As you will have gathered from my last post, my visit to the Tyrolean State Museum was not primarily motivated by my desire to see their Rembrandt. Rather, I went there to see the museum’s excellent medieval collection. Due to lack of space, it has been hidden in a depot for some time now but it’s currently on view for the first time in years in a special exhibition running until January 15, 2012. Given the regional character of the museum, most of the works in the exhibition are of course only of local interest, but some are, so to say, of international importance, most notably the Altarpiece from Tyrol Castle, one of the most eminent examples of 14th century panel painting in Central Europe. Believe me when I say that seeing it in person was simply mind-blowing! So, if by any chance you make it to Innsbruck before January, I highly recommend to go and see the exhibition.*
The great thing about Innsbruck, though, is that you don’t even have to enter a museum in order to look at fascinating pieces of medieval art. They’re right there on the street, especially on Herzog-Friedrich-Straße in the very heart of the city. A case in point is the Gasthof Goldener Adler [Golden Eagle Inn] which was built in ca. 1450 and has served as an inn ever since. Over the centuries, many famous travellers have laid their illustrious heads to rest under the Golden Eagle’s roof – among them Mozart and Goethe, Sartre and Camus. While the building’s great age has always been known, it was only in 1957 that fragments of its original 15th century decoration were discovered on the facade. These paintings were fully uncovered some years later, in 1964. Unfortunately, on that occasion they were also overpainted in a manner that hardly deserves to be called “restoration”.
The human figures, in particular, clearly show the rather crude hand of a 1960s decorator. On the whole, however, the decorative scheme – with its elements of illusory architecture and ornamental tendrils growing out of painted pinnacles and finials – may still be considered a faithful rendition of the late 15th century original:
As regards its architecture, the Golden Eagle Inn is somewhat unusual among the buildings in Herzog-Friedrich-Straße – it’s one of the few houses on this street not to have a prominent oriel…
Apart from their characteristic oriels, another common feature among the houses in Herzog-Friedrich-Straße is the fact that they all have open arcades on the ground floor level, forming a long row of porticos which allows you to walk all up and down the street without having to care about such things as rain or snow.
It is under those porticos that one finds even more late medieval wall paintings: In 1495/96 town magistrate Walter Zeller the Elder had the vaults of his house’s portico painted with an elaborate heraldic scheme. It shows a set of emblems, mottos and coats of arms more or less directly connected with emperor Maximilian I. of Habsburg who had chosen Innsbruck as his favourite residence.
It is hardly surprising then, that in the central part of the vault, there’s Maximilian’s personal coat of arms, the double-headed Imperial Eagle bearing the arms of Austria and Burgundy. On top of it there rests the imperial crown, and it is encircled by the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece. To the left and to the right of it, there are roundels with Maximilian’s motto and the shield of the Order of St. George, a knightly order founded by Maximilian’s father, Friedrich III. Surrounding it, there are the coats of arms of the other Habsburgian crownlands.
Right opposite this display of emblems focussing on the person of Maximilian, we find a heraldic representation of the Holy Roman Empire in the guise of the so-called Quaternion Eagle or Quarter Eagle. This rather peculiar image shows the shields of the Imperial Estates arranged in groups of four on the feathers of the double-headed Imperial Eagle, thus representing the totality of the Empire rather than the person of the emperor. Also, it stresses the holy in the Holy Roman Empire by placing a crucifix on the eagle’s chest and by surrounding the eagle’s crowned heads with halos. Surrounding it, there are the coats of arms of the other anointed rulers of Europe, i.e. the kings of France, England, Sicily and Scotland.
Images of the Quaternion Eagle became pretty widespread in the 16th century, but when the wall painting in Innsbruck was conceived, this particular iconography was still quite new: It is first found in a manuscript of c. 1470 from Cologne, and the mural in Innsbruck is actually the oldest surviving example in a monumental scale.
These main images in Walter Zeller’s portico are complemented by more heraldic signs in the other parts of the vault: On the one hand, there’s the recurring motif of the fire striker emanating flames, another personal emblem of Maximilian I. On the other hand, there are the crests of other European regions which were either under Habsburg rule or connected to the house of Habsburg through marriage ties. It is of particular interest to note that these include Galicia and Hispalis (Seville) – only in January 1495 Maximilian had made an arrangement with king Ferdinand II. of Aragon deciding that Maximilan’s son Philipp should be married to Ferdinand’s daughter Juana, while Maximilian’s daughter Margarete should be made the spouse of Ferdinand’s son Juan.** Due to this arrangement, Spain too would pass under Habsburg rule only a few decades later, but that’s another story… What’s interesting here, is the fact that the inclusion of two Spanish crests in the wall paintings on Zeller’s house in Innsbruck is one of the first – if not the first – artistic reflection of this then newly forged connection between the Habsburgs and Spain.
So, at the end of the day, even these seemingly inconspicuous paintings are, so to say, of international importance. Admittedly, they’re probably more important as a historical document than as a work of art – but that’s what heraldic paintings like these were intended to be anyway.
(To be continued…)
* Kunstschätze des Mittelaltersat the Tiroler Landesmuseum Ferdinandeum, 27 May 2011 – 15 January 2012, open Tuesday – Sunday, 9:00 – 17:00. A fine catalogue (in German) accompanying the exhibition is available at the museum or through the museum’s online shop.
** Yep, they really named brother and sister Juan and Juana. Am I the only one to find this weird?