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Exhibitions and Projects
3 November – 30 November 2016

Revelations, november 2016

On the look and meaning of a Baroque painting in the mid-19th century

Pavel Künl's sketchbook drawing of the altarpiece Mary Help of Christians by Michael Rottmayr from the church of the Teutonic Order in Ljubljana, and the restored fragment of the original painting featuring St. Eleanor.

It was precisely three hundred years ago that the church of the Teutonic Order in Ljubljana received three outstanding altarpieces on commission from three Habsburg empresses, of whom the worthiest and the most devout was Empress Eleanor (1655‒1720), Emperor Leopold I's widow. The paintings were executed in Vienna by three notable Baroque masters. The high altar was furnished with the work Mary Help of Christians by Michael Rottmayr (1654‒1730), the right-hand side altar with St. Elizabeth of Hungary Distributing Alms to the Poor by the Flemish painter Anton Schoonjans (1655‒1726), and the left-hand side altar with St. George Slaying the Dragon, a work by Martino Altomonte (1657‒1745). The two side altarpieces can still be seen in situtoday, whereas Rottmayr’s painting on the high altar was badly damaged by a fire on 22 June 1857. Thanks to painter Pavel Künl (1817‒1871), the lower right-hand corner of the painting survives, featuring St. Eleanor, the patron saint of the empress who placed the commission. According to the notes by the former owner of the fragment Edward von Strahl (1817–1884), Künl restored the damaged parts of the head and the left arm of the figure.

It has been possible to guess at the original look of Rottmayr’s popular miraculous image from the painter’s surviving sketch of 1715 (kept in a private collection in north Italy) and from a variant of the motif by an anonymous master which in the first half of the 19th century was kept in Zois Mansion at Javornik (now housed in the Gornjesavski muzej Jesenice). In 2010 the National Gallery of Slovenia acquired a sketchbook of Pavel Künl (NG G 6170) in which a valuable document about the burnt painting is provided on one of the last leafs.

On page 39v Künl made a drawing of the lower left-hand portion of the Rottmayr altarpiece which he could still see in situ. He presented the left group of the plague-ridden: an old man on crutches and a seated mother with a child in front of him, and in the background, in delicate drawing, there are two figures bringing a sick person on a stretcher. Also the architecture drawn behind the figures corresponds with Rottmayr’s preparatory sketch. The figures and the scene are rendered in a very delicate drawing, without shading and details, which suggests that it was made after the fatal fire which, after all, did not ruin the painting to the state of unrecognizability.

Künl most likely made the drawing because of his sense as a restorer. Edward von Strahl, who acquired the fragment with St. Eleanor for his art collection in Stara Loka  (Altenlack), employed Künl as the keeper of his collection, and among the painter’s qualities as a restorer he underlined his skilful stylistic adaptation to original works and restriction solely to the most necessary painting interventions at damaged places. He described Künl mainly as a master copyist, who as a painter tended to rely on other classical examples.

Drawing and copying older works of art, Baroque ones in particular, continued to be one of the key competences of a Vienna-academy-trained history painter as late as the mid-19th century. Pavel Künl and other Slovene painters of the first half and the middle of the 19th century who were active as artists in Carniola after their training in Vienna relied on older models also in their native environment, i.e. on certain key Baroque altarpieces in Ljubljana churches. To the most frequently copied or compositionally varied examples also belong the three above-mentioned altarpieces of the Teutonic Order church.

Presentation will take place on Thursday, 3 November, at 6 pm. 
You are kindly invited to attend it.

On display in the rooms of the Gallery's permanent collection until 30 November. 

Kristina Preininger

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc

3 November – 30 November 2016
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana