The fox, the stork & the blacksmith

September 27, 2010

It seems that autumn has finally arrived. The weekend brought chilly winds and gusts of rain from an overcast sky, with temperatures that had dropped, basically overnight, from 22 to 12 degrees Celsius. The perfect weather to stay home and cuddle up on the couch with a mug of Irish Coffee in the company of Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland. Which we did. Well, mostly…

The weekend also brought the Austrian edition of the European Heritage Days which means that all over the country the Denkmalamt (State office for the preservation of monuments) provided guided visits to a wide array of historical sites and monuments, some of them well known but most them rather overlooked and usually not accesible to the public. So despite the ghastly weather we went on a Sunday outing, succumbing to the lure of some recently discovered 16th century wall paintings in Kaiserebersdorf, a village now formally part of Vienna but, historically speaking, an independent community on the outermost outskirts of the city.

Here, in a room of the old village smithy a painted decoration dating to ca. 1580 was uncovered under more than 60 (!) more recent layers of whitewash and paint. Since [m] and I are primarily medievalists these murals are, of course, slightly out of our time range. In the context of rural Austria they actually pass for “Renaissance” art. On the other hand, they’re still very much in the tradition of medieval domestic painting: For instance vegetable scrolls and tendrils interspersed with the figures of birds and beasts, as found in the vaulting at Kaiserebersdorf, had been a common motive at least from the late 13th century onwards.

Monkey and squirrel (?), detail of wall paintings in the old smithy, Kaiserebersdorf

Also, one of the smithy’s most interesting paintings, depicting the Aesopian fable of the fox and the stork, forms part of a very long pictorial tradition: Aesop’s fables as subjects of domestic painting are documented as early as the 11th century and were quite widespread during the later Middle Ages, with surviving examples diffused all over central Europe, from the Valle d’Aosta to Slovakia.

The Fox and the Stork, detail of wall paintings in the old smithy, Kaiserebersdorf

And there is, of course, the stag-hunt – the most popular subject in secular wall painting all through the Middle Ages.

Stag hunt, detail of wall paintings in the old smithy, Kaiserebersdorf

Back then hunting was a privilege of the nobility, and the stag was considered the noblest prey of all. So basically every nobleman who had his hall or chamber painted made sure to include the picture of a stag-hunt to demonstrate his status as an aristocrat. For that very reason the subject was even more popular among Bourgeois upstarts who, by way of such paintings, laid claim (real or imagined) to participating in elite culture, too. This may explain why in Kaiserebersdorf even the local blacksmith would have wanted it to feature in the decoration of his – for want of a better word – drawing room. We mustn’t forget that a smith’s trade in those days was very well respected and also highly profitable, especially when your workshop was situated on one of the main roads leading into a big town like Vienna. In his own rural community the blacksmith would certainly have been considered a man of wealth and status.

For all the medieval traditions that are still at play in the paintings at Kaiserebersdorf, there can be no mistake, however, that they are not medieval paintings. This is perhaps most evident in the hunter pictured above who, as you may have noticed, is actually shooting a rifle! Also, to give another example, among the tendrils in the vaulting there are not only the birds and beasts of medieval custom but also a couple of merpeople, one of them a bare breasted nereid, a motive clearly culled from the art of ancient Rome that had been rediscovered by the artists of Renaissance Italy.

Merman and nereid, detail of wall paintings in the old smithy, Kaiserebersdorf

In the end, the murals at Kaiserebersdorf present themselves like a kind of hologram or picture-puzzle, demonstrating different aspects depending on the way you look at them. As medievalists we tend to see a lot of things in them that are still medieval, while scholars of early modern art will presumably focus on those elements that are modern and innovative. So, as with most things in life, what we see is very much determined by what we’re looking for, by our pre-established categories of perception. Being able to see and think beyond such categories is, in my opinion, one of the things that make a good scholar – not to mention a desirable human quality in “real life” outside the academic world.

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