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Exhibitions and Projects
Online exhibition | From 16 Nov 2021 onward

From close up ...

Online exhibition of works of art from the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery of Slovenia

The online exhibition From close up . . .is dedicated to works of art exhibited in the permanent collection of theNational Gallery of Slovenia.Have you ever wondered about the right way tolook at a work of art that is hanging in front of you? There’s actually no suchthing as a right way and a wrong way. Strategies for observing works of artvary from individual to individual. Interesting from this point of view is astudy using eye-tracking technology conducted by the National Gallery in Londonin conjunction with researchers from the University of Derby in the context ofan exhibition on the concept of time in art (Telling Time, 2000–2001).[1] The results of this study revealed that we do not actually look at paintings asa whole, but instead our gaze focuses on individual fragments, from which wethen assemble a total image.
Our attention can be drawn by the colours, moodand individual details of a work of art.

This online exhibition will focus on details –specific elements in the selected paintings – and take them as our startingpoint. These elements, which can include objects of various kinds, individualanimals, plants, inscriptions, symbols and also people, can play an importantrole in our understanding of the content and origin of a particular work ofart, or in art in general.Content or meaning in art is the subject of anarea of art history known as iconography. The word derives from Greek andliterally means “description of images”. It helps us understand the content andmessage of a work of art, which in some cases can be rapidly identified and inother cases is concealed. Let us look, then, at what is concealed in the worksof art that make up the permanent collection of the National Gallery inLjubljana.

[1] The researchers obtained results from more than 5,000 visitors aged between 15 and 34. Participants were invited to observe one of three selected reproductions of paintings in a special room for 20 seconds. During this time an eye-tracking device recorded the participant’s eye movements and compared them against the images shown. The results were published in an article by Wooding, Mugglestone, Purdy and Gale (2002).


Different objects play different roles in works of art. For the most part, these are symbolic meanings, where a specific object acts as a key to identifying content. Most frequently these are attributes – objects associated with the life of the person depicted or which indicate their character, position or activity. In the case of depictions of holy figures, these will be objects relating to the life of the saint or their martyrdom which serve to distinguish them from others. Other objects can have concealed meanings.

The Key

The key has a twofold function of unlocking and locking, of letting in and shutting out, and it therefore plays a similar role in the symbolic world. In Japan, keys are a symbol of prosperity because they unlock the rice store.

Possession of a key confers authority and power, so we frequently encounter it as a symbol of royal power or rule, and also of spiritual authority. In the Christian world, keys are an important attribute of saints such as St Peter and St Servatius, while St Martha and St Zita – the patron saints of housewives and domestic servants – are depicted carrying bunches of keys. The golden and silver keys handed to St Peter by Jesus symbolise the transfer of authority and are still part of the papal insignia today.

But keys do not only open the doors to houses and towns: they also symbolically open the spiritual passage to another state of being. Janus keys, named after the Roman god of gates, doorways and beginnings, opened the gates of the solstices, thus granting admission to the waxing and waning phases of the cycle of the year. 

The key that Baron Georg Bonfrid (Gottfried) von Lamberg holds in his hands indicates the important function and honour entrusted to the subject of the portrait and his family by the Emperor himself. It represents the hereditary office of chamberlain – one of seventeen formal and honorary functions that indicated the exalted rank of an individual and were performed on special occasions such as the act of hereditary homage by the Estates following the accession of a new Emperor. The symbol of the office of chamberlain was a golden key studded with precious stones. Baron von Lamberg, however, did not receive this title until 1664, along with the title of commander of the Austrian province of the Teutonic Order. At the time of the hereditary homage to Emperor Leopold I on 13 September 1660, Lamberg still held the title of standard-bearer, which meant that he was allowed to wave a banner when the Emperor arrived at the church entrance and the knights and other nobles passed into the church. Once inside, he stood with his banner to the right of the Landesfürst (the territorial prince). During the homage itself he stood on his left. He was also entitled to sit at the ceremonial banquet held to mark the Emperor’s visit.

We can also see a key in the portrait of Count Leopold von Lamberg, Georg’s kinsman from the Weissenstein branch of the family, which was painted by Valentin Metzinger and hangs in the Grand Hall of the National Gallery.

You can view the key in the painting from close up in Room 6 of the National Gallery’s permanent collection.

Baron George Gottfrid (Bonfrid) Lamberg, (2nd half 17th cent.), oil, canvas, 94.5 x 71 cm

Baron George Gottfrid (Bonfrid) Lamberg, (2nd half 17th cent.)
oil, canvas, 94.5 x 71 cm
NG S 635

The pear

One of the earliest mentions of this fruit in literature is in Book 7 of Homer’s Odyssey, in which the pear is mentioned along with figs, apples and pomegranates as a gift of the gods that grows in the garden of Alcinous, the king of the happy Phaeacians on the island of Scheria (present-day Corfu).

The pear usually has a positive meaning because of its sweet flavour. The Roman author Pliny the Elder mentions several varieties of pear in his Natural History, including the Tiberianapear, named after the Emperor Tiberius, who loved to drink its sweet juice. In antiquity the pear was linked to Aphrodite (Venus), the goddess of love, because of its shape, which is reminiscent of the female body and the womb. Statues of the goddess Hera (Juno) were apparently carved out of pear wood.

Pears appear in art less frequently than apples. Depictions of pears appear in the mural paintings of Pompeii (AD 45–79) and in Roman mosaics. Like the apple, the pear frequently appears in depictions of the Virgin Mary and Child, in which it is a symbol of Christ’s incarnation and his love for humanity. Among the most famous depictions of the Virgin Mary and Child with a pear is the so-called Alzano Madonna by the Italian Renaissance artist Giovanni Bellini (c. 1485, Accademia Carrara, Bergamo).

The seated Virgin Mary with Child in the National Gallery is the work of an unknown carver based on northern European models such as the copper engravings of “Master E. S.”, which was found in a house in Ljubljana’s Šempeter suburb. It shows the Virgin Mary wrapped in a heavy cloak which entirely covers her throne and her body. Her right hand holds a pear, which the Christ child is tenderly reaching for with his hand.

You can see the Gothic statue in the Falcon Hall of the National Gallery.

Madonna Enthroned, circa 1510, wood, 84 x 64 x 22 cm

Madonna Enthroned, circa 1510
wood, 84 x 64 x 22 cm
NG P 56

The missing crown

The crown (like the wreath) has a symbolic meaning of superiority – its place is at the apex (for example on the head) and it therefore indicates something that is above everything else in terms of value. Its circular shape is a sign of perfection. It symbolises dignity, authority and access to higher levels and forces. Along with the orb and sceptre, it is one of the principal insignia of royalty or sovereignty.

Crowns and wreaths were placed on the heads of victorious military commanders, scholars, geniuses, poets and athletic victors. In the Western world they were traditionally placed on the heads of sovereigns by representatives of spiritual authority (popes, bishops), symbolically showing that the ruler had also been chosen by God.

Within the Christian tradition, we encounter the crown in depictions of the Virgin Mary, who is thus portrayed as the Queen of Heaven. The Crown of Thorns is the symbol of Christ’s suffering and death on the Cross. Crowns also frequently appear as the attribute of saints and martyrs of noble birth, or as an indication of their victory over sin and death. Crowns accompany saints such as St Aloysius de Gonzaga, St Louis of Toulouse, St Catherine, St Barbara and St Elizabeth of Hungary.

Sometimes the absence of an object can be just as telling as its presence. Next to Maria Theresa on a velvet cushion trimmed with gold we observe three crowns – her hand rests on the crown of the Archduchy of Austria; behind it is the Crown of St Stephen, also known as the Holy Crown of Hungary; and behind that the Crown of St Wenceslas, the state crown of the rulers of Bohemia. All three crowns represented titles to which Maria Theresa had acceded: she was Archduchess of Austria, Queen of Hungary and Queen of Bohemia. Missing, however, is the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire (now kept in the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg in Vienna), a masterpiece of gold, enamel-work, precious stones and pearls that was probably made for the imperial coronation of Otto I and was used to crown the emperors of the Holy Roman Empire from the tenth century until 1806.

Maria Theresa was, in fact, never crowned Empress in her own right. Only men were entitled to the title of Emperor and the crown. Since Maria Theresa’s father Charles VI had no living male descendants, he issued the Pragmatic Sanction to ensure that his daughter could inherit the Habsburg hereditary possessions, which would otherwise also have passed to a male relative. The honour of the imperial crown went to Maria Theresa’s husband Francis Stephen, Duke of Lorraine, who was elected Holy Roman Emperor in 1745, whereupon his wife received the title of Empress. We find the missing imperial crown in the portrait of Maria Theresa’s husband as Emperor Francis I (Room 8 of the National Gallery).

The homes of the nobility could contain entire galleries of ancestral portraits, by which the family demonstrated their origin and dignity. Almost every noble home also had a portrait of the sovereign on the wall. Yet few could afford a portrait by the highly respected Viennese court painter Martin van Meytens. The latter’s portrait of Maria Theresa adorned Leopoldsruhe, a mansion in Ljubljana built in the mid-eighteenth century for Count Leopold von Lamberg that later became known as Cekinov grad (“Sequin’s Castle”) through a corruption of the surname of later owner Lőrincz Szőgyény. Count Leopold divided his time between Ljubljana and Vienna and, as imperial chamberlain, was in good standing at the imperial court, which also gave him access to distinguished artists such as Meytens.

You can see the painting for yourself in the Grand Hall of the National Gallery.

Empress Maria Theresa, (after 1742), oil, canvas, 280 x 184.5 cm

Martin van Meytens the Younger (Stockholm, 1695 – Vienna, 1770)
Empress Maria Theresa, (after 1742)
oil, canvas, 280 x 184.5 cm
NG S 1350

The pretzel

A pretzel is a type of baked pastry made from leavened dough consisting of flour, water, salt and a raising agent. Its form has changed over time. In the High Middle Ages a pretzel generally had the shape of a small loaf with its ends turned up. Later it took on a more stick-like form and was twisted into the shape of the letter B or the number eight.

In Slovenia pretzels are believed to have originated in the context of the Dominican convent in the Velesovo–Adergas–Trata area. Pretzel making in Velesovo died out during the First World War but continued in nearby Vodice, where pretzels are still baked today according to the old Adergas recipe.

The word pretzel is believed to derive ultimately from the Latin word bracchium (arm), which eventually entered German as Brezel. Another possible origin is the Latin word pretiolameaning “little rewards”.

All forms of pretzel are believed to derive from the Roman round loaf, which had a cult significance even in antiquity. This survived into the Early Christian period, since the pretzel was used as Communion bread.

The largest numbers of pretzels were baked at Advent and during Lent, when the consumption of meat, dairy products and eggs was forbidden. In the painting The Fight between Carnival and Lent by Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna), a pretzel appears as an attribute of the personification of Lent, a starving figure battling with gluttonous Carnival.

Both the shape and the meaning of the pretzel are complex. In Christian iconography the pretzel can have several meanings. In the Middle Ages it symbolised hands crossed on the breast in prayer (usually to the Holy Trinity), while in the same period it began to appear as the symbol of the bakers’ guild.

In Dutch culture the pretzel frequently appears as a symbol of fragility, drawing attention to the transience of life and the way it is caught between good and evil. In some places the pretzel also appears as a symbol of good luck. In the Rhineland, for example, pretzels are baked for the New Year. On the other hand its shape, which is reminiscent of a heart, alludes to love (often tangled).

The pretzel in the painting by the baroque painter Fortunat Bergant is similar to those made in the German market town of Biberbach, in which the plaited ends of the dough imitate interwoven human fingers. Man with a Pretzel is one of only two genre paintings in Bergant’s oeuvre (the other being The Fowler) and it has many levels of meaning. Because of the presence of the pretzel, the painting was interpreted in the past as a personification of Taste. But with his gap-toothed and provocative smile, the subject of Man with a Pretzel also gives the impression that he himself is as “crooked as a pretzel”. His appearance has been making viewers smile ever since the work was painted.

You can see the pretzel and the smiling man in Room 8 of the National Gallery.

Man with a Pretzel, 1761, oil, canvas, 74 x 57 cm

 Fortunat Bergant (Mekinje near Kamnik, 1721 − Ljubljana, 1769)
Man with a Pretzel, 1761
oil, canvas, 74 x 57 cm
NG S 3523

The book

We associate books with knowledge and wisdom. Books enjoy particular honour as bearers of wisdom. Old and rare books are kept, like works of art, in special book collections, museums, galleries, archives and private libraries. With the invention of printing and the development of literacy, their content became accessible to the masses, although at one time only limited groups of people had access to books and libraries.

Books appear frequently in art. We see them as attributes in the hands of apostles and evangelists. They also accompany numerous saints and serve to emphasise their erudition or their authorship of specific important texts. Thus the four evangelists with their symbols – St Luke (ox), St Matthew (angel), St John (eagle) and St Mark (winged lion) – are portrayed in the act of writing words. St Jerome, one of the four Great Church Fathers who is best known for the Vulgate, his Latin translation of the Bible, is also most frequently depicted in the act of translating and writing words into the sacred text he is engaged in producing.

A book with the Greek letters alpha and omega represents Jesus, while reading is also an important theme in the scenes of the life of the Virgin Mary. Mary’s mother Anna teaches her to read as a little girl and Mary is frequently shown reading in depictions of the Annunciation.

Books can appear open or closed in artistic depictions. An open book reveals its contents to the reader, while the content of a closed book is untouchable, inaccessible to the reader, mysterious, and can represent something negative. A closed book secured by seven seals, on which the Lamb of God is seated, is a symbol of the Apocalypse. According to legend, an open book beneath the paw of the winged lion of St Mark symbolised the Venetian Republic in peacetime, while a closed book represented it in time of war.

Books and bookshelves are an important part of portraits of the nobility and the middle classes, where they act as a status symbol emphasising the subject’s education and also wealth, since books were not cheap. In the family portrait painted by the Biedermeier artist and excellent portrait painter Jožef Tominc we observe a book bearing the inscription Hippocr[ates]. This is a nod to the profession of the head of the family, Dr Dimitrije Frušić (1790–1838) and emphasises the importance of education, which alongside family, privacy and nature was cultivated as a value during the period of the rise of the bourgeoisie between 1820 and 1870. The Serbian doctor, linguist and journalist moved with his family to Trieste in 1819, becoming a member of the city’s cultural elite and actively collaborating on the construction of the Ospedale Maggiore, then Trieste’s main hospital.

You can view Dr Frušić and his family – his wife Jovanka, his sons Čedomil and Dušan and his daughter Milica – in Room 13 of the National Gallery.

The Family of Dr Frušić, (before 1835), oil, canvas, 130 x 170 cm

Jožef Tominc (Gorizia, 1790 – Gradišče nad Prvačino, 1866)
The Family of Dr Frušić, (before 1835)
oil, canvas, 130 x 170 cm
NG S 463



Animals have played a key role in the life of human beings since prehistoric times. At various times they have represented deadly danger, been a source of food or played a role in spiritual or religious ceremonies. With domestication they have lightened Man’s everyday burden – helping with work, tilling the earth and gathering crops, providing transport and the raw materials for clothes, offering protection against wild animals and predators and, eventually, taking on the role of pets. Modern research shows that animals have an extremely positive influence on a person’s life and mental health and they are therefore increasingly used in therapy – to improve fine motor skills and balance, to reduce feelings of fear and loneliness, to improve self-image, to develop relaxation techniques, and so on.

We encounter depictions of animals in the earliest cave paintings and they also appear as the companions of saints, various divinities and the subjects of noble portraits. The nobility particularly prized hunting scenes and still lifes, which they used to adorn the rooms of their homes.

Animal symbolism, linked to the appearance and nature of individual animals, derives from the texts of the writers of antiquity, such as the works of natural history by Pliny the Elder and Aristotle, the Physiologus, Ovid’s poems, Aesop’s fables and moral descriptions in medieval bestiaries and the lives of the saints.

The hind

In Roman mythology the female red deer or hind was consecrated to Juno – the goddess of love and marriage. Female deer are associated with motherhood, gentleness and modest beauty, so it is no surprise that princesses in fairy tales are often transformed into does. A doe with golden horns – or a stag – frequently also appears accompanying Artemis, the Greek goddess of hunting.

On the basis of the writings of the ancient authors Pliny the Elder and Aristotle, people in the Middle Ages believed that the animal could be lured with music and, while thus enchanted, also captured.

The hind and the stag appear in medieval texts as enemies of the snake. The smoke from burning stag antlers drives off snakes. The hind was said to lure snakes from their nests with the hot breath of her nostrils or with saliva, and then to trample them with her hooves. This belief was quickly adopted by Christian symbolism as the victory of good over evil, where Christ tramples the devil.

Since the hind has extremely acute hearing, it is often depicted as an allegory of the sense of hearing. It also represents vitality and longevity, since it was believed that a sick hind was capable of finding a cure for itself, while the left antler of a hart or stag was believed to contain the healing power capable of curing many ills.

The hind is an attribute of St Giles, who lived the remote life of a hermit and lived only on roots and plants, in this way strengthening his faith. One harsh winter, when plants were scarce, God is said to have sent him a hind so that he could nourish himself with her milk.

The statue of St Giles with the hind was made in around 1505 by a Late Gothic carver whose real name is unknown and who is known as the Master of the Trboje Madonna after the fine statue of the Virgin Mary and Child in Trboje near Kranj. St Giles came to the National Gallery from the parish church in Bled.

You can see the hind with St Giles in the Falcon Hall of the National Gallery.

St Giles, (circa 1505), wood, 97 x 59 x 25 cm

Master of Trboje Madonna
St Giles, (circa 1505)
wood, 97 x 59 x 25 cm
NG P 33

The Fish

The fish is the symbol of water, the element in which it lives. It is also a symbol of life and fertility, since it reproduces rapidly and the female deposits large numbers of eggs or roe at spawning time.

In China it is, like the dragon, a symbol of good luck.

In Christian symbolism the fish stands for Christ, because of the Greek phrase Iesous Christos, Theou [h]Uios, Soter (Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour), the first letters of which spell ICHTHUS, the Greek word for fish. Jesus himself is also frequently portrayed as a fisherman, with the faithful as fish.

The fish appears as an attribute in depictions of Tobias with the Archangel Raphael, since according to legend the latter used the gall of a fish to cure Tobias’s father’s blindness.

St Zeno, a fisherman from Verona, is depicted with a fish hanging from his bishop’s crozier. A fish with a bunch of keys in its mouth accompanies St Benno of Meissen, the patron saint of Munich.

The fish shown lying on a book held by a putto standing next to St Ulrich in the painting by the baroque artist Anton Cebej could also be linked to Christ and the word of God, although in actual fact is a reference to a legend from the life of the saint which relates how one Thursday evening Ulrich was dining with his friend Bishop Conrad of Constance. After dinner the two men talked long into the night. So engrossed were they in conversation that did not notice that the day was breaking. When a messenger arrived with a letter for Ulrich from the Prince of Augsburg, the saint, not realising that it was already Friday, offered him the remains of the meat left on the table. Friday is, of course, a day of fasting, when eating meat was not permitted. The messenger wanted to denounce Ulrich to the Prince and accuse him of failing to observe the commandment, but when he tried to show the Prince the meat on the table he saw to his surprise that it had turned into a fish.

You can see St Ulrich and the fish in Room 7 of the National Gallery.

St Ulrich, (circa 1765), oil, canvas, 119 x 75 cm

Anton Cebej (Ajdovščina, 1722 – ?, after 1774)
St Ulrich, (circa 1765)
oil, canvas, 119 x 75 cm
NG S 35

The eagle

If the lion is the king of beasts, then the eagle is the king of all birds. People once believed that it flew higher than all other birds – that it could rise so high as to breathe the air of the gods of Olympus – so it is no coincidence that it became the symbol of the Greek supreme god Zeus. The ancient Greeks tried to read the message of the gods in the flight of eagles and in this way predict future events.

From Roman times onwards, the eagle has frequently appeared as the symbol or emblem of states and nations. It was also adopted by the Byzantine and then German emperors. A two-headed eagle with an orb and sceptre in its talons became the symbol of the Holy Roman Empire and, later, of the Austrian Monarchy. The bald eagle is the national symbol of the United States of America.

The eagle has played an important role in the cult surrounding rulers and emperors since antiquity. When the body of a dead emperor was burnt on a funeral pyre, priests released an eagle to carry his soul into the world beyond.

The eagle is also seen as a symbol of a just, magnanimous and benevolent ruler, since it looks after the well-being of weaker creatures – when it has eaten its fill it leaves them part of its prey, while numerous smaller birds live around its nest and feed on the remains. In the same way, vassals and subjects live on the benevolence of their master.

Christian symbolism linked the eagle to the Resurrection and the spiritual rebirth of baptism – it was said that when an eagle began to feel its strength waning with age, it flew towards the sun to burn off its old feathers, and then plunged three times into a clear pool, from which it at last emerged completely reborn.

Other texts talk about how eagles hunt and kill snakes – which is interpreted as vanquishing evil. An eagle appears as an attribute of St John the Evangelist – the words of his Gospel rise high into the sky like an eagle.

The Neapolitan painter Luca Giordano, who was nicknamed Luca fa presto (“Luca paints quickly”) because of the speed with which he worked, included an eagle in his painting Prometheus Bound, a depiction of the popular Greek myth in which Prometheus is punished for defying Zeus. The supreme god had hidden fire from mortals, since he wished to exterminate them and make room for a new race. Prometheus took pity on them and so broke off a sunbeam and gave it to humanity. As a punishment for this disobedience, Zeus had him chained to a rock in the Caucasus, where an eagle came at the same time every day and pecked out his liver. Prometheus thus frequently appears as an allegory of Christ’s suffering on the Cross.

You can see Prometheus Bound and the eagle in Room 5 of the National Gallery.

Prometheus Bound, (circa 1666), oil, canvas, 124 x 99 cm

Luca Giordano (Naples, 1634–1705)
Prometheus Bound, (circa 1666)
oil, canvas, 124 x 99 cm
NG S 2017

The snake

The symbolism of the snake is extremely rich and varied in different cultures around the world, sometimes with diametrically opposed meanings. The snake plays an important role in the cosmos and in the creation of the world and various natural phenomena. Its symbolism is frequently inseparably tied up with that of the dragon, since the latter was considered to be a giant serpent.

The Huichol, an indigenous people of Mexico believed that a two-headed snake encircled the world, spitting the rising sun from its jaws in the east and swallowing the setting sun in its jaws in the west. In Mexican and other Mesoamerican religions, the image of a feathered serpent was adopted by the supreme deity, whom the Aztecs called Quetzalcoatl and the Maya called Kukulkan.

The Ouroboros – a serpent biting its own tail – is a symbol of time or eternity and appears on tombstones.

In Greek mythology the snake is linked to prudence, since it appears as a sacred animal of Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. It is also connected to the god Apollo and his son Asclepius, the god of healing. The rod of Asclepius, a snake-entwined staff, is still a symbol of medicine and pharmacy today. Even in antiquity, snake venom was used to make medicines and antidotes, while by shedding its skin the snake “rejuvenates” and in this way prolongs its life.

The shedding of skin also found a place in the Christian world as a symbol of being reborn into eternal life. It is mentioned in Matthew’s Gospel: when the snake’s old skin becomes too tight, it fasts for forty days, slithers through a crack between two rocks and then sloughs off its old skin in one piece.

On the other hand, the role of the snake is usually negative. Numerous Greek heroes fight against snakes. Heracles defeated the snake that Hera sent against him while still in his cradle. Later he killed the Lernaean Hydra. Perseus cut off the head of snake-haired Medusa with a single blow of his sword. Serpents also killed the Trojan priest Laocoön and his sons after he tried to warn the Trojans about the suspicious gift in the form of a wooden horse.

The snake thus appears in the role of a creature that brings evil into the world and must therefore be fought against in any way possible. The Egyptian god of chaos and lord of hell Apep (Apophis), who lived deep in the underworld and was the enemy of Ra, the sun god, frequently appeared in the form of a snake, and sometimes as a crocodile. In Christian belief, the snake is deeply rooted as a symbol of the devil, evil, sin and temptation. A serpent was to blame for humanity’s original sin, because it tempted Eve. Mary, who represents a new Eve, is thus depicted in the role of the Immaculate with her foot placed on the head of a snake – she does not heed the tempter (as Eve did before her), but instead vanquishes it.

A snake (an asp or Egyptian cobra) plays a key role in the death of Cleopatra, the last queen of Egypt. This event, which is described by the ancient Roman writers Plutarch, Strabo and Cassius Dio, has become an extremely popular subject in art, particularly in painting. When Cleopatra learned that her lover Mark Antony had been defeated and had committed suicide, she sealed herself in a stone tomb, resolved to take her own life. In some versions of the story, she died in the way that the pharaohs are believed to have died: carried into immortality by the bite of a sacred asp. Cleopatra is said to have taken a snake that was hidden in a basket of figs and clutched it to her breast. In other versions of the story, she died as a result of a mixture of poisons or a poisoned ointment which she applied to her skin. She died on 12 August of the year 30 BC at the age of 32, and the Ptolemaic dynasty died with her.

You can see the bare-breasted Cleopatra with the poisonous snake in the painting by the Florentine artist Felice Ficherelli in Room 5 of the National Gallery.

The Death of Cleopatra, (mid.−17th cent.), oil, canvas, 86.5 x 71 cm

Felice Ficherelli (San Gimignano, 1603 – Florence, 1660)
The Death of Cleopatra, (mid.−17th cent.)
oil, canvas, 86.5 x 71 cm
NG S 3034

The dragon

The dragon is a mythological creature that appears in practically all world cultures. It is a guardian of valuables and hidden treasures and must be defeated if we want to get to them. The symbolism of the dragon, also known as the great (or greatest) serpent, is interwoven with that of the snake, since no distinction was made between the two creatures in the past.

In Eastern cultures the dragon is a symbol of prosperity, fortune, strength and wisdom and linked to the emperor as a celestial, creative and regulating power. It also has quite a positive role in heraldry. As a guardian and a fear-inducing opponent, it appears on the coats of arms of countries, towns and noble families. The dragon on Ljubljana’s coat of arms is connected to the mythological story of Jason, who stole the golden fleece and fled aboard the Argo, pursued by King Aeëtes, across the Black Sea, up the Danube and the Sava and all the way to the Ljubljanica, the river that flows through Ljubljana. There, the Argonauts dismantled their ship with the intention of transporting it overland to the Adriatic, but by a lake at the source of the Ljubljanica they encountered a terrible monster – a dragon – which, of course, they successfully vanquished.

Apart from on coats of arms and in other heraldic contexts, the dragon has a strongly negative connotation in the Western Christian world. Medieval bestiaries say that the home of dragons was torrid Ethiopia, where they had their lair at the centre of the Earth. The biggest danger from a dragon, apart from its sharp teeth and its fire-breathing snout, was its tail, in which its unimaginable power was concealed. It could use it to easily defeat even the biggest animals, such as an elephant, by wrapping its tail round it and choking it to death. Although when the elephant died, it fell on the dragon and buried it beneath its weight. So the dragon actually digs its own grave.

Dragons also appear as the attribute of certain saints – accompanying St Margaret and St Martha – although in the Christian world it is the Archangel Michael and St George who are the main victors when it comes to fighting dragons.

The dragon is considered a demonic being and, like the snake, is an allegory for the devil, for Satan, or for evil and heresy. It is in this role that we can understand the dragon in the painting by Hans Georg Geiger von Geigerfeld. St George’s furious battle with the monster actually takes place in a specific environment. In the background we can make out Ribnica Castle and, on the hill above it, Ortnek Castle and the castle church dedicated to St George, for which the painting was made. At the time the work was painted, this area was a hotbed of barbarism and heresy, at least judging from the number of visitations by bishops. The painting thus represents a symbol of the Counter-Reformation battle against heresy.

You can see the dramatic battle between good and evil in the Grand Hall of the National Gallery.

St George Slaying the Dragon, (circa 1641), oil, canvas, 265 x 151.5 cm

Hans Georg Geiger von Geigerfeld (?, circa 1610 – Zagreb, 1681)
St George Slaying the Dragon, (circa 1641)
oil, canvas, 265 x 151.5 cm
NG S 1946


Alongside the main elements of paintings – the subjects of portraits, people, animals, animate and inanimate nature – we often find inscriptions, dates, abbreviations, symbols, numbers, stamps and other signs or symbols that can likewise help us uncover the meaning of a specific work of art, and also its history. Sometimes important information can also be found on the backs of paintings.

These elements can reveal the authorship of an individual work of art and tell us about its creation, who commissioned it, who owned it, and its presence in a given collection, at auctions or in exhibitions – all of which combines to define the provenance of the work in question.

Inscriptions can serve to identify the people depicted in the painting, allegorical figures, personifications, objects or even events, for the purpose of making interpretation of the painting easier. In medieval works, inscriptions are frequently linked to quotations from the Bible, where the principal purpose was to encourage piety. A moral or didactic inscription or text in combination with a picture is an important element of emblems and devices, which were particularly popular in the Renaissance and baroque periods.

Some inscriptions or markings can be quickly identified, while others require a little more effort. An example of the latter are dates written in the form of so-called chronograms – most commonly Latin inscriptions in which specific letters are emphasised and which, when read correctly, tell us the date the work was created.

Inscriptions can also be hidden over time beneath layers of overpainting. We can reveal them again with the help of various imaging techniques such as radiography, multispectral analysis and conservation-restoration procedures.

The framed tablet

Inscriptions in works of art are found in various forms. Sometimes they appear as texts in painted scrolls and books or emerge from the mouths of the figures depicted in a given scene like speech bubbles in a cartoon. In the case of portraits, particularly those of members of the nobility, we frequently encounter brief texts on an undefined, monochrome background that provide information about the identity of the subject, their titles and functions, their age, and so on.

In the background of the image of a dog painted on a colourful rug by Anton Karinger we see – as well as a muzzle, a coat, a hat, a flask and a bowl – a slate tablet hanging from a nail on the wall, with the following inscription:

Ich höre mich loben
Ich höre mich greifen
als einen vierfüßiger
Nathan den Weisen.

(Slišim, da me hvalijo,
slišim, da me dražijo,
kot četveronožca
Natana Modrega.)

This brief German text written in chalk is a humorous reference to the dramatic poem Nathan the Wise (Nathan der Weise) by the German Enlightenment writer and dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729–1781). Nathan is the principal character in this dramatic work, set during the Third Crusade. Through wisdom and tolerance, the wise Jewish merchant Nathan, the enlightened sultan Saladin and the young Templar (a Christian) overcome the differences and disagreements implicit in the differing views of the world represented by their individual faiths.

The long-haired Affenpinscher in the painting is thought to have belonged to Karinger’s wife Roza and, judging from the inscription, played an important role in their life and marriage, which was without children. Like Nathan the Wise, this four-legged friend helped smooth over any disagreements that appeared between the spouses.

You can view the work in Room 13 of the National Gallery.

A Dog, 1868, oil, canvas, 58.2 x 68.8 cm

Anton Karinger (Ljubljana, 1829–1870)
A Dog, 1868
oil, canvas, 58.2 x 68.8 cm
NG S 1581

The signature

The artist’s signature is a conscious act that establishes the presence of the author of a work of art. The location of the signature is also important. As well as providing information to the viewer about the work’s authorship, the signature can reveal the artist’s attitude towards the work of art itself.

An artist can express his or her presence by means of a forename and surname, a forename or surname alone, initials, a monogram or a symbol. In some cases artists include a self-portrait, skilfully incorporating it into the scene.

Yet even in the case of signatures, a degree of caution is necessary, since these can be added later and do not necessarily guarantee the authorship of the work. Occasionally the later addition of signatures is born out of the conviction that a given work truly is the creation of a specific artist, although subsequent signatures are often found on works of art as the result of less noble intentions – they are there to mislead or to increase the value of a work in the art market.

Artists’ signatures first appear in antiquity but are relatively rare in the Early and High Middle Ages. The concept of authorship began to regain importance in the fifteenth century and blossomed during the early Renaissance, when the collective consciousness of the guild system began to give way to the cult of the individual and individual creativity. If cave dwellers modestly “signed” their cave paintings with a handprint, Greek sculptors such as Aristocles, Praxiteles and Polykleitos proudly carved their names into the bases of their statues. Notable among the rare medieval signatures is that of Giselbertus, a French sculptor who carved his name beneath the image of Christ at the Last Judgement on the tympanum of the Romanesque cathedral in Autun. Just over 300 years later, the Netherlandish painter Jan van Eyck expressed his authorship and presence in the Arnolfini Portrait with the words “Jan van Eyck was here” (Johannes de eyck fuit hic).

The signatures of the baroque painter Fortunat Bergant are also notable. He added them in significant places – for example on the folded-over edges of papers held by the subjects of his portraits, on the edge of the Virgin Mary’s mantle, on St Paul’s sword, in an open book beneath the image of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception contemplated by St Aloysius, and even on the sarcophagus in which the body of the dead Christ is laid. In his portrait of his most important patron, Baron Wolfgang Daniel von Erberg, he signed his name on the folded corner of the important letter his patron is holding in his hand. By adding his signature to his paintings, Bergant symbolically placed himself among the subjects of his portraits.

You can see Bergant’s signature on Baron von Erberg’s letter in Room 8 of the National Gallery.

Baron Wolfgang Daniel Erberg, (1761), oil, canvas, 110 x 85 cm

Fortunat Bergant (Mekinje, 1721 – Ljubljana, 1769)
Baron Wolfgang Daniel Erberg, (1761)
oil, canvas, 110 x 85 cm
NG S 6

The scroll and the coat of arms with an anvil

As we have already said, inscriptions and texts of various kinds can appear floating freely in space, carved onto painted stone and wooden elements, on the edges of garments and even on the pages of books or on scrolls and ribbons bearing inscriptions.

The Late Gothic panel painting from the chapel of ease dedicated to St Nicholas in Koritno above Čadram in eastern Slovenia contains several elements that help us comprehend the content of the work and also the circumstances of its creation and ownership.

The picture shows Jesus praying at the foot of the Mount of Olives, a scene mentioned in the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Only Luke’s Gospel mentions the presence of the angel seen in the top left-hand corner of the painting. Jesus made his way to the Mount of Olives after the Last Supper and, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed in agony and sweated tears of blood, since he was already aware of the cruel destiny that awaited him. This awareness and consequent resignation are additionally emphasised by the approaching Judas and the legion of Roman soldiers in the background, on their way to arrest Jesus, and by the scroll bearing an inscription that rises diagonally from Jesus’ mouth towards the image of a chalice and the angel atop the cliff. The inscription reads:

Pater mi, si non potest hic calix transire nisi bibam illum, fiat voluntas tua.

(Father, if this cup cannot pass away except by my drinking it, thy will be done!)

This fine Late Gothic work was previously attributed to the Nuremberg painter Michael Wolgemut (1434–1519) and his workshop, in which Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528) also studied, but some deviations from the characteristics of Nuremberg painting would seem to indicate that the work may have been painted elsewhere, possibly in the Alpine region.

In the middle of the bottom edge of the painting we observe a coat of arms on which the tools of a blacksmith – an anvil and hammer – are depicted on a red shield. This is the coat of arms of Valentin Fabri, parish priest of Slovenske Konjice and archdeacon of the Savinja archdeaconry, under whose auspices the churches of Slovenske Konjice, Eberndorf (in Austria) and Vuzenica were renovated in the last decade of the fifteenth century and the first decade of the sixteenth. An example of a “speaking coat of arms”, the emblem is directly linked to the surname of the person who commissioned the painting, or its intermediate owner, since the Latin word fabermeans blacksmith, and this was also the profession of Valentin Fabri’s father.

You can view the painting from close up in Room 1 of the National Gallery.

Jesus on the Mount of Olives, (circa 1490), tempera, wood, 142 x 93.5 cm

Jesus on the Mount of Olives, (circa 1490)
tempera, wood, 142 x 93.5 cm
ZD S 2000045
Church of St Nicholas, Koritno

The coat of arms on the jug

Along with a noble title (knight, baron/baroness, count/countess, prince/princess, duke/duchess), the coat of arms was one of the most important and notable attributes of the noble individual or family. The right to use it and the rules that accompanied its conferral were regulated by a special heraldic commission at the imperial court. In the application for a particular title of nobility, the applicant was required to list their merits, which were then entered in the patent of nobility. At the same time the applicant had to submit a draft of their chosen coat of arms, which would then be verified and approved by a censor. As a rule, the coat of arms consisted of a shield and a decorative device. The symbols on the shield frequently alluded to the surname of the applicants and their relatives or indicated aspects of their personality, career, priorities and values.

A barely visible coat of arms appears on a jug in this still life by the Flemish painter Peter van Kessel. The arms are those of the Zrinskis, an influential Croatian noble family who met with an inglorious end owing to their part in an anti-Habsburg conspiracy, and consist of the old arms of the Šubic family and the arms of the noble house of Ernuszt, who descended from a Jewish family originating in Sweden and who possessed the Međimurje region before it passed to the Zrinski family. The Zrinski coat of arms is thus an impaled escutcheon (a shield divided vertically into two equal halves). The sinister (or heraldic left) side (the right-hand side for the viewer) shows a white tower on a red field. The tower has three merlons and rectangular or round-arched windows. Two gold stars are seen above the tower, one to the left and one to the right. The tower stands above a battlement that likewise has three merlons. The dexter (or heraldic right) side shows two black eagle wings, spread open on a gold field.

The coat of arms is a subtle clue to the identity of the individual who commissioned the painting: either Nikola VII Zrinski or his brother Petar IV Zrinski. Both played a major role in the Zrinski-Frankopan Conspiracy against Emperor Leopold I and both met with a sad fate. Nikola lost his life in an accident during a wild boar hunt in 1664, although rumours quickly spread that the imperial court was involved in his death. His brother Petar was found guilty of treason for his part in the conspiracy against the Emperor and was put to death by beheading in Wiener Neustadt in 1671.

You can view the painting from close up in Room 3 of the National Gallery.

Crayfish, Dead Birds and Vegetables, (circa 1662), oil, canvas, 87 x 119.5 cm

Peter van Kessel (Antwerp, ? – Ratzeburg, 1668)
Crayfish, Dead Birds and Vegetables, (circa 1662)
oil, canvas, 87 x 119.5 cm
National Museum of Slovenia, N 13042


Monograms, coat of arms and an inscription

A monogram is a symbol consisting of the initials of a person’s forename and surname, frequently interwoven, which appear in works of art as an abbreviation of the artist’s signature. The monogram that is perhaps best known to the general public is the “AD” monogram of the German Renaissance artist Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528). He used this monogram to sign his paintings and woodcuts and even had it legally protected by imperial privilege to prevent its use by other artists wishing to take advantage of his name.

A monogram was also used as a signature by the Tyrolean painter Marx Reichlich, whose workshop was responsible for the so-called Knillenberg altarpiece. This “winged” altarpiece is a triptych. When closed, the side panels (alternatively referred to as “shutters” or “wings”) show paintings of St Sebastian and St Christopher. When opened, they show St Catherine and St Barbara. The central panel is taken up by a stone throne and shows St Anne, the infant Jesus and the Virgin Mary, and two saints. The columns to the left and right of the throne are topped by figures of the Virgin Mary and the Archangel Gabriel, the angel of the Annunciation. The painter’s carved monogram “MR” appears on either side, immediately below the figures.

At the bottom of the painting, two figures in the costume of the burgher class kneel in submissive poses. We can establish the identity of these figures – the individuals who commissioned the painting – with the help of the four coats of arms and the rather poorly preserved inscription in blackletter or Gothic minuscule that runs along the edge of the frame at the bottom of the central panel:

[...]uylenberger cum Katherina de Castelleon uxore hoc opus fecerunt fieri 1511

(This work was commissioned in 1511 by […]ujlenberger and his wife Katherina de Castellano)

The coat of arms in front of the kneeling man is that of the family of Andreas Knillenberg, consisting of a black Dreiberg(triple mount) on a gold field and a black fess (band) running horizontally across the centre of the shield. Above the shield is a helm (knight’s helmet), from which a golden lion emerges between two black horns. The noble Aichberg family of Old Bavaria had similar arms and it is possible that the Knillenbergs took them over after the Aichbergs died out.

The coat of arms in front of the kneeling woman represents the family arms of Katherina von Köstlan/de Castellano and consists of a diagonally divided black and silver shield with a golden lion on it. Above it is a helm topped by a wall crown and a dark-skinned figure wearing a crown. The coats of arms at either side of the panel are believed to be those of the mothers of the individuals who commissioned the work. On the right-hand side, behind Katharina, we see the coat of arms of the Tyrolean family Kirchmayr von Ragen. The shield consists of a blue field divided by a silver bend (diagonal band) on which a pair of golden arms support a silver plough. The arms appear again above the helm that tops the shield. On the left-hand side, behind Katharina’s husband Andreas, we see a coat of arms with a mill wheel, representing the Mülwanger family.

We may assume that through the inclusion of family coats of arms and a prestigious commission with one of the most important Tyrolean painters of his day, who even worked for the Emperor himself, the two spouses wished to further emphasise the eminence, wealth and piety of their relatively recently ennobled family.

You can view the painting from close up in the Falcon Hall of the National Gallery.

The Knillenberg Tryptich, 1511, tempera, wood, 119 x 168.5 cm

Web Exhibition 

Represented by: Barbara Jaki

Author of the exhibition: Katra Meke

Photo: Bojan Salaj, Janko Dermastja (© Narodna galerija)

Language editing: Zala Mikeln

Translation: Hugh Brown, Amidas d. o. o.

Multimedia: Peter Sodja

Bibliography review: Nataša Ciber

Online exhibition | From 16 Nov. 2021 onward
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana