular basis “new”, i.e. hitherto unknown medieval murals are discovered under layers of plaster and whitewash added by later generations. Admittedly, most of these discoveries are far from spectacular but in the last few decades alone there were several which significantly changed our understanding of the art produced in a certain place and time.

A detail from the so-called Gozzoburg in Krems, Austria, showing a piece of yet to be recovered 13th-century wall painting

Even in the last few months a number of new finds has made the news, although most of them have only been reported on by local news outlets. Thanks to the dissemination power of social media, though, many of these stories from all over Europe have found their way into my twitter timeline, so I figured I’d do a collective post with links to all the individual reports. Then I thought again and decided it would be a good idea to make this a regular feature on my blog. So, starting tomorrow I will post a quarterly overview of Medieval Wall Painting News every three months. (Seeing as we’re already at the end of the second quarter of 2014, I will actually start the series with two posts, one covering January to March, the second covering April to June.) These posts will include brief summaries of as well as links to news stories about recent discoveries but also about recently started, recently completed or ongoing restoration campaigns, thus documenting what’s going on in the field of medieval wall paintings.1 I have also created a new page here, accessible via the header bar, where I will collect all posts in this category.

In terms of geography, my Medieval Wall Painting News will cover all of Europe and what one might call the Mediterranean (e.g. Northern Africa and the Middle East) in the period commonly known as the Middle Ages, defined here as roughly 500 – 1500 AD. Although I was tempted by the recent discovery of a pre-Columbian mural in Peru to include other regions as well, both my limited time resources and my limited knowledge of e.g. Asian or American art have ultimately led me to decide against it. That said, if I come across something really extraordinary, I’m more than likely to make an exception, but the point is I won’t be actively monitoring the field of extra-European art.

Even within Europe and the Mediterranean, of course, there are probably plenty of relevant news items that will escape my attention, so let me end this introduction with an appeal: If you become aware of new discoveries and/or current restorations of medieval wall paintings in your area, I’d be highly grateful if you could pass on the news to me either via mail (c.n.opitz[at]gmail.com) or via twitter (@c_n_opitz).

  1. Some of the linked sites will, I’m afraid, be in languages other than English. Where this is the case, I will include an indication of the language used in parentheses. []

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 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. []

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. []

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!