by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Gothic in the Alps: 1350-1450.

By Roderick Conway Morris
TRENT, Italy 3 August 2002
Treasury of Duomo di Santa Maria Assunta, Cividale
Reliquary Bust of San Donato, c. 1374



From time immemorial a formidable barrier between northern and southern Europe, the Alpine region found itself in the 14th and 15th centuries increasingly at center stage as a political, religious and cultural meeting point.

This glittering, turbulent but artistically fruitful epoch is the subject of an ambitious exhibition, 'The Gothic in the Alps: 1350-1450,' at Castello del Buonconsiglio, once the redoubt of the prince-bishops of Trent, and the Museo Diocesano Tridentino, the palace that was their official residence. Some 180 pieces, including frescoes, paintings, sculptures, metalwork and manuscripts, have been gathered from the mountain region for the show, which continues until Oct. 20.

Trent is a particularly appropriate setting, since within the Castello is the Cycle of the Months, created around 1400, one of the finest late-Gothic wall paintings to come down to us. Colorful, sumptuous, observant and witty, this work magically brings to life the spirit of the times.

These were difficult, even catastrophic days in much of Europe. The seemingly endless conflict between France and England, later called the Hundred Years War, continued throughout this period. The Black Death first struck in 1347 and repeatedly during the rest of the century, wiping out up to half of Europe's population. The authority of the Church was weakened by disputes over the papacy. Fleeing Rome, a succession of popes resided in Avignon between 1309 and 1376. And in 1378 the Great Schism again split the church until 1417. Secular rulers became stronger, disputing the Church's power, and this struggle contributed to instability.

At the heart of the Alps a new state, the Swiss Confederation, was emerging. Originating in a rural, peasant resistance movement, it in due course attracted prosperous towns - Zurich first made common cause with the Confederates in 1351, and Berne two years later - and a new feeling of assertiveness, confidence and independence was in the Alpine air.

Some leading contemporary players actually came from the Alps, including two anti-popes and a Habsburg emperor. Still more significant was that this part of the world became the scene of two international church councils, of Constance (1414-18) and Basel (1431-49), which confirmed the region's role as not only a mercantile but political and ecclesiastical crossroads.

As part of the entourages and in the wake of delegations that attended these incredibly extended get-togethers - Eneo Silvio Piccolomini, the future Pope Pius II, for example, spent a decade on and off in Basel and was full of praise for its beauties and amenities - artists arrived from all over Europe. These conferences alone brought a great deal of money into the region, not a little of which was spent on conspicuous cultural activity.

One of the most prominent of patrons was the connoisseur, collector and bibliophile Georg von Liechtenstein, who was made prince-bishop of Trent in 1390, and whose tastes, impressive spending on art and political vicissitudes are emblematic of the trends and contradictions of the age. Upon his appointment, he set about trying vigorously to reassert the bishopric's secular powers and reclaim lost estates and privileges, meeting stout opposition from the local nobility and burgeoning merchant classes alike.

Liechtenstein converted the Torre Aquila (Eagle Tower) at Castello del Buonconsiglio into commodious, but well-fortified private quarters, and in the late 1390s employed an artist, now identified with near certainty as one Wenceslas from Bohemia, to decorate a floor here with the delightful Cycle of the Months. Although commissioned by a clergyman, these frescoes are unashamedly secular, showing the progress of the seasons and the activities of aristocrat and peasant against the idyllic backdrop of a teeming Alpine landscape, bathed in a golden atmosphere of human and natural harmony. In this respect, the Cycle has an element of propaganda, or at least wishful thinking, given the realities of Liechtenstein's circumstances.

A further series of extraordinarily rich and sophisticated figurative embroideries made for Liechtenstein's vestments include a scene of the cask of Saint Vigilio - Trent's Roman patron saint, who had been stoned to death by local pagans - being solemnly carried into Castello del Buonconsiglio, a clear message that, as far as Liechtenstein was concerned, his worldly power, exercised from his fortress-palace, was sanctioned by God and the bones of a martyr.

These embroideries are in the Museo Diocesano Tridentino section of the show, at this attractive museum in the recently restored prince-bishop's palace next door to the Duomo. One of the charming surprises of this part of the itinerary is that when visitors pass through a low side door of the palace's private chapel, they find themselves suddenly on a narrow loggia, dizzyingly high above the altar of the cavernous cathedral - a suitably remote aerie from which Liechtenstein would have been able to survey his truculent congregation below.

The aristocratic poise, elegant dress and fashionable coiffeur of noble ladies and damsels of the period, faithfully recorded in the Cycle of the Months, was carried over into the Schoenen Madonnen (Beautiful Madonnas), one of the most distinctive products of the late-flowering Alpine Gothic. These were destined to be free-standing cult statues, but seem equally to celebrate female beauty and motherhood in their own right. Small, exquisitely wrought and expensively decorated statuettes for domestic settings also became much sought after, an index of how artists were ceasing to rely so entirely on church and noble patronage and beginning to meet the needs of the rising merchant classes.

Perhaps the single most characteristic art form of the late Gothic in the Alps was the 'Fluegelaltar' (Winged Altar), represented at Castello del Buonconsiglio, for practical reasons, only in fragmentary form, but at the Museo Diocesano by more complete examples, though of a slightly later date. The 'Fluegelaltar' marked a high point in its perfect integration of sculpture, painting and architecture, and the finest of them are spectacular monuments in themselves. They were built with two or more sets of doors, decorated with figures on the outside, which on weekdays were closed but on Sundays and feast days were flung open to reveal elaborate and expressively composed three-dimensional tableaux featuring Christ, the Virgin and the saints. Designed to educate the congregation, to dramatize the Gospels and arouse feelings of sympathy and pity, they still have the power, through their artistry and workmanship, to astonish today.

In some parts of the region, these majestic altars suffered at the hands of Protestant reformers. As one chronicler recorded in Basel after the iconoclasts had paid a visit: 'The whole church lay full of images: One had no head, another no hands, and it was like a war, when there had been a great battle.'

Ironically, even in those areas unaffected by iconoclast rampages, many a 'Fluegelaltar' was later dismembered when church interiors were remodeled during the Baroque era. Some were even burned to obtain the precious metals with which they were lavishly painted. Behind the altars' banishment and destruction were new demands for greater simplicity promulgated by the 16th-century Counter-Reformation Council of Trent.

Relatively few 'Fluegelaltars' survive intact, and their dispersed components now on show can never equal the impact these works had as a whole. But the influence of these altars in particular and the late Gothic in general visibly lives on, in traditional religious, popular and decorative arts throughout the Alpine region.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023