To the ghosts who write history books

When it comes to writing the first post of a new blog, there appear to be two different schools of thought: On the one hand, there are those who begin with some sort of “welcome post” introducing themselves and the scope of their blog. On the other hand, there are those who dive right in and start off without any further explanation. Until about five minutes ago, I was decided to choose option a) and give you a brief overview of what to expect from this here blog… But then I realised I was merely going to repeat the things I had just written in the About section, so I have changed my mind and am going to pick option b) instead. So, without further ado, let me tell you about this:

this being the Historisches Museum [Historical Museum] in Bern, Switzerland. It was built from 1892 to 1894 in a sort of Medieval/Renaissance-Revival style with towers, turrets and pointed roofs inspired by 15th and 16th century castle architecture. This particular choice of models is no coincidence: Artworks dating to the late medieval / early modern period constitute the highlights of the museum’s manifold collections. The most important pieces come from the so-called Burgunderbeute [Burgundian booty], a conglomerate of cannons, dresses, reliquaries and, most importantly, tapestries won by the Swiss forces after they defeated Duke Charles the Bold of Burgundy in the battle of Grandson in 1476. But it’s not just the museum’s architecture that emphasizes those proud days of chivalrous glory. The same message is included, even more blatantly, in a mosaic adorning the building’s main facade:

The mosaic was executed by the atelier Clément Heaton of Neuchâtel based on designs by symbolist painter Paul Robert (1851-1923). Having been born into a dynasty of painters, Robert was first trained by his father, Aurèle, before receiving a more formal artistic education in Munich under the direction of Julius Naue, a student and sometimes collaborator of Moritz von Schwind. Though never quite as famous as his uncle Leopold, Paul Robert soon become one of the leading artists in late 19th century Switzerland. Among his most prestigious works are the fresco decorations of the Palais de Justice in Lausanne (1886-1906) and of the Musee d’Art et Histoire in Neuchâtel (1886-1896). In both cases, Robert created allegorical compositions on a monumental scale, so it’s only consequent that he was commissioned to design the facade mosaic in Bern as well.

The mosaic’s subject are The Ages of History which unfold from the left, beginning with a (supposedely) Celtic warrior followed by a Roman soldier:

In accordance with the museum’s architecture and the focus of its collection, at the centre of the mosaic there are the Middle Ages, exemplified by a knight, soaring powerfully in mid-air…

… and a bishop, relegated to a somewhat secondary position. Finally, perched into the upper right corner there are two 17th century burghers representing another “golden age” when Bern flourished as an independent city state:

Right underneath these large-scale figures, the course of history is repeated in a small frieze showing a long row of silhouetted figures, e.g. a group of warriors with spears and pikes under the knight or a procession of clerics at the bishop’s feet. Another detail which is easy to miss, is the fact that the whole composition is framed by two lines of skulls symbolizing the transitoriness of all earthly things – a message also expressed in the inscription right over the mosaic which  reads SIC TRANSIT GLORIA MUNDI [“Thus passes the glory of the world”], a well-known quote first found in the Caeremoniale Romanum in 1516.

More prominently, in the foreground the composition is rounded off by two allegorical figures. To the left, there’s the personification of History depicted as an old woman in a long dark robe, holding a lamp to illuminate the past and writing down what she sees in an enormous book:

To the right, there’s Poetry, a beautiful young lady not unlike those found in the paintings of, say, Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Crowned with a laurel wreath, she’s holding a lyre while spreading flowers onto the heroes of the past:

Granted, the symbolism in this mosaic is a little blunt and, as with most symbolist art of that era, its aesthetics are verging on kitsch. But you have to admit that, with its rich shades of blue, interspersed with warm tinges of red, brown and orange, the whole thing is indeed quite pretty. And, as a medievalist, I really love the fact that the medieval knight has been granted such a prominent position. You will, of course, have realised that it’s the same knight who also appears in the blog’s header image where he is confronted by another knight taken from a 15th century wall-painting. I kind of liked the idea of contrasting these two figures because they illustrate how the Middle Ages as imagined by the 19th century somehow look much cooler and more impressive than the actual Middle Ages. If I had to pick a title for that header image, it’d probably be The 19th Century Notion of Chivalry Overriding the Original Concept or something like that. Well, so much for blunt symbolism…

On a less melodramatic level, the two knights stand for the main (though not the only) subject matters treated in this blog, i.e. the Middle Ages on one hand, the 19th century on the other. But actually that’s something I already explained in the About section, and I said I wasn’t going to turn this post into an introduction to the blog. Hm, I guess I just did, anyway…

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.