The wheel and the Saracen (or: More wall paintings…)
August 4, 2013
So, on with the programme, i.e. more wall paintings… Last time I left off at the small Styrian village of Pürgg, where I had been looking at wall paintings ranging from the 12th to the 20th century. After leaving Pürgg I was headed for the small town of Judenburg which is about an hour’s drive away and which, you guessed it, has to offer some pretty cool 14th century frescoes. On my way there, however, I couldn’t resist making a couple of stops because there actually were some more wall paintings to be seen en route.
My first stop was at the St. George’s Church in the town of Rottenmann, pictured above. The church itself is a very simple Romanesque building and was originally covered by a flat wooden ceiling. This was destroyed, though, when Ottoman forces invaded the area in 1480 and set fire to the church. When the damages were repaired a few years later, an elaborate late Gothic rib vault was added. This not only greatly altered the appearance of the building’s interior, it also cut into and partially damaged the 14th century paintings adorning the walls. To be fair: By the time the vault was added, the murals had presumably already disappeared behind a coat of whitewash – after all, having been executed around 1310, by 1480 (or even by 1380) these paintings would have long been considered outdated. It was only 25 years ago that the murals were discovered and subsequently uncovered again.
The focus of the painted decoration is clearly on the church’s patron saint, St. George, whose life is depicted in a sequence of several scenes. One of the best preserved scenes is St. George on the Wheel, shown above. It is interesting to note here how the spokes of the wheel have been rendered as swords, making the cruel nature of the instrument of torture even more explicit. On a funnier note, the executor standing next to the wheel looks surprisingly like a cartoon character with big bulging eyes. This effect, though, is of course created by the fact that what is preserved here is mostly just the underdrawing but not the actual layers of paint which would have rendered the characters more complex and realistic.
The most remarkable thing about the wall paintings in Rottenmann is that they represent one of the latest examples of the old version of the Life of St. George in art. What this means is, in a nutshell: No dragon. It may seem hard to believe to us today, but that famous episode of St. George slaying the dragon was in fact not part of his original legend. Rather, it was only added to the story in the 12th century and it didn’t really catch on until the 13th century when it was included in the incredibly influential Legenda Aurea.
In art, images of George slaying the dragon only became really popular even later, in the 14th century. Before that, in the 12th and 13th century, when artists wanted to show the saint’s knightly prowess, the would usually depict him engaged in fighting Saracens rather than dragons. This was due to the fact that George was a favourite saint among crusaders, and there were stories of him miraculously appearing in battle and leading the Christian forces to victory over their Muslim opponents. In Rottenmann, this episode is rendered as a single combat between St. George and a Saracen in the upper tier of the south wall:
St. George, in knightly attire, appears to the left of a window. His figure, unfortunately, was badly damaged, both when the small Romanesque window was enlarged in the early 15th century and when the rib vault was added after 1480. What is still clearly visible, though, is his shield bearing the Cross, and his lance extending over the window:
On the other side of the window, there is the saint’s opponent, the Saracen whose face is rendered as crude and ugly, a striking example of the othering so common in medieval representations of non-Christians and/or non-Europeans. Having been hit by George’s lance, both the Saracen and his horse are falling backwards, and the impact has even caused the Saracen’s helmet to fall off…
And, if you take a closer look at the image, you realise that St. George’s lance has pierced the Saracen’s throat, its broken-off tip still sticking out on either side of the defeated enemy’s neck.
Looking at this gory detail, I guess that from today’s perspective it is a good thing that in the legend of St. Georg, the act of killing a Saracen was replaced by the slaying of a dragon. I mean, just think for instance what England’s Muslim community would say if the country’s national saints was famous for slaying a Muslim warrior, and all over the country – from church windows to pub signs – there were images of St. George slaying the Saracen. Especially now that the ‘royal baby’ has been named George rather than Aethelred as someone had suggested on Twitter …