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 hypotheses.org. 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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A bishop, a bust and a basilisk (and wall paintings, loads of wall paintings)

I know I promised you Romans, but I’m afraid they will have to wait a bit longer for their appearance on this blog (but hey, they have been waiting for something like 2000 years now, so I’m sure they won’t mind). For today, however, let me show you some amazing medieval wall-paintings (and some other stuff) I saw on a trip to the mountains last week.

My first stop was the small village of Pürgg in Styria (and yes, Pürgg is a weird toponym even by Austrian standards). I went there to take pictures of some early 14th century murals in the parish church. But before we proceed into the church, here’s an exterior view of it…

…because, I’m sure you’ll agree, its location is quite breathtaking in its own right.

Once we move inside the church, we find my old friend bishop Wocho of Passau shown in the act of consecrating the church in this quite intriguing wall painting dating to 1324:

I call him an old friend because he featured rather prominently in the paper I presented at last year’s IMC in Leeds, so those of you who were there might even remember the painting from that occasion – although, for all I know, the intersection set of people who heard that paper of mine and of people who read this blog amounts to exactly two…

The number of my readers who are interested in sedilia may be even lower, but still I’d like to point out that the depiction of bishop Wocho is on the north wall of the chancel, and more or less opposite, in the south wall, there still is a sedilia niche, now holding a statue of the Virgin Mary:

Perhaps of more general interest is the portrait bust of Konrad Zeidler, located on the balustrade of a gallery in the church’s north aisle:

Zeidler (died 1442) was parish priest of Pürgg but also chancellor of emperor Frederick III of Habsburg. Indeed, the (for its time) highly fashionable haircut he is sporting in this bust has been compared to that of another more famous chancellor of his time, Nicolas Rolin. Zeidler’s bust in Pürgg, executed around 1430/35, is based on models such as the well-known bust of Wenzel Radec in Prague Cathedral and holds an important place in the history of the Northern Renaissance portrait bust.

But back to wall paintings… An important, albeit badly preserved cycle of early 14th century murals has survived in St. Catherine’s Chapel, situated on the first floor of the tower of Pürgg’s parish church:

The iconographic programme consists of scenes from the Passion of Christ in the lower tier, while the upper tier shows the lives and deaths of female saints. As the chapel’s title indicates, the focus is on St. Catherine but there are others as well, such as St. Margaret, who is shown emerging from a rather chicken-like dragon:

Technically, of course, this is a basilisk rather than a ‘proper’ dragon, even though admittedly it’s not nearly as impressive as the basilisk in that Harry Potter movie…

For the sake of contrast, let me add another image from that cycle of wall paintings, the Resurrection of Christ:

And now, here’s the contrasting piece, a slightly later depiction of the Resurrection on the exterior wall of the church:

This is dated 1907 and signed by Heinrich and Ida Rettig-Clesius, an artist couple from Munich. It’s a fine example for the over-the-top kitsch so popular in religious images of that time, a kind of imagery I’m used to seeing in my great-grandmother’s old prayer-books. Seeing something like this on such a monumental scale was, therefore, a rather fascinating experience – and that’s ‘fascinating’ as in: ‘I actually find it quite appalling, but I  just can’t stop looking at it’…

One cannot speak of wall paintings in Pürgg, of course, without mentioning the decoration of St. John’s Chapel which is located on an elevation just outside the village (actually, the first photo in this post was taken from just outside that chapel, just to give you a bit of context). Now a simple, free-standing structure, St. John’s Chapel is believed to have been built as the castle chapel to a castle the existence of which is attested in several medieval charters, but of which nothing remains today. Be that as it may, what is certain is that the chapel houses one of the most important sets of Romanesque wall paintings in Austria:

Presumably painted around 1160/65, these murals clearly show the influence of Byzantine art both in style and in some iconographic details.

One of the highlights is the decoration of the chancel vault, showing the Agnus Dei surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists in a circular structure – a rather intriguing and, at that time actually quite common, way of making a simple groin vault look like a cupola:

As fascinating as all of this may be, though, it all pales beside the chapel’s ‘greatest hit’, a rare and early depiction of the Battle of Cat and Mice:

This subject, too, came from Byzantium, and it was included here presumably as a sort of ‘the world upside down’ moralising/allegorical/whatever exemplum. But surely, allegory aside, even 12th century viewers must have found it outright funny to see cats armed with sword and shield attacking a castle of mice…

And with that, I leave you for today – think of it as your weekend funnies ;-)

However, Pürgg was only the first stop on last week’s trip, so there will be a lot more wall paintings coming your way in the near future. So, as one would say on the radio, stay tuned!

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News from the Blogosphere

Now, the first piece of news (in case you have been wondering) is: I aten’t dead! One wouldn’t be amiss, however, to describe my current state as zombie-like, what with me working way too much and sleeping far too little in the past couple of months… Anyway, next week I will be at International Medieval Congress in Leeds (where, for those of you who might be interested, there will be a bloggers’ meetup on Monday), but after that I hope that things here will be slightly more relaxed again and that I will get round to finally writing up some of those blog posts that I have already lined up as rough drafts…

All lined up and ready: Soon these three Roman gentlemen will make their appearance on this blog. Yes, you read right, Romans…

In the meantime, let me point you to some other fine blogs out there. Over the last few months some really great new medievalist and/or art historical blogs have seen the light of the internet, and I believe you might find them interesting as well.

Let me begin with what I think is the newest blog on the list: John Harvey: Blog – Directions in Image, Sound, and Word. The name, in this case, really says it all. The blog is written by John Harvey who is Professor of Art at the School of Art at Aberystwyth University but also a sound artist in his own right. In his research as well as in his artistic practice he deals with the interplay between the visual and the aural, and unsurprisingly this absolutely fascinating subject area – which art historians have only just begun to discover – is also the focus of his blog.

Slightly more traditional in its approach but equally fascinating is Hungarian Art History, a blog written by Budapest-based art historian Nóra Veszprémi. Her subject matter is mostly 19th century Hungarian painting which, at first glance, may seem a bit too particular to appeal to readers outside of Hungary or, say, Central Europe. Once you begin to read, though, you soon realise that the topics she treats are actually quite universal (e.g. the Gothic or Exoticism) and that she examines Hungarian art in a wider trans-European context, so in spite of its regional focus this blog really should appeal to anyone with an interest in 19th century art and culture.

Speaking of the 19th century: Next on my list of new blogs is Stained Glass Attitudes, authored by James Alexander Cameron who is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where he is writing his thesis on sedilia in medieval English parish churches. While sedilia do occasionally turn up on the blog, most of the posts consist of highly entertaining accounts of the author’s often surprisingly adventurous expeditions to churches in London and beyond. And while the blog frequently features art and architecture of the Middle Ages, there also is a large percentage of Gothic Revival churches from the Victorian era, furnished with lots and lots of 19th and 20th century stained glass windows…

Just to break up the stream of text a bit, here’s another image, vaguely related to the content of the post: 14th century sedilia in St. Michael’s Church, Vienna

Blog posts dealing with London and its medieval heritage are also a regular feature on Medieval Bex. Its author is Bex Lyons is a PhD student in medieval literature at the University of York, and accordingly both reflections on the life as a PhD student and discussions of medieval, especially Arthurian literature make up much of the blog’s content.

While Medieval Bex has actually been around for almost a year by now, the next blog on my list is once again a brand new one: Medieval Art in Sweden does exactly what its name says, it brings discussions, news and reviews about, well, medieval art in Sweden as well as, naturally, updates about the activity of its author, Dr. Alexandra Fried. (And, on a side note, let me add that I learned about this blog via Ellie Pridgeon who runs a highly informative blog on Medieval Wall Paintings, focussing mostly on material from Britain – yet another blog that definitely merits the attention of all those with an interest in medieval painting and/or medieval Britain.)

Finally, I’d like to conclude this list by pointing out that a few months ago I myself have actually started a new, additional blog as well. Blatantly ripped off from losely inspired by Philip Wilkinson’s excellent English Buildings blog, it is called Baudenkmäler in Österreich (Buildings in Austria), and buildings, in this case, means pretty much everything from farmhouses to hot dog stands. I haven’t mentioned it here before because a) its focus really is so regional and the buildings it deals with are so low-key that I don’t believe it is of much interest to anyone outside of Austria, and b) because it is written in German (partly because it’s mainly aimed at a regional audience, partly because I write faster in German than in English, and I simply don’t have the time to write another blog in English). There is, however, a very brief English summary at the end of each post, so that international readers can get at least some idea of what they’re looking at. So, well, since I am already posting about new blogs anyway, I thought I’d include it here as well…

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