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.
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.
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:
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:
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…
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).
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):
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:
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:
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:
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?
- Margarethe Demus-Witternigg, Zur Schutzmantelmadonna in Maria Pfarr, in: Österreichische Zeitschrift für Kunst und Denkmalpflege 5, 1951, pp. 35-37.