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…
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
- 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.