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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News from the Blogosphere

Now, the first piece of news (in case you have been wondering) is: I aten’t dead! One wouldn’t be amiss, however, to describe my current state as zombie-like, what with me working way too much and sleeping far too little in the past couple of months… Anyway, next week I will be at International Medieval Congress in Leeds (where, for those of you who might be interested, there will be a bloggers’ meetup on Monday), but after that I hope that things here will be slightly more relaxed again and that I will get round to finally writing up some of those blog posts that I have already lined up as rough drafts…

All lined up and ready: Soon these three Roman gentlemen will make their appearance on this blog. Yes, you read right, Romans…

In the meantime, let me point you to some other fine blogs out there. Over the last few months some really great new medievalist and/or art historical blogs have seen the light of the internet, and I believe you might find them interesting as well.

Let me begin with what I think is the newest blog on the list: John Harvey: Blog – Directions in Image, Sound, and Word. The name, in this case, really says it all. The blog is written by John Harvey who is Professor of Art at the School of Art at Aberystwyth University but also a sound artist in his own right. In his research as well as in his artistic practice he deals with the interplay between the visual and the aural, and unsurprisingly this absolutely fascinating subject area – which art historians have only just begun to discover – is also the focus of his blog.

Slightly more traditional in its approach but equally fascinating is Hungarian Art History, a blog written by Budapest-based art historian Nóra Veszprémi. Her subject matter is mostly 19th century Hungarian painting which, at first glance, may seem a bit too particular to appeal to readers outside of Hungary or, say, Central Europe. Once you begin to read, though, you soon realise that the topics she treats are actually quite universal (e.g. the Gothic or Exoticism) and that she examines Hungarian art in a wider trans-European context, so in spite of its regional focus this blog really should appeal to anyone with an interest in 19th century art and culture.

Speaking of the 19th century: Next on my list of new blogs is Stained Glass Attitudes, authored by James Alexander Cameron who is a PhD student at the Courtauld Institute of Art in London where he is writing his thesis on sedilia in medieval English parish churches. While sedilia do occasionally turn up on the blog, most of the posts consist of highly entertaining accounts of the author’s often surprisingly adventurous expeditions to churches in London and beyond. And while the blog frequently features art and architecture of the Middle Ages, there also is a large percentage of Gothic Revival churches from the Victorian era, furnished with lots and lots of 19th and 20th century stained glass windows…

Just to break up the stream of text a bit, here’s another image, vaguely related to the content of the post: 14th century sedilia in St. Michael’s Church, Vienna

Blog posts dealing with London and its medieval heritage are also a regular feature on Medieval Bex. Its author is Bex Lyons is a PhD student in medieval literature at the University of York, and accordingly both reflections on the life as a PhD student and discussions of medieval, especially Arthurian literature make up much of the blog’s content.

While Medieval Bex has actually been around for almost a year by now, the next blog on my list is once again a brand new one: Medieval Art in Sweden does exactly what its name says, it brings discussions, news and reviews about, well, medieval art in Sweden as well as, naturally, updates about the activity of its author, Dr. Alexandra Fried. (And, on a side note, let me add that I learned about this blog via Ellie Pridgeon who runs a highly informative blog on Medieval Wall Paintings, focussing mostly on material from Britain – yet another blog that definitely merits the attention of all those with an interest in medieval painting and/or medieval Britain.)

Finally, I’d like to conclude this list by pointing out that a few months ago I myself have actually started a new, additional blog as well. Blatantly ripped off from losely inspired by Philip Wilkinson’s excellent English Buildings blog, it is called Baudenkmäler in Österreich (Buildings in Austria), and buildings, in this case, means pretty much everything from farmhouses to hot dog stands. I haven’t mentioned it here before because a) its focus really is so regional and the buildings it deals with are so low-key that I don’t believe it is of much interest to anyone outside of Austria, and b) because it is written in German (partly because it’s mainly aimed at a regional audience, partly because I write faster in German than in English, and I simply don’t have the time to write another blog in English). There is, however, a very brief English summary at the end of each post, so that international readers can get at least some idea of what they’re looking at. So, well, since I am already posting about new blogs anyway, I thought I’d include it here as well…

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How about a game of…

spot the Crucifixion? The rules are quite simple, really: All you need is a late medieval wall painting, like this one here…

Crucifixion, wall painting, mid-14th century, Parish Church, St. Nikola an der Donau (Austria)

… and a guidebook claiming that there’s a Crucifixion scene depicted in said painting. And then you just keep staring at the picture until you can finally make out the faded remains of the scene:

Crucifixion (Detail), wall painting, mid-14th century, Parish Church, St. Nikola an der Donau (Austria)

Want to have another go? Try this one:

Crucifixion, wall painting, early 16th century, Cemetery Chapel, Waitschach (Austria)

To help you out a bit, here’s a more detailed image of the painting’s central portion where, after adding lots and lots of contrast in Photoshop, the crucified body of Christ is slightly more discernible and even the silhouette of Jerusalem becomes visible in the background:

Crucifixion (Detail), wall painting, early 16th century, Cemetery Chapel, Waitschach (Austria)

It’s a fun game, isn’t it? Only, for some people, including myself, it’s actually part of our job and in many cases it’s only the smallest of steps from fun to frustration. I mean, I really like wall paintings, and I love studying them, a lot more than for instance manuscript illuminations with their fresh, well-preserved colours… But still, the state of preservation some of those murals are in can often be a real bitch nuissance.

Admittedly, the two paintings shown above are extreme examples, not least because both of them are located on the outside of their respective buildings and have therefore been exposed to sun, wind and rain for ages. But even inside, the situation isn’t always that much better:

Crucifixion, wall painting, late 15th century, Parish Church, Freistadt (Austria)

Well, it’s not that I’m complaining… But I thought it would be fun to share these images here. Fun as well as educational. The thing is that, when we think of art history, we usually  think of well-preserved, high-end works by the likes of Giotto, Michelangelo or Tintoretto. The fact of the matter is, however, that more often than not, what art historians actually deal with are badly preserved, low-key works by anonymous or little-known masters that rarely make it into the textbooks or even onto art historical blogs…

To this effect, I’ll leave you with another “gem” from Austria’s rich heritage of medieval wall paintings:

Christ on the Mount of Olives & The Crucifixion, wall painting, late 14th / early 15th century, Parish Church, Haidkirchen (Austria)

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Dragons, lions and whatnot

A week or so ago, Dennis Aubrey over at Via Lucis – that amazing blog dedicated to photography of (mostly) Romanesque architecture in France – posted an entry about the sculptural decoration of the 12th century facade of the Prieuré Sainte Gemme. Aptly titled Curious Corbels, the post features some of those highly imaginative carvings – from realistic human heads to rather cartoonish figures, ferocious beasts and demons – so typical for the Romanesque era.

This reminded me that for quite some time now I have been meaning to do a post about the only still extant set of Romanesque carvings here in Vienna, i.e. the decorations on the main gate of the Stephansdom [St. Stephen’s Cathedral], the so-called Riesentor [Giant Gate]:

This richly decorated portal was begun c. 1237 and completed about fifteen years later, at a time when the Romanesque style had already begun to give way to the Gothic. However, its sculptures and ornaments are still firmly rooted in the Romanesque tradition. Thus, the tympanum shows Christ in Majesty flanked by two angels – unfortunately, though, this piece is not easy to capture on photo because it’s half-hidden by a close meshed the anti-pigeon-net:

Surrounding the tympanum is a series of archivolts with richly carved mouldings (which, actually, I have already mentioned and shown in one of my earlier posts). At the foot of the archivolts one finds the figures of the twelve apostles, and below that an amazing frieze of weird and fantastic creatures:

It is this frieze which interests me here and which, on the verge of the Gothic, shows the imagination of Romanesque sculptors and masons in all its bizarre glory one last time.

There are, of course, some relatively ‘normal’ human figures, even though most of them are confronted by fierce creatures such as this disproportionately large lion:

Lions, as is well known, were a favourite subject in high medieval sculpture and, right enough, here’s another one:

Next in line: dragons…

… and, presumably, an ape:

It’s hard to say what exactly the creature in the next photo is meant to represent. Personally, I’d refer to it as a demon, but it’s hard to say really…

It’s easier to identify the two gentlemen in the next picture: a cripple and the head of a man grasping his beard. It is equally difficult, though, to determine what their meaning is supposed to be.

Most scholars believe that the weird imagery in this frieze is meant to symbolize the moral perils of earthly existence, the confrontation of mankind with the snares of the devil. I must say, it’s hard to argue with that when looking at figures like these two…

… probably two of the most striking figures in all medieval art and definitely two of my personal favourites!

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A Mural Rising from the Tomb…

When I was in Somerset and Devon last September, I also visited Exeter Cathedral which, among many other notable furnishings and features, also houses what I believe is one of England’s finest wall-paintings from the late 15th / early 16th century. I’ve been meaning to blog about it ever since, but somehow never got round to it. Now, at Easter, however is the perfect occasion to finally write that post, seeing as the painting in question depicts the Resurrection of Christ (with the Three Marys at the Tomb and the Noli me Tangere in the background):

According to your background and education your opinion may vary on whether to tag this painting “late Gothic” or “Northern Renaissance”. What’s undeniable though is its dependence on the realism of Early Netherlandish painting which, from c. 1440 onwards had become the blueprint for most of European painting. Of course, there nonetheless were considerable differences between the various local schools, and as far as I know the image of the Resurrected Christ in Exeter was indeed painted by an English artist. While the painting’s surface isn’t exactly in what you’d call perfect condition, the better preserved parts are of remarkable quality. It is tempting, and at the same time devastating, to imagine how many images like this must have adorned the walls of England’s churches before the English Reformation made sure that all religious imagery was, as 1547 decree puts it, “utterly extinct”.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the Resurrection mural in Exeter is, however, its location, namely in or rather above the Sylke Chantry Chapel:

A delicate, cage-like construction in the north-east corner of the transept, this was the burial-place of the cathedral’s preceptor William Sylke (died 1508). As you can see in the photo, Sylke’s tomb itself is placed in such a way that it is visible/accessible from outside the chapel (where church-goers might see it) as well from inside (where the clergy would be saying mass for the deceased’s soul).

Something similar may be said for the Resurrection mural although, admittedly, one has a much better view of it from outside, standing right in the centre of the crossing. From this viewpoint it seems as if the figure is Christ is actually rising from the Chantry Chapel, or indeed as if it is rising from the tomb of William Sylke. This, of course, makes the image all the more poignant – and goes to show just how crucial it is to take setting and context into account when studying wall-paintings.

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Charlemagne’s Alphabet

Here’s a sort of “fun fact” about Charlemagne I just came across in a 15th century source. Ok, technically it may not be an actual “fact” but, as the Italians say: se non è vero, è ben trovato – if it’s not true, it’s well conceived…

Anyway, the source in question is Hans Waltheym’s travel journal, describing a journey he undertook in 1474 from eastern Germany to southern France. On his way back he came through Zurich and, regarding this city, he notes that its main church, the Großmünster [Great Minster], had been founded by Charlemagne.

15th century statue of Charlemagne, Großmünster, Zurich (Image © Andrew Bossi via Wikimedia Commons)

Then Waltheym adds this bit of trivia:

It is noteworthy that the Emperor Charlemagne founded as many minsters as there are letters in the alphabet, and he began with the letter A and founded Aachen first, and he did the same with all the letters, one after the other, so that Zurich was the last minster he founded.

Oh, and here’s another fun fact about Zurich from Waltheym’s account:

Zurich is such an ancient town that it had actually been built before the Deluge.

I bet you didn’t know that! Of course, Waltheym goes on to say, in Zurich as everywhere else everyone drowned in the Deluge, but the buildings remained intact so they could be reused later, once Noah and his clan had produced enough offspring to repopulate the planet. Now it’s not that Hans von Waltheym made these stories up himself. I distinctly remember having read the bit about Zurich pre-dating the Deluge before, and while I’m not sure where exactly that was, I’m positive that it was in another 15th century travel journal. It seems that this was simply the kind of story the locals in late medieval Zurich would tell visitors from abroad.

Ok, I’m in a bit of a conundrum now on how to end this post. The thing is, I had intended to end it by poking fun at the credulity of medieval people and the weird stuff they believed. But I just remembered some of the wildly outrageous stories I’ve heard modern-day tour guides try to sell as “historical facts”, so it might be wiser to stick to that old saying about throwing stones when living in a glass house, and just shut up…


Update: Reading artsymbol’s comment regarding the so-called A of Charlemagne in Conques caused me to do a bit of googling (which, perhaps, I should have done before writing this post), and I can now inform you that a thorough discussion of the stories about Charlemagne’s alphabet may be found in: Amy G. Remensnyder, Remembering Kings Past: Monastic Foundation Legends in Medieval Southern France, Cornell University Press 1995, pp. 157-164, which conveniently is available on google books.

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Boccaccio’s Women Artists

A few days ago, on Twitter, the esteemed Hasan Niyazi posted a link to an amazing online gallery of women artists, containing over two hundred portraits – most of them self-portraits – of female painters at work. The bulk of them are from the modern period and only eight of the images predate the year 1500. The first of them is a prehistoric cave painting showing the print of a woman’s hand. The other seven all show medieval women in the act of painting and are simply labelled “Anonymous, 15th century”. And that, I’m afraid is all the information one gets about those paintings. So I figured I’d do a post about them here… The thing is, all the 15th century images in the gallery are actually illustrations from manuscripts of Giovanni Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris [Of Famous Women] or its French translation Des Cleres et Nobles Femmes.

The way *we* see Boccaccio: Gustave Wappers, Boccaccio reading the Decameron to Queen Joanna of Naples, 1868 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Now, today Boccaccio is best known as the author of entertaining, often frivolous tales written in his native Italian, but in 15th century France his fame rested mostly on his ‘serious’ humanist works in Latin. These included a collection of biographies of famous men (De casibus virorum illustrium) and its counterpart, the aforementioned De Mulieribus Claris, written c. 1360/70. As Boccaccio himself explicitly states in the latter’s introduction, it was the first book in Western literature dealing exclusively with biographies of women and as such it exerted considerable influence, for instance on Geoffrey Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women or Christine de Pizan’s City of Ladies.

The way people in the 15th century saw Boccaccio: Andrea del Castagno, Giovanni Boccaccio, c. 1450 (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

Boccaccio’s work collects the life stories of 106 women from both history and mythology, all of them exemplary of what the author believes to be particularly female virtues or, in some cases, vices. Most of this material was drawn from the traditions of Roman antiquity, from the works of writers such as Ovid, Suetonis or Pliny the Elder. And it was Pliny, too, who provided Boccaccio with the biographies of two women artists.

One of them is a certain Marcia, Daughter of Varro. Of her, Boccaccio writes:

“It has long been known that in Rome there was a woman named Marcia, daughter of Varro, who remained a virgin all her life. But I do not remember having found out which Varro it was or even when she lived.

I believe that this woman should be extolled all the more because she was legally independent and preserved her virginity in its full integrity of her own free will, not because of the coercion of a higher authority. As a matter of fact, I do not find that she was bound by holy orders to Vesta or subject to a vow made to Diana or entangled in another commitment – all reasons which curb and restrain women. I believe it was through purity of mind alone that she conquered the sting of the flesh, which occasionally overcomes even the most illustrious men, and she kept her body unblemished by any relations with men until her death.”

Marcia, from an incunable German translation by Heinrich Steinhöwel of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, printed by Johannes Zainer at Ulm ca. 1474 (Image © Wikimedia Commons). In this illustration, Marcia is shown twice, once as a painter and once as a sculptor, just as the text (see below) demands. Contrary to the text, however, her chastity is visualised by her being dressed as a nun – even though Boccaccio explicitly states that she had *not* taken any religious vows.

“Although Marcia deserves great commendation for her laudable constancy, she is to be praised no less for her intellectual ability and her manual dexterity. We do not know if she learned from a teacher or was naturally gifted. What appears certain, however, is that, scorning womanly occupations and not wanting to waster her time in idleness, Marcia devoted herself completely to the study of painting and sculpture; in the end, she was able to carve ivory figures and to paint with such skill and finesse that she surpassed Sopolis and Dionysius, the most famous painters of her day. Clear proof of this is the fact that the pictures she painted were sold for better prices than those of other artists. And what is still more extraordinary, our sources say that, not only did Marcia paint extremely well (a fairly common accomplishment), but she could paint more quickly than anyone else.

Specimens of Marcia’s art survived for a long time. Among them was a self-portrait which she painted on a panel with the aid of a mirror. She rendered the color, features, and expression of the face so faithfully that none of her contemporaries who saw it had trouble identifying the subject of the painting.”

Marcia painting her self-portrait with the aid of a mirror, from a manuscript of Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris, France, early 15th century (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

“As regards her unique moral sensitivity, we are told among other things that, whether she was painting or sculpting, it was her practice to reproduce especially images of women, and those of men rarely if ever. This was occasioned, I think, by her purity and modesty. In antiquity figures were, for the most part, rendered as nude of half nude, and it seemed to her necessary either to portray the men in an unfinished state or, by adding all the details, to forget maidenly delicacy. To avoid either alternative, she deemed it better to abstain from both.” *

The other woman painter in Boccaccio’s book is Tamaris. Her biography reads as follows:

“Tamaris was a female artist famous in her own day. Time may have destroyed most of her efforts but not, at least up to now, her distinguished reputation and skill. Reportedly she was the daughter of the painter Micon and lived during the ninetieth Olympiad. (…)”

Tamaris painting the goddess Diana,  from a manuscript of De Cleres et Nobles Femmes, France, early 15th century (Image © Wikimedia Commons)

“Tamaris scorned womanly tasks and practiced her father’s craft with remarkable talent. When Archelaus was king of Macedonia, she gained such acclaim for her painting that the Ephesians, who had a particular veneration for Diana, long preserved as a celebrated image of this goddess a panel painting done by Tamaris. This work of art endured for many years and provided such convincing proof of her ability that it seems worthy of remembrance even today – indeed, eminently so if we compare it with the usual spinning and weaving of other women.” **

Tamaris, from a manuscript of De Cleres et Nobles Femmes, France, 1403 (Image © Wikimedia Commons). Note how the painting of Diana has miraculously been transformed into a Madonna with Child…

So I guess that in the gallery of women artists through the ages, the illustrations from Boccaccio’s De Mulieribus Claris may actually stand for both antiquity and the middle ages. What they show are medieval women in medieval artists’ workshops, but at the same time they claim to show female artists from ancient Greece and Rome. There were, of course, women painters in the Middle Ages: Nuns were often involved in manuscript illumination, and so were worldly women, often working in a team with their husband. And it’s safe to assume that in many cases a painter’s wife would help out in his workshop. Sometimes, this may only have meant sweeping the workshop floor, but other times it may well have included her collaborating in the works of art produced by her husband. But, of course, usually it would have been the man who was the head of the workshop and who signed both contracts and paintings. So yes, there certainly were women artists in the Middle Ages, but unlike Marcia’s and Tamaris’ their names are lost.

* Giovanni Boccaccio, Famous Women, translated by Virginia Brown, Harvard University Press, 2003, pp. 135-137.

** Ibid., pp. 114-115.

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