Late medieval cityscapes

In my last post I was talking about the so-called Retable du Parlement from Paris and how it shows an actual cityscape, i.e. Paris, in the background:

Unknown French (or Flemish?) Master, Crucifixion with Saints (aka Le Retable du Parlement), between 1449 and 1454, Paris, Musée du Louvre (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

True enough, to the very left of the painting there’s the Tour de Nesle, right next to it, seen from across the Seine, there’s the Louvre in its late medieval state, while at the right side of the panel we find the Palais de la Cité. So yes, casually speaking what we have here may be referred to as a depiction of an actual cityscape. But there’s something I’ve been pondering: Strictly speaking what we see in the painting is not an actual “view of Paris” at all but rather just a handful of prominent buildings from Paris, isolated from their original topographical context and rearranged in a kind of “Best of Paris”-display. And as an added bonus the painter even threw in an accurate depiction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, located in Jerusalem, on the hilltop right behind the Crucifixion.

This way of literally composing a cityscape (composing as in Latin “componere” – to put together) was actually quite common in medieval painting, so it needn’t surprise us here. That said, at least from the 15th century onwards there also are plenty of paintings which render cities and their settings in a topographically accurate way. Take the work of Jean Fouquet, for instance, which features more than one amazing view of Paris:

Jean Fouquet, Descent of the Holy Spirit, from the Heures d'Étienne Chevalier, after 1448 - before 1457, New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

I guess I don’t have to point out that the building to the left is the Cathedral of Notre-Dame; unlike the buildings in the Retable du Parlement it’s not shown isolated from its urban context but surrounded by a dense agglomeration of houses, towers and other edifices, some of which may be identified, too (most notably, of course, the pont Saint-Michel across the Seine to the right).

On another occasion, Fouquet shows us a more complete, panoramic view of Paris:

Jean Fouquet, Dagobert I. takes refuge in St. Denis, from the Grandes Chroniques de France, c. 1455-1460, Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. Français 6465, fol. 57 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

There actually are quite a lot of views of Paris from the 15th century, and not just by Fouquet. This is mostly due to the large number of illuminated manuscripts of both the Grandes Chroniques de France and the Chronicles of Jean Froissart made during that era. Both texts treat events from the history of France, so as you might expect Paris comes up quite often in the texts as well as in their illustrations.

Another city that got depicted quite frequently is Cologne. A fine example is provided in the background of this panel showing a row of saints, among them St. Gereon, one of Cologne’s patron saints (for a more detailed view of the cityscape in the background click here):

Unknown Master, Saints Christopher, Gereon, Peter and Anne with the Virgin and Child, c. 1480, Cologne, Wallraf-Richartz Museum (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Then as now, Cologne’s most distinctive buildings were the Romanesque church of St. Martin’s with its huge, characteristic tower and the Cathedral which was still under construction and consisted solely of the elaborate Gothic choir and the lower parts of the south-western tower. As is well known, the Cathedral would actually remain in that unfinished state until the 19th century, and for many centuries the enormous crane on top of the southwestern tower was one of the city’s main sights – and indeed it features in almost all late medieval views of Cologne, too. For example, all of the features I just listed appear in a painting from Hans Memling’s Shrine of St. Ursula in Bruges:

Hans Memling, Arrival of St. Ursula in Cologne, 1489, Bruges, St. John's Hospital (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

According to legend, St. Ursula suffered her martyrdom right before the walls of Cologne and it is indeed in scenes from the life of St. Ursula that Cologne got depicted most often. So basically, the reason Cologne appears so often in late medieval paintings lies in the great popularity of St. Ursula!

Other saints and other cities didn’t become the subject of paintings quite as often. That is certainly the case with St. Korbinian and the city of Freising in Bavaria, both of which appear in this panel by Jan Polack:

Jan Polack, Death of St. Korbinian, 1483-1489, Munich, Alte Pinakothek (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Korbinian who was venerated almost exclusively in Bavaria and its neighbouring regions had been the first bishop of Freising back in the 8th century so, as with St. Ursula and Cologne, it makes sense that the city should appear in a scene from his life.

Since we’re in Southern Germany already, here’s another cityscape, a rather famous view of Bamberg by Wolfgang Katzheimer:

Wolfgang Katzheimer the Elder, Dispersion of the Apostles, 1483, Bamberg, Historisches Museum (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Among the buildings you can make out, there is of course Bamberg Cathedral right in the centre, the Obere Pfarrkirche to its left, and the monastery of St. Michael on the hilltop at the right side of the painting…

There are of course many more cityscapes in 15th century paintings and I can’t possibly include them all here. But I’m not going to leave you without a) this fine depiction of my current place of residence, Vienna…

Master of the Schotten Altarpiece, Flight into Egypt, 1469, Vienna, Schottenstift (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

… and b) the highly interesting case of Hans Leu’s panels from the lives of Saints Felix and Regula made for the Großmünster in Zurich. Felix and Regula are Zurich’s patron saints and they are said to have been martyred in that very town at the beginning of the 4th century. So, as you may already expect, a remarkable view of Zurich is included in Leu’s paintings, executed around 1500:

Hans Leu, Martyrdom of Saints Felix and Regula (fragment), c. 1497-1501, Zurich, Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Later in the 16th century, when the Reformation had come to Zurich, iconoclasts destroyed the shrine of the saints and discarded of Leu’s paintings. However, they sawed off and kept the view of Zurich which ran across the background of three different panels. The heads and busts of the saints and other figures still visible in the fragments (see image above) were overpainted and only rediscovered and restored in 1937. Before that restoration the fragmented, overpainted panels looked like this:

Hans Leu, Fragments from the Shrine of Saints Felix and Regula, c. 1490-1500, Zurich, Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, pre-1937 photograph (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

I believe the way the cityscape in Hans Leu’s Felix and Regula panels was turned from a backdrop in a religious painting to a simple View of Zurich is highly interesting because it seems to be related not only to the history of Reformation iconoclasm, but also to the rise of the autonomous cityscape as a subject of painting in the late medieval / early modern period. Which sort of brings me back to that guy I also talked about in the previous post, Albrecht Dürer – so let’s have him the last word stroke of the brush in this post:

Albrecht Dürer, View of Innsbruck from the North, 1495, Vienna, Albertina (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

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