Something Baroque, for a Change…

Less than two months after starting this blog it feels to me as if I’m already way behind schedule – there already is a long list of posts-to-write-as-soon-as-I-find-the-time piling up in the back of my mind, and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad. So… Remember how, about five weeks ago, I mentioned that I’d just been to a conference in the small town of Stein an der Donau, about an hour’s drive north-west of Vienna? And how I said that some of the artworks I saw in Stein would eventually turn up on the blog? Well, eventually is now.

As you may have guessed, the conference theme was medieval, but the conference venue was not: The whole thing took place in the assembly hall of Stein’s 18th century town-hall:

Now the thing is that the conference was interdisciplinary which meant lots of talks from historians and literary scholars which in further consequence meant lots of talks without images. The problem here is that art historians are used to having something to look at during conference presentations, so in the absence of anything better else, every now and then my eyes would wander to the assembly hall’s ceiling and inadvertently study its Baroque stucco decoration. (And, as I found out during one of the coffee breaks, other art historians in the room did the same…)

In general, my interest in Baroque stucco decoration is rather limited, to put it politely. But after two days of glancing at that ceiling I decided to come in early on the third and final day of the conference to take a few photos of those stucco ornaments because I had actually begun to develop some sort of interest in them. Also, I thought they might make a nice variation for my blog ;-)

So, *clears throat*, Stein’s town-hall was built in 1701 in a central position, substituting for the old, late medieval town-hall on the outskirts of the town. The building’s main facade, as you see it in the first photo, is the result of a remodelling campaign that took place in 1779. About halfway – or rather half-time – between, the main assembly hall was adorned with a stuccoed ceiling which is generally ascribed to Johann Michael Flor. Flor was an exponent of the so-called School of Wessobrunn, a loose yet large and highly influential group of architects, plasterers and stuccoworkers active in the 18th century who had received their artistic education in the workshops of Wessobrunn Abbey in Bavaria. His ceiling decoration in Stein is usually dated c. 1740/50, though a date of 1742 or shortly afterwards seems most likely: The heraldic elements of the decoration clearly allude to Maria Theresia of Habsurg who, in her role as sovereign of Austria, had confirmed and renewed the city’s privileges in 1742.

As you can make out in the above photo, the ceiling’s centrepiece contains the double-headed Imperial Eagle which, conveniently, was also the crest of Stein (and its neighbouring “twin-city”, Krems, with whom it has been closely connected ever since the Middle Ages). This giant eagle is surrounded by four much smaller coats of arms, that of Lower Austria (north), Hungary (west) and Bohemia (east) – both kingdoms where Maria Theresia ruled as queen – and finally Maria Theresia’s personal emblem (south) with her initials MT:



This heraldic display is framed by eight allegorical panels. Four of them, inserted at the center of each wall, show the four Cardinal Virtues. On the north side, there’s Temperance, the prefect image of patience and restraint, presented as a female figure with tied hands and a lamb resting at her feet:

To the west, there’s Fortitude shown in a surprisingly unbellicose way but invested with scepter and orb, the insignia of a ruler:

Then, to the east, there’s Prudence, her usual double-faced self with her customary attribute, the serpent:

Finally, to the south, we have Justice holding, as one might expect, scales but also a slightly oversized sword – apparently an allusion to the Richtschwert [approx. Sword of Justice], the executioners’ weapon which for a long time was considered the most important symbol of judicial authority in Central European countries:

In the four corners of the ceiling, there are medallions with even more allegories. In the north-eastern corner, there’s Night, a female figure set against a starry sky and holding a trident and torch. These, I have learned, are common attributes for Baroque representations of Night, even tough I don’t quite understand why…

The north-western corner holds Night‘s companion piece, The Moon, represented by the goddess Diana who, in ancient Rome, also did service as a lunar deity when she wasn’t out hunting and could fit it in her schedule:

On to the south-eastern corner where we find – surprise, surprise – Day:

This, of course, leaves the south-western corner with The Sun, though I’m not sure what exactly the medallion actually shows:

There are at least three deities who could be adopted to represent Sun, i.e. Sol, Apollo and Jupiter. Since the fellow in the medallion is crowned and has a beard, I’m inclined to believe he must be Jupiter, but what the [insert preferred four-letter word] is he doing? I mean, what’s with the standing at an altar (?), holding a flaming heart in his raised hand while a small kid is standing by? Any suggestions? (I mean other than “that crazy Indian priest from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom“.)

Even though some of its details seem a bit odd to the present-day viewer, it has to be said that the iconographic programme of the ceiling isn’t particulalry elaborate or complex. And the artistic quality of the stucco reliefs isn’t exactly what you’d call top-notch either. There are dozens of stuccoed ceilings like this in small town town-halls all over Austria and its neighbouring regions. But what I like about the one in Stein is how the stuccoed allegories add a clear sense of direction to the room. Look, I even drew up a diagram to show you what I mean:

a) Imperial Eagle, b) Lower Austria, c) Hungary, d) Bohemia, e) Emblem of Maria Theresia. - 1) Temperance, 2) Fortitude, 3) Prudence, 4) Justice. - I) The Moon, 2) Night, 3) The Sun, 4) Day

First of all, it’s interesting to note that the nighttime allegories are “correctly” placed on the northern side, while Sun and Day have their place in the south. This is very simple and basic, of course, but it shows that whoever devised the programme actually had a look at the room and considered its position before setting to work. And it becomes even more interesting when we take into account that the only entrance to the assembly hall is from the north. This means that a visitor who enters and walks across the room progresses from the dark towards the light, and the “light” – or should I say the “illuminated” – side of the hall is also where one finds the decoration’s key figure, Justice, as well as the personal emblem of Maria Theresia. And, of course, this would also have been the side where the high magistrates had their seats. So through a display of admittedly blunt symbolism the ceiling decoration served to put the “high” end of the hall into focus.


One last thing: There’s yet another piece of 18th century decoration in the room, i.e. a tiled stove placed in the north-eastern corner:

It is decorated with terracotta reliefs showing the Eye of Providence and King David Playing the Harp on its upper part, and The Judgement of Solomon, probably the most prominent exemplum of justice, on the lower:

The reliefs on the stove add a slight religious angle to the theme of justice, an angle which is conspicuously absent on the stuccoed ceiling. Well, ok, maybe this absence is only conspicuous for someone who’s used to dealing with the Middle Ages – an era where the general approach to town-hall decoration was something like “Oi, let’s just do a painting of the Last Judgement and be done with it!”

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2 Responses to Something Baroque, for a Change…

  1. What an interesting ceiling! I really don’t know much about Baroque stucco decoration, but I think it’s interesting that the figures are frontally-oriented (and hover over the viewer), instead of shown in some type of perspective. It was very common for painted Baroque ceilings in Europe to be placed in perspective (I’m particularly thinking of the quadratura), in which the figures are dramatically zooming into space, away from the viewer.

    I wonder if the frontally-oriented composition for these figures is something that is related to just stucco medium (I imagine that suggesting perspective in stucco might be hard?), or if it indicates a change in taste. After all, this ceiling was produced in the mid-18th century, which is quite late for Baroque art.

    • Interesting observation… I’m not sure if I’m able to offer an explanation for this lack of perspective in the figures. I don’t think it has to do with a change of taste, though: I just had a look at some painted ceilings from the mid-18th century in Austria, and judging by them the concept of quadratura was still pretty much en vogue then.
      My guess would be that the frontally-oriented composition is partly due to the technical limitations of stucco medium, but also (and perhaps more importantly) to the fact that this particular artist was even more limited than others. To me it looks as if he really was more of a craftsman rather than a “proper” artist, and the allegorical figures (the Virtues in particular) look like they have simply been copied from prints or some other sort of graphic model. I haven’t been able to identify a source but these figures just seem to have “stock-image” written all over them…

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