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Art in Slovenia

The Middle Ages and the 16th Century

The Nativity
(c. 1435), tempera, wood, 71 x 37 cm

NG S 1180, National Gallery of Slovenia, Ljubljana
The panel, which is set in a wine-red frame, is the inner side of the right wing of a small altar. On the reverse side, which is coated with a dark colour, there are traces of the destroyed original colour and of the bright field of the halo of a saint. Iconographically this portrayal is a recasting of the Evangelists’ chronicles of the birth of Christ, which synthesises the Silesian-Czech scheme of the early 15th century, but without its plastic accents and lyricism. In front of what was once a gold background but is now washed out down to the priming, stands quite complicated architecture of a stable, designed to heighten the impression of depth. The Virgin Mary is kneeling in front of the Child, from whom rays emanate. Behind her Saint Joseph, with a cowl over his head, stares at the viewer. Typical of a dating around 1435 is the Virgin’s loose mantle with its train spread over the ground, the miniature ox and donkey are a remnant of the old idealistic principle. Characteristic of the painter’s conservatism is that he did not yet enhance the motif with contextual elements, which came into the scene of the Nativity either from Christmas pageants or from the visions of Saint Brigitta (for example, Joseph is quite passive).

Preservation: Good. Considerably damaged in the past.
Restored: 1960, ZSV, Ljubljana.
Provenance: Purchased by the Narodni muzej from Maks Herman in Maribor, who surmised that it could come from some Styrian monastery, perhaps Saint Lambrecht; 1934 transferred to the Narodna galerija, old Inv. No. 67.
Exhibitions: 1960, Ljubljana, No. 56; 1983, Ljubljana, No. 48; 1995, Ljubljana, No. 187.
Lit.: Cankar 1936, pp. 1–9, Fig. 25 (painter in the Czech manner, ca. 1380); Stele 1935, pp. 45, 47; Mikuž 1941, p. 172 with Fig. (perhaps Czech, ca. 1380); Cevc 1960, p. 29, Cat. No. 56, Fig. 28 (Austrian, ca. 1440); Stele 1969, p. 248 (first half 15C); Zeri [& Rozman] 1983, pp. 130–131, Cat. and Fig. No. 48 (text E. Cevc); Gotik 1995, pp. 324–325, Cat. and Fig. No. 187 (text K. Leitner – Styrian, first half 15C, in the tradition of the Upper Mura valley school).

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.