The Weird and the Beautiful, part 3

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:

Virgin of Mercy (detail), Wall Painting, c. 1360-1370, Mariapfarr, Parish Church, South Wall of Presbytery

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…

The castle of Kastelbell, Italy

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.

Fragments of Wall Paintings, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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 Virgin from an Annunciation, Wall Painting, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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.

Adoring Angels; Sts. Mary Magdalene and Dorothea, Wall Painting, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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…

Wall Paintings in the Apse, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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 Surrounded by Adoring Angels, Wall Painting, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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:

Austrian Painter: The Throne of Mercy, c. 1415, National Gallery, London (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

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.

The Throne of Mercy (detail), Wall Painting, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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’.

The Throne of Mercy (detail), Wall Painting, c. 1380-1400, Kastelbell, Castle Chapel

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.

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Previously on L’Historien Errant…

When I last posted here, more than three years ago, L’Historien Errant was riding off into the sunset, or rather towards another, new blog, Camera Picta. The latter was designed to be more ‘academic’, and more focused on my main area of research, i.e. medieval wall painting, thus reflecting the work I was doing then as an employee of Vienna University. However, when I gave up my university job in 2015, it seemed only natural to also stop writing for that blog, and I haven’t returned to it since…

L’Historien Errant riding off into the sunset, or perhaps making a glorious return, or just riding along with no particular place to go and a Chuck Berry song stuck in his head…

Since then, a lot of water has passed down the Danube, the Thames and the Clyde, and I have been working, as an independent writer/researcher, on a number of varied projects, from the medieval to the near-contemporary. Every now and again, during this time, I felt tempted to return to blogging on Camera Picta, usually when I came across an interesting wall painting and thought “Oh, I have to share this!” – but somehow it always felt wrong. This was in part due to the fact that Camera Picta was/is hosted by, a blogging platform specifically designed for academic bloggers employed at academic institutions. Since I no longer fit this description, I did/do have scruples to continue using their services.

But there was/is also a wider issue: While medieval wall paintings always have and probably always will be one of my main fields of study, my interests are by far not limited to this area. As some of you may remember, I have always also had a pronounced interest in the 19th century, and in recent years, I have become more and more interested in the 20th century and the contemporary as well. And not just in the field of art, but also in literature, folklore and, increasingly, music. So whenever I thought about returning to blogging, I felt that the scope of Camera Picta was too narrow to encompass all the various topics I might want to write about. As a consequence, I thought about starting a new blog – yes, another one – that would allow me to incorporate all of my different interests. Then, of course, I remembered: I already had a blog that did exactly that – L’Historien Errant. While it has been, shall we say ‘dormant’ for a few years, I never took it offline because I felt that one or the other of my old posts might still be of interest to some. (And indeed, according to the blog stats, it still gets some regular traffic and even the occasional comment.)

So, to finally cut to the chase: Keep a watch on the horizon, for soon you will be able to witness the return of L’Historien Errant… Oh, and guess what he’ll have in his bag…

…obviously, a post on some medieval wall paintings ;-)



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Change of address

Dear readers,

first of all, let me ask you: Are any of you still around? After all, it has been awfully quiet here for quite some time now, and I really couldn’t blame you if you’d all decided to abandon ship.

I have, however, had my reasons for this prolonged silence, the first of them being the simple fact that over these past few months I’ve been incredibly busy with other stuff. You know, life, work, research, the usual… In itself, that is perhaps no excuse – I mean,  pretty much every blogger with a job in academia could say the same thing, but there are still plenty of them/you out there who manage to blog more or less regularly in spite of all other obligations.

But there has been another, more profound issue that’s been bothering me as well: Over the last year or so, I became more and more uncertain about the direction I wanted my blogging to take and, in retrospect, I guess that not knowing where I was headed simply prevented me from moving forward at all. After long consideration, I have now finally come to a decision and I am going to bore you with all the details of that process in just a moment, but for those of impatient persuasion here’s the Reader’s Digest version first: I have decided to give up this blog and start a new one instead. I will from now on share my thoughts and observations on medieval art history and related subjects on my new blog titled Camera Picta (which, obviously, you can reach by just clicking the link). As you’d expect, it will be slightly different from this blog here (why else would I have started it?), but I hope you’ll find it similar enough to still appeal to you. Which brings me to the long version…

L’Historien Errant riding off into the sunset…

I created L’Historien Errant as a space to write about all kinds of things – mostly art, literature and history – that I found interesting for one reason or another, but that didn’t necessarily fit into the scope of the research I was doing as an academic. While, in many respects, L’Historien Errant has undeniably always been a researcher’s blog, it was never intended to be an actual research blog. Over time, however, I found myself increasingly drawn towards blogging about material that was directly related to my research as, e.g., this post from last summer demonstrates. So step number one was, I guess, my inclination to write something closer to a research blog in the narrow sense of the word. Obviously, I could have done this by simply giving L’Historien Errant a slightly different direction, but I was somehow reluctant to go through with that. This was partly owed to the fact that that was not what I had intended this blog to be in the first place, and I freely admit that I tend to be inflexible in matters such as this. More importantly, though, this was due to the fact that it felt stupid to write about something closely related to my professional life under the Historien Errant moniker. (This despite the fact that my real name is revealed in the About section, but let’s be honest, in terms of blogging that’s basically the small print and presumably not immediately evident to the casual reader.)

Thus, I guess that somewhere deep down I’ve known for quite a while that, if I wanted to change the direction of my blogging, I would have to give up this blog and start anew somewhere else. The problem was, of course, that I really like this here site and over time I have grown quite attached to it. Add to that my aforementioned inflexibility, and you will understand that giving it up was a tough call for me and it  took me a fair amount of time to get used to the idea… Now that I’ve made the decision, I must say, though, that it feels good and that I am exceedingly happy with my new site which is hosted by While Hypotheses is still surprisingly little-known in the English-speaking world, over the last couple of years or so it has rapidly developed into the most important blogging platform for the humanities in continental Europe, and I am excited to have become part of their steadily growing community.

That said, I really hope that many of you, my estimated “old” readers, will follow me to my new site as well. As already mentioned, it will be pretty similar to what I have been doing here, only a tad more academic and focused on my research. What this means is that a) there will be an even stronger emphasis on the late Middle Ages (roughly the period from 1200 to 1500) than there has been here, b) there will be more “academic” stuff like conference, exhibition and book reviews. The bulk of it, however, will presumably still be made up of discussions of my “fieldwork”, i.e. posts like this one where I give a sort of illustrated introduction to wall paintings I visited and where I address some of the problems they raise. And even though such posts may now also include footnotes and a brief bibliography on the subject, I do very much hope that they will still appeal to a non-specialist audience as well.

One last word, directed at those of you who follow me on Twitter: Giving up L’Historien Errant also entails giving up my Twitter account under that name. I have, however, another account under my own name which I have so far used exclusively to communicate with the German-speaking Twitter community. From now on, though, seeing as it will be my only account, it will go bilingual and feature both English and German messages. So if you don’t mind the occasional German tweet in your timeline (and, as you probably know, I really do tweet only occasionally), please follow me at @c_n_opitz

Thank you for your attention! I hope I’ll see you around…

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Here be dragons

Ok, admittedly, it’s just one dragon viewed from different angles. But of all the works of art I saw during a recent two-week trip through Spain and Portugal this historiated corbel was definitely one of my favourites and, in a loose way, it seems fitting for Halloween, so I thought I’d share it here… It dates to third quarter of the 15th century and may be found on the main portal of the Carthusian church of Miraflores, just outside of Burgos, Spain.

And, for completeness’ sake, let me end this post with a general view of the portal:

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Stones & Paint & Stucco

At some point this summer, I seriously considered writing a post that simply read: “Don’t expect to hear from me again until Christmas”. This was based on an assessment of my autumn workload which may have been slightly exaggerated but, as it turns out, not too far from the truth. As a matter of fact, while I do have a handful of new post that exist as drafts, I doubt whether I can carve out the time to actually write them up and finish them properly before the beginning of December. So for now, I’ll just pretend this is something like a photoblog and let you indulge in some pictures of medieval buildings which I’ve taken these past few months.

To begin in a loosely chronological order, first up is the small church of St. Johann [St. John’s] in Taufers, high up in the mountains of the South Tyrol, just across the Swiss border. The building is first mentioned in the 9th century, and some parts of it are said to actually date from that time. What we see today, however, is by and large the result of a remodelling campaign of the early 13th century, undertaken when the church became part of a pilgrims’ hospital administered by the Knights of the Order of St. John.

Taufers, St. Johann

Next in line is the Cathedral of San Giusto in Trieste, Italy, one of the most intriguing pieces of architecture I’ve seen in a long time. The thing is, this is actually something of a two-for-one-package: At first, there were two 11th century churches lying parallel in close proximity to one another. In the 14th century it was decided to connect the two buildings to create one large, five-aisled basilica, a measure which resulted in a rather unique and incredibly beautiful space.

Trieste, Cathedral of San Giusto

Another fine Romanesque structure is the Cathedral Cloister at Brixen (Bressanone in Italian), again in the South Tyrol. It features some fine arcades from c. 1200. But this space, too, was transformed in the 14th century by the addition of Gothic vaulting.

Brixen, Cathedral Cloister

Today, the Cathedral Cloister is most famous for the amazing 15th century murals adorning its walls and vaults. But some parts of the cloister have received no such decoration, and it’s fascinating to realise that, while the architecture itself is exactly the same, the overall impression of the architectural space in these parts is entirely different.

Brixen, Cathedral Cloister

Another example of the transformative power of decoration is found in the vault of the Abbey Church at Seitenstetten, Lower Austria. In terms of architectural structure, this is your standard Gothic ribbed vault from around 1300. But through the generous application of stucco and paint in the 18th century it has been made into something that screams Baroque rather than Middle Ages.

Seitenstetten Abbey, Vault

After so much Baroque opulence, let me end this post on a more sober note with the Abbey Church at Königsfelden in Switzerland. Built in the first half of the 14th century, it still preserves its original (carefully restored) colour scheme of white, grey and red.

Königsfelden Abbey

Here, in Königsfelden, even the cenotaph placed over the crypt with the burials of the Habsburg dynasty is characterised by stark simplicity rather ornamental extravaganza – and for once one gets the impression that this is due to an aesthetic choice rather than to the Habsburgs’ proverbial lack of money…

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The wheel and the Saracen (or: More wall paintings…)

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 …

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Another great new blog…

Only a few weeks have passed since I posted that list of interesting new blogs, but (via Art History Today) I just learned that yet another new art history blog, which looks incredibly promising, has appeared: Rembrandt’s Room. News, Discoveries, Mysteries in Art and History is written by Dutch art historian Maaike Dirkx and focuses mainly, though not exclusively on Netherlandish art. So far, posts on Rembrandt’s Room have mostly dealt with the 15th to 17th centuries, i.e. the golden age(s) of Dutch art, and it already looks as if this will become one of my favourite blogs. So, why not have a look for yourself?

In unrelated news, here’s another piece of 14th century wall painting I encountered on my recent field trip:

Not quite Rembrandt…

The second part of my account of said trip will follow shortly, but for now this teaser will have to do. However, if you feel you need your dose of 14th century wall paintings right away, let me point you to this recent post about the medieval frescoes at Bögöz over at Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog…

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