Depictions of the Marian Rosary motif culminated in the 19th century both in the number of images and in the number of iconographic variants. Particularly after 1840 the production of this type of images increased and they were primarily meant to encourage the piety of the believers. At the expense of the earlier devotional motif of the Virgin of Mercy, the motif of Our Lady of the Rosary was at that time taking over mainly protective emphases. This is evident in the variants which include local landscapes at the bottom of the scene, so that it is possible to talk about locally characterized Virgins of the Rosary. We can find such solutions in the religious paintings by Jožef Tominc, Mihael Stroj, Franz Kurz von Goldenstein, and Matevž Langus.
The paintings are most often bipartite and their upper part compositionally follows the Counter-Reformation tradition. The central group of figures is composed of the Virgin, seated on a cloud and holding little Jesus in her arms, and Sts. Dominic and Catherine of Siena by her sides, each of whom is receiving a rosary from Mary and/or from Jesus. Mary is usually depicted as Queen, and immaculistic emphases can often be found too.
The described pattern was also followed in the painting mounted in the high altar of the popular pilgrimage church at Šmarna Gora. In spite of its exposed position the altarpiece continues to withhold the information on the time of its execution and its painter. Possibly, the story of its origin can be better understood with the help of the drawings in the sketchbooks of painter Matevž Langus (1792–1855), kept in the National Gallery of Slovenia. Highly indicative seems to be the drawing on page 15r in the sketchbook NG G 137, where we can see a precise depiction of the lower section of the altarpiece with a landscape view: the view from Grmada towards the saddle and towards the top of Šmarna Gora with the church and with pilgrims who are climbing up towards it. On page 29r of the same sketchbook, there is the segment of the scene that is missing in the drawing on the extreme right of the slope, where the path rises steep from the saddle and passes by a homestead on the left and a wooden stable on the right. The drawing corresponds exactly with the painted landscape and staffage figures in the altar painting.
Thus, it is possible that Langus at least participated in the execution of the painting with the bottom part of the scene. On the other hand, the upper part with the main characters does not reveal any characteristics of his hand. Because there are a number of other motifs from Šmarna Gora in the above-mentioned Langus sketchbook, also direct drafts for his frescoes in the dome of the nave, the origin of the altarpiece can be tentatively placed in the winter of 1846/47, because in these two years, between spring and autumn, Langus frescoed the church.
In terms of content, the Rosary painting at Šmarna Gora and the frescoed scenes in the dome are complementary. The pointing right hand of St. Dominic, who is receiving a rosary from the Virgin, obviously calls attention to the church and emphasized groups of the ascending pilgrims. Even these tiny figures can be recognized as wearing ethnic costumes – just like the big kneeling figures of pilgrims in the fresco. The latter express their humility and devotion to Mary and to the traditional prayer by holding rosaries in their hands. The message of the altarpiece and the painted decoration of the dome are thus joined in a visualized symbolic answer to the Josephinian and Jansenistic suppression of pilgrimages and points to the then re-authorized devotions, of which the central place in the church at Šmarna Gora belonged to the Rosary.
5 October – 1 November 2017
National Gallery of Slovenia