Some time ago, over at Camera Picta, I did a two-part post called The Weird and the Beautiful. Among other things, it discussed an unusual – one might say ‘weird’ – image of the Madonna in the parish church of Mariapfarr, Austria. In this late 14th-century mural, the Virgin Mary is shown holding Christ on her arm, but not, as you’d expect, as an infant, but as a full-grown Man of Sorrows:
I was reminded of this rather singular painting, when I visited the castle of Kastelbell, Italy, two or three summers ago, and saw a similarly strange 14th-century fresco in the castle chapel. It was one of those moments, mentioned in my last post, where I thought: “Oh, I have to blog about this!” So, with only two or three years of delay, here goes…
Kastelbell (Castelbello in Italian) is located in the Vinschgau/Val Venosta, the upper part of the Etsch/Adige valley in the South Tyrol/Alto Adige region, not far from the Swiss and the Austrian border. (The region used to be part of Austria until the end of World War I, and is still mostly German-speaking, hence the bilingual place names.) First mentioned in 1238, the castle contains medieval as well as early modern elements, but its present appearance is very much determined by a historicizing 20th-century restoration. Its chapel, too, is a mix of different periods. The earliest known documentary reference to the chapel dates from 1317, and names it as “capella beate virginis” [Chapel of the Blessed Virgin]. Its architectural structure, however, is presumably older, going back to Romanesque times. Inside, there are remains of wall paintings from the 14th to the 16th century. In the following, I will focus entirely on the decoration of the apse and the adjoining triumphal arch, dating to the late 14th century.
The frescoes were carried out by an Italian workshop – or, to put it more cautiously, by (an) unknown artist(s) trained in Italy and working in an Italian style. As mentioned above, the South Tyrol is mostly German-speaking; it had been part of the Holy Roman Empire ever since the early Middle Ages, and in 1364 it was united with the Duchy of Austria under Habsburg rule. Due its geographic proximity to Italy, however, it always had close economic and cultural ties to the South. This is particularly true for its most important urban centre, Bozen/Bolzano, a trading town on the river Adige which links it directly to Verona. From c. 1330 onwards, artists versed in the new Trecento style, familiar e. g. with the works of Giotto in Padua, came to Bolzano in the wake of Italian merchants. The town subsequently became a minor artistic centre in its own right, and its artists soon established themselves as the dominant forces in the entire region.
The frescoes in Kastelbell show the typical style of this so-called ‘Bolzano school’, a slightly rustic take on Paduan and Veronese artists like Guariento and Altichiero, with a dose of the Bolognese school thrown in for good measure.
Unfortunately, only parts of the chapel’s original decoration survive. Apparently, the triumphal arch was once painted with the scene of the Annunciation, but all that remains is the image of the Virgin Mary in the right spandrel, while her counterpart, the Archangel Gabriel, in the left spandrel is now missing.
The decoration of the small apse is fragmentary, too. It seems that the side walls once showed the standing figures of saints, but only two of them, Mary Magdalene and Dorothea, survive. On the vault, one sees that old classic, Christ Pantocrator in a mandorla, surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists. Nothing unusual so far, then…
Where things get interesting, though, is the flat rear wall of the apse, the wall just above/behind the altar. Its central part is taken up by a depiction of the Throne of Mercy. Groups of adoring angels are standing to either side of the wooden throne.
The Throne of Mercy is a specific way of representing the Trinity, which was extremely popular in the late Middle Ages. It shows God the Father enthroned, holding the Cross with the crucified Christ on it in his outstretched arms. The Holy Ghost, represented as a dove, is squeezed in wherever it fits, usually hovering just above Christ’s head. Typically, the composition should look like this:
As you may have noticed, the artist(s) at work in Kastelbell did not adhere strictly to this established scheme. Rather, they inserted an unusual extra element: Before the Father’s upper body, they painted the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus in her arm.
One can only guess the reason for this addition. It has been claimed that its aim was to represent the ‘history of salvation’ in its entirety, from the birth of Jesus to his death. Or perhaps it simply has to do with the chapel’s dedication: It was, after all, consecrated in honour of the Virgin Mary, so including her picture on the altar wall does seem like an obvious choice. Whatever the reason, it looks as if Mary’s image was not added as an improvised afterthought but was part of the original design. The strangely elongated body of the Father, as well as the unusually low position of the crucified Christ both suggest that even the preparatory drawings accounted for her presence in the picture.
This iconographic choice, however, was not only unique, but – from a theological point of view– also rather problematic. As is well known, the cult of the Virgin Mary played an incredibly important role in western medieval Christianity. Since the Council of Ephesus in 431, she was officially venerated as the ‘Mother of God’, though theologists were eager to emphasise that she herself was entirely human. In practice, however, her cult was such that the boundaries often became blurry. For instance, the propagators of the Reformation in the early 16th century were keen to point out that her veneration was on the verge of turning into idolatry. Indeed, from the detached viewpoint of a modern-day anthropologist or scholar of religious study, it doesn’t seem exaggerated to say that, in practice, she assumed the role of an actual Mother Goddess, not unlike those of the ‘pagans’.
One might argue, therefore, that by inserting the Virgin Mary’s image at the very heart of the Trinity, by putting her on the same level as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the unknown artist(s) crossed that crucial line that separated veneration from idolatry. In this respect, the fresco in Kastelbell presumably owes more to popular religious practice than to the sophisticated theology that formed its basis. And this is exactly why I find it so fascinating. It is a religious image that apparently goes beyond what was codified in written form and sanctioned by theologists. In other words, it constitutes an example of how images, apart from their aesthetic value as works of art, can become unique sources for religious and cultural history: Paintings like the one in Kastelbell can teach us things about medieval religious practice which written sources cannot.