The four wooden relief scenes featuring episodes from the life of bishop Erhard of Regensburg (died c. 720) and St. Odile (died 720): The Mass of Bishop Erhard, Erhard heals Odile from blindness, The tomb of St. Erhard, Opening the tomb of St. Erhard belonged to a certain Gothic altar that was dedicated to this 8th-century missionary bishop. St. Erhard and St. Odile were worshipped as patron saints for eye diseases and headaches. Their cult spread to southern Alpine valleys during the Gothic era, while the discussed reliefs are the southernmost examples known so far of this iconography, thus originating from the area where St. Lucy of Syracuse was predominantly worshipped as the patron saint for the above-stated health problems. Her feast day is December 13, the same as Odile's. The details in the handling of the reliefs and the narrative style of the legend of St. Erhard point to a carver who was formed in the art milieu of southern Germany and Bohemia but was probably active in the Duchy of Styria.
The reliefs originate from the Gothic church of St. Jodocus (Sv. Jošt) above Vransko and belong to the earliest preserved depictions of this subject matter. Their significance within a wider cultural-historical context also lies in the fact that in the area of south-eastern Alps, carved altars dating from this period have not been preserved. Judging by its subject matter and its artistic quality, the altar, of which only these fragments survive, must have been a prestigious commission which could have come from the Benedictine monastery of Gornji Grad (Oberburg) or from the Counts of Celje (Cilli), who had the office of the monastery's advocates. After all, the Counts with their original castle of Žovnek (Sannegg) were, so to say, the neighbours, away from St. Jodocus in the eastward direction only for a few-hour walk, while both were connected with the hillsides of the picturesque Dobrovlje plateau.
The first documented conservation restoration treatment of the reliefs was carried out in 1973, before the comprehensive exhibition of Gothic sculpture in Slovenia held in the National Gallery of Slovenia. Removed white overpainting revealed fragments of original polychromy. Because the reliefs had long been on loan to the Gallery from St. Jodocus' church, their copies were made in exchange in the late 1970s. The moulds from which copies were cast were made of silicone rubber. Because the damaged wooden originals were insufficiently protected before the application of rubber, the advantage of copying the tiniest details proved to be a disadvantage in this case: the rubber also crept into the smallest cracks of the original which subsequently contracted due to wood expansion and practically clamped the rubber. Through some open insect exit holes the rubber crept even a few millimetres deep into several branched tunnels. After the moulds had been made, the rubber was not removed with sufficient exactitude.
In 2012, the reliefs were restored again when sculptural works were being prepared for the extended permanent collection in the National Gallery. The conservation restoration treatment was done for aesthetic reasons, since filling the cracks, executed in pure wax, and the wax coating over the entire surface had turned dark. While hardening, silicone rubbers release ingredients which darken the wooden support, and their hardened clamped particles prevent the wood from natural expansion and contraction, so that in these parts unwanted forces begin to affect it. In addition, the rubbers remain sticky and attract dust. Thus, the latest intervention removed the darkened wax coating, unsuitable earlier putties and remains of silicone rubbers, the wood was reinforced and completed again.
Ferdinand Šerbelj, Martina Vuga
Translated and proofread by
6 March–2 April 2014
National Gallery of Slovenia