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Art History

A view turned towards the ceiling

München, 04/28/2016

Between 1550 and 1800, mural painting on walls and ceilings flourished throughout Europe. LMU art historian Stephan Hoppe studies the relationship between pictorial decoration and architecture in early modern Germany. He puts these magnificent works of art back into their original historical, art historical, and social context.

Schloss Lustheim, Schleissheim. Antechamber in the Prince-Elector’s apartments. ʽDiana and Opis Capture the Armenian Tigerʼ by Johann Anton Gumpp (1685 ̶ 87) ©CbDD, BSV (Photo: Ute Engel)

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Rooms filled with stories: In the Early Modern period, artists all over Europe decorated residential palaces and stately homes, churches and monasteries with mural paintings. These illusionistic depictions on walls and ceilings, opening up multiple perspectives, were designed to convey specific messages to their viewers. The richly coloured scenes were not primarily intended as adornments, but held up a mirror to contemporary society: Visitors to such places were confronted with pictorial riddles, which could be resolved only by connoisseurs. “At court, one could make a favourable impression by displaying one’s knowledge, in particular knowledge of classical mythology,” says Professor Stephan Hoppe of LMU’s Institute of Art History. By depicting themes drawn from mythology and from ancient history, the artists offered a kind of theatre in which viewers could see themselves as part of the play. “The paintings evoked tales of Hercules or Aeneas, but they were actually intended to glorify the power of the reigning prince.”

Access to court and to the prince himself was controlled by an elaborate array of ceremonial occasions. Certain spaces were open only to select groups of people, and each of these rooms could be furnished with a painted ceiling of its own. By studying the historical contexts in which these works were created, art historians can identify the functions for which these rooms were originally intended: “The artists very deliberately set up relationships between the scenes depicted on the ceilings, the paintings on the walls and the furnishings of these spaces, thus creating artistically sophisticated ensembles,” says PD Dr Ute Engel of the Institute of Art History.

Sermons for the ear, spectacles for the eye
In churches, on the other hand, the subjects for ceiling paintings were drawn from the Bible and focused on Christian iconography. Ute Engel characterizes the impression that such large-scale works made on contemporary churchgoers (and on the modern viewer) as follows: “In the most imposing churches, frescoes often cover a huge area. But they include a variety of smaller stories and figures, which only make sense when they are considered carefully and are read scene by scene before being assembled together.” To help the congregation in order to comprehend the content of the images and their message, preachers explicitly referred to them in their sermons: “Frescoes have always been designed to be seen in conjunction with information transmitted by other media. Their pictorial narratives were elucidated by the spoken word and even complemented by music.”

Ute Engel is the Coordinator of an ambitious research project, funded by the Academies´ Programme, of a new Corpus of Baroque Ceiling Painting in Germany, led by Stephan Hoppe at the Institute of Art History. The aim of this project is to produce a survey of the mural paintings created in the Early Modern period in what is now the Federal Republic of Germany. The new corpus will cover approximately 5.000 monuments of Baroque mural paintings and study these within their artistic, historical and socio-political contexts, The aristocratic world of courts, palaces and residences will be the subject of the first phase of the project. “Since the age of enlightenment, the ruler’s court has had a bad press. Courts are regarded as centres of extravagence and dens of intrigue. But they played a major part in making the cultural achievements of the Baroque era possible, by bringing together a diverse range of personalities and talents, and members of different social estates”, as Hoppe explains. “Using the distribution of frescoes and their topics as a guide, we hope to reconstruct the network of residential capitals and cities that developed during the Early Modern period, in close cooperation with another research project of the Academies´ Programme on Residential Cities of the Holy Roman Empire (1300-1800), based at the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities”.

A pan-European phenomenon
Mural painting was, of course, not confined to Germany at this time, but was a pan-European phenomenon. “The Catholic Church, the high nobility and the Imperial cities were all decidedly European in outlook,” says Hoppe. Fresco painting on ceilings and walls first came into fashion in Italy in the 15th and 16th centuries. In the Veneto, the walls of splendid villas were painted with idyllic landscapes and the ceilings of the principal rooms were included in an overall scheme of illusionistic compositions. “This was a deliberate borrowing from the painters of classical times. In the writings of Pliny the Younger, one finds references to villas decorated with frescoes, not unlike those that have been preserved in Herculaneum,” says Ute Engel.

North of the Alps and in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire, paintings specifically conceived for a defined architectural setting became fashionable only after the Thirty Years War. As the war had devastated much of the country and many artists’ workshops had been destroyed, craftsmen from Italy and Graubünden in Southern Switzerland migrated to Germany in the following decades, bringing their skills and artistic tastes to the North. “Mural painting soon became fashionable,” says Engel, and illusionistic and figurative painting made equal conquests in France and England. Thus the LMU researchers plan to place Baroque wall and ceiling paintings in Germany in an overall European perspective. Research groups in Central Europe, the Netherlands, England and elsewhere have been contacted with a view to setting up collaborations. “In our project, we will reintegrate the ceiling paintings created in Germany into a historical network and present them in their broader European context. During the Early Modern period, art was not seen in narrowly national terms,” says Hoppe.

Page 2: Optical tricks for the pleasure of the beholder