The photograph shows the gate to the fortified cemetery surrounding the church in Maria Saal, one of the finest and largest late Gothic churches in Carinthia, Austria’s southernmost state, not too far from the Italian border. Both the church and the fortifications date to the 15th century. Over the pointed arch of the entrance gate, one can still make out the chain holes of a draw bridge which has, however, long been replaced by a stone bridge. Two small, barefoot boys are placed in the entrance, sporting the traditional dress of the region, i.e. lederhosen, shirt and vest. They add a bit of local touch to the image and make an already picturesque composition resemble a genre painting.
But things are not quite as idyllic as they may seem at first glance. When looking at the image description in the Europeana database, one realises that the picture was taken in 1918 by the photo department of the K. u. k. Kriegspressequartier, the War Press Office of the Austro-Hungarian army. The Europeana Collections offer access to a large number of photos by the Kriegspressequartier, provided by the Austrian National Library. As you’d expect, most of them show soldiers and battlefields, cannons and trenches, barracks and hospitals, death and destruction – but a surprising many document the cultural heritage of the hinterland behind the front.
The Cemetery in Maria Saal with the church in the background
K. u. k. Kriegspressequartier, Lichtbildstelle, 1918
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna (Public Domain)
Recording the appearance and preservation state of buildings and artworks a hundred years ago, these collections are a valuable and fascinating source for anyone interested in art history and, more specifically, in heritage conservation. And yet, I cannot look at these photos without a certain trepidation: As peaceful as Maria Saal may appear in them, the soldiers stationed in the area were always just one mission order away from being sent to the Italian Front – where around 400.000 Austro-Hungarian and between 300.000 and 600.000 Italian soldiers were killed in the years 1915-1918.