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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12 Responses to A bishop, a bust and a basilisk (and wall paintings, loads of wall paintings)

  1. I’ve never seen anything like the cats and mice before–they certainly did have a sense of humor.

    • Thanks for the comment, Nathan.
      Come to think of it, Boccaccio actually mentions a fresco of the Battle between Cats and Mice in his Decameron, and he certainly was a writer who recognized a joke if he saw one…

  2. Christina says:

    Very cool wall paintings. I always like these examples of outlandish iconography (i.e. St. Margaret & the Knight Cats).

    • Thanky, yes “outlandish” is a good word to describe some of these paintings. There will be more examples of interesting iconography in the second part of my account of that trip, though admittedly they won’t be quite as amusing…

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  4. jcameronuk says:

    That’s really interesting you’ve got a painting of a bishop blessing from a faldstool on the north side opposite the sedilia… I’d be interested to know more about the inscription. Sedilia themselves might be boring outside of England but they have so many more interesting paintings associated with them.
    And I don’t think I’ve ever seen a battle of cats and mice, I only remember the mention of such a painting in the Decameron. All fascinating paintings (even that 1907 one – I love it!)

    • Er, I have to admit that the wall painting of the bishop is not directly opposite the sedilia, more like diagonally across the chancel, so I’m not sure whether a connection with the sedilia was intended in this case – sorry for not phrasing this bit thoroughly enough in the original post. Anyway, of the two inscriptions in the painting, the larger one upon which the faldstool rests simply states that bishop Wocho of Seckau consecrated the church in 1324: + ANNO D(OMI)NI • Mo • CoCoCo • XXo • IIIIo • IIIIo • IDUS AVG(VS)TI • VENER(ABILIS) • I(N) CH(RIST)O • P(ATE)R • D(OMI)N(V)S • WOKCHO • SECCOVIEN(SIS) EP(ISCOPV)S. The second, smaller inscription to the bishop’s right reproduces the consecration formula spoken by him: [benedice domine] domu(m) ista(m) (et) omnes habitantes in illa sit q(ue) in ea.
      By the way, when you say that sedilia on the continent are more boring than those in England is that just your personal impression or an established scholarly consensus? Not that I’d doubt your personal opinion on this matter, I’m just curious whether it has actually been given much thought in the past or if there are any comparative studies of sedilia across Europe… You are right, of course, that “our” sedilia here in Central Europe often come with interesting wall paintings – incidentally, one of them will be featured in one of my next posts, so you have something to look forward to ;-)

      • jcameronuk says:

        An established scholarly consensus on continental sedilia? Chance’d be a fine thing…This study has the advantage and disadvantage of there being barely any literature on the subject at all.
        From what I can gather most sedilia outside of England are simple wide niches, with only some in greater churches gaining canopies and things in the later fourteenth century when the influence of the English Decorated spreads widely.
        I have been waiting a good two years now to find evidence to the contrary that sedilia are just not that much of a big thing outside of England, but my “continent” database is still very thin on examples…

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  6. Great – will have proper read when get a spare moment.

  7. Possibly a silly question, or one with an obvious answer in the church dedication, but in the `appalling’ modern Resurrection scene… is Christ carrying a flag of St George? And if so, why?

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