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Art in Slovenia

The Middle Ages and the 16th Century

St Helen and a Jew Go to Fetch the True Cross
(mid–15th cent.), tempera, wood, 82,5 x 52 cm

NG S 1177, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana
The panels are a remnant of the wings of a Late Gothic altar of the Holy Cross. In the central part of the altar was a painted, or more probably a sculpted group of the Crucifixion: on the inner (festive) side of the wings were scenes of Christ’s suffering, two of which are in the Narodna galerija in Ljubljana, and two in Vienna. That these are really the festive sides is indicated by the gold background. On the working-day, outer side of the wings were scenes of the Finding of the Cross, of which only two are preserved in the Narodna galerija, while the scene of the unearthing and the recognition of the True Cross (when touched by the Cross, a dead man rises again) and perhaps also the fourth scene, of the entry into Jerusalem of the emperor Heraclius with the Cross, which he had torn from the hands of the Persians, are missing. The panels, which were once painted on both sides, were later sawn up so as to make two out of one; the external pictures of the Viennese panels, with the legend of Saint Helen, have unfortunately been lost. Furthermore, all the panels were painted over a number of times.

That the Passion panels in Ljubljana and Vienna are not only the work of the same master, but also part of the same altar, was first noticed by France Stele and confirmed by S. Mikuž by detailed comparison and analysis. At first sight it does indeed appear that the scenes of the legend of the Finding of the Cross are the work of another hand, because the figures on them are more monumental, in the spirit of the “heavy style” of the mid-15th century, but a closer examination shows that the same artist was at work (the folds of the robes, the physiognomy of the faces, the compact composition without real space, etc.) and that the differences are only in the vivacity, which is necessary because of the subject matter. Particularly characteristic are the edges of the robes, which are decorated with Latin and Hebrew letters (on Helen’s mantle we can even decipher “ELENA”), which again links the panels to the Circumcision of Christ in Aachen. Interesting in both the Aachen picture and in our painting Christ Before Pontius Pilate are the female heads looking out from the background as if from a frame: above Pilate his wife is looking through the frame of the canopy above the throne, in the Aachen picture the Virgin (and beside her Saint Joseph) is looking at the Child from above a coverlet. On all the paintings, also on the one in Aachen, the figures fill almost the whole of the space, the colouring is lively, the clothing is decorated with brocade patterns. The physiognomies attempt to show convincing Jewish types, while in the attire of the executioners and of the soldiers in armour the painter gave free reign to his imagination. The panels can be dated to around the year 1460.

The scenes from the legend of the Finding of the Cross were once interpreted as The Disputes of Saint Catherine of Alexandria, but the first scene should be understood as the moment when an old Jew who knew where the Cross was buried is brought before the empress, who is sitting on the throne. The second scene shows Saint Helen leaving for the place where the Cross will be found accompanied by the Jew and an entourage. The little dog in the foreground realistically enlivens the picture.

We do not know where the panels were before they reached the chapel in Velenje Castle. The owner had them restored in Munich, where they were still in 1933. Then they were offered for sale by the Maribor art dealer Paternolli and bought by Dr. Fran Windischer, who donated them to the Narodna galerija. –The Viennese paintings were once in the Museum of the Franciscan monastery, which had housed the Saint Jerome Institution since 1384. But none of this answers the question of whether the altar was in Vienna and in this institution from the very beginning, and even less the second question, namely the place of origin of the paintings and the nationality of the artist. The evidence to date indicates that his origins were more likely to be in the Bavarian than in the Viennese or Frankish area (Cevc), but Arthur Saliger also thinks in terms of the influence of Dutch painting.

Restored: Around 1933 in Munich; 1960, ZSV, Ljubljana.
Provenance: Velenje Castle; Dr. Fran Windischer bought the panels in Maribor from the antiquarian Paternolli and donated them to the Narodna galerija around 1936, old Inv. No. 71 (Christ before Pilate), old Inv. No. 70 (The Flagellation), old Inv. No. 68 (Saint Helen asking about the True Cross), old Inv. No. 69 (Saint Helen and a Jew go to Fetch the True Cross).
Exhibitions: 1960, Ljubljana, Nos. 57–60; 1983, Ljubljana, Nos. 49–52; 1995, Ljubljana, No. 186 a–d.
Lit.: Cankar 1936, p. 107; Mikuž 1936, pp. 9–14, Fig. 33–36 (ca. 1460); Stele 1935, pp. 45, 47 (mid 15C); Cevc 1960, pp. 29–30, Cat. Nos. 57–60, Fig. 28–30 (Austrian ca. 1440); Stele 1969, p. 248 (mid 15C); Stange 1969, p. 30; Zeri [& Rozman] 1983, pp. 131–133, Cat. and Fig. Nos. 49–52 (text E. Cevc); Dom- und 1987, pp. 111–117 (text A. Saliger); Gotik 1995, pp. 322–324, Cat. and Fig. No. 186 a–d (text A. Saliger); Saliger in: Gotik 1996, pp. 273–278, Fig. 3–6.

From the High Middle Ages to the Renaissance
In the High Middle Ages religious art prevailed that spread through the Slovenian lands first from monasteries and then from major regional centres, particularly, Gorizia, Villach and Ljubljana. Gothic art persisted even after the dawn of the Renaissance, but in the 16th century artistic production almost came to a standstill due to Turkish invasions, peasant uprisings and Protestantism which was averse to the fine arts. 

The leading position in Gothic painting belongs to frescoes. The collection presents a few examples of original fragments and several copies which illustrate the most frequent motifs, such as St Christopher, St George, the Procession and the Adoration of the Magi, etc., and a few special motifs, such as Sunday Christ and the Dance of Death. Along with numerous masters with provisional names we also know several artists by name and their idiosyncratic oeuvres, e.g. Johannes Aquila, Johannes de Laybaco, Master Bolfgang. Their production was part of the contemporary art scene in the sub-Alpine space, where from old times onwards stylistic influences of northern and southern countries had been intertwined. 

Numerous medieval sculpture workshops supplied reliefs and statues to churches for their altars. Crucified Christ, Madonna and Child, and Pietà rank among the characteristic religious motifs. The earliest sculptural pieces still demonstrate Romanesque vestiges, but the main body of exhibits are stylistically determined by the Gothic style which in some areas of Carniola, Styria and Carinthia lasted deep into the 16th century. The zenith of Gothic sculpture in Slovenia is represented by the works of the Ptujska gora sculpture workshop represented by The Beautiful Madona and the Pietà from Podsreda. To the period of the so-called late Gothic baroque style around 1500 belong the Virgin with ChildSt Catherine and St Magdalene from Avče, and the extraordinarily expressive Christ Crucified from Dramlje. Renaissance sculpture is represented by plaster casts of the Bishop Ravbar epitaph and two reliefs of St Andrew’s altar from Gornji Grad by Oswald Kittel.