In 2014, the National Gallery of Slovenia received a donation of a polychrome wooden statuette of St. Anthony the Abbot, a work by the sculptor Jakob Žnider, who also signed the piece and dated it 1897. The artwork, a family heirloom for several generations, was generously donated to the National Gallery by the historian, author of numerous monograph books, scholarly papers, dissertations, reviews and reports, academician Prof. Dr. Ignacij Voje.
Jakob Žnider (Jernej pri Ločah, 1862 − monastery of Maria Lanzendorf near Vienna, 1945) acquired his basic skill as a sculptor in the sculpture workshop of Franc Ksaver Zajec in Ljubljana. He continued his studies between 1889 and 1894 at the Vienna academy with Prof. Karl Kundmann and further specialized in sculpture with Prof. Edmund Hellmer. After the completion of his studies he remained in Vienna for good and dedicated his work to religious sculpture. For the high altar of the parish church at Čadram in Slovene Styria he made eight polychrome wooden statues of saints in 1899 (Sts. Joachim, Anne, Zacharias, Elizabeth, Cyril, Methodius, Maximilian, and Hermagoras). He sent four pieces to the first Slovene art exhibition that took place in Ljubljana in 1900. That same year he submitted a marble draft to the competition for a monument to the poet France Prešeren in Ljubljana. He entitled his draft Ena se želja je Tebi spolnila (You were granted but one wish) after a verse of one of Prešeren’s poems and received a merit award for it. He proved with this piece that he was also skilled in carving in stone and could as well cope with the task of a public monument. In 1903 the sculptor took part in the competition for a monument to Emperor Franz Josef I. His draft, entitled with the motto of the conservative Slovene political party, Everything for the faith, the Emperor, and the homeland, did not bring him the commission for the monument. Nevertheless, critics did recognize that he was inventive and idiosyncratic, and Ivan Šubic noted that the sculptor was following modern trends. The two above-mentioned drafts have not been preserved and are known only from several descriptions. The last time that Žnider participated in an exhibition in Slovenia was on the occasion of the so-called jubilee art exhibition of 1910 in Ljubljana. In Vienna, he carved a marble tondo with a portrait of the parish priest Jurij Bezenšek in strict profile (1915); it now adorns the priest’s tombstone on the exterior of the parish church at Čadram.
The oeuvre of Jakob Žnider survives but scantly (in Ljubljana his works are housed in the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana, the Church of St. Michael at Barje, the National Gallery of Slovenia, and in a private collection), and quite a number of his works are only known from photographs that were published in the magazine Dom in svet and the newspaper Slovenski narod or are kept in the Plečnik legacy at the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana. Architect Jože Plečnik financially supported Žnider while in Vienna, and he also guided the sculptor in terms of style. Being a member of the Third Order of St. Francis, Žnider was deeply religious and he dedicated his work entirely to Christian religious themes. Preserved are the letters that Žnider wrote to Plečnik (Plečnik legacy at the Museum and Galleries of Ljubljana) and to the painter Rihard Jakopič (Jakopič legacy, edited by Dr. Jože Ilc, Archives of the Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana).
Jakob Žnider worked in wood, stone, plasticine and wax. He perfectly mastered the technique of relief as well as sculpture in the round and he modelled his work on the Early Renaissance Italian painters.
St. Anthony the Abbot (ca. 250−356) was a native of ancient Egypt. He took the decision to give away his property to the poor and go to live in solitude. He left for the mountains in the desert, persisted in complete silence for twenty years and became the leader of the first desert hermits. When his grave was found in 561 AD, his relics were taken to Alexandria, Constantinople, Rome and several places in France. He was venerated by pious societies that ran institutions, dedicated to St. Anthony, for the mentally disabled. People would bring them food, particularly pork and sausages. In this way, the donors provided themselves with protection against diseases, and St. Anthony the Abbot became a patron saint of all domestic animals. Depictions present him with a pig, a bell and a Tau cross as his attributes.
The newly acquired sculpture is the earliest known work by Žnider to have survived and the only piece by him in the holdings of the National Gallery. The Neo-Renaissance statuette with emphasized volume and with distinctive facial features underlines the individual character of the saint. The artwork is an important complement to the sculptor’s poorly known oeuvre and is also interesting in view of comparison with the insufficiently researched oeuvres of Slovene sculptors trained in Vienna.
We express our warmest thanks to Dr. Voje for his invaluable contribution to the sculpture collection of the National Gallery of Slovenia.