Friday, November 19, 2010

Villard de Honnecourt in Hungary

Villard's drawing of a window from Reims,
with announcement of his trip to Hungary 
The Academic doctoral defense of Imre Takács (see my previous post) made me think about Villard de Honnecourt's trip to Hungary. Takács's dissertation is about the early decades of the 13th century, when Hungary was one of the first areas outside Ile de France where French Gothic architectural and sculptural features appeared. The royal palace of Esztergom - especially the palace chapel - is a significant early Gothic building, built during the rule of King Béla III (1172-1196) next to the cathedral. The palace was not quite finished when in 1198 Béla's son, King Emeric handed it over to the archbishop of Esztergom - thus maybe the chapel was only finished after this date. Not Esztergom, but the royal abbey of Pilis is at the center of Imre Takács's dissertation. This Cistercian Abbey - located roughly between Esztergom and Buda in the Pilis hills - was founded by the king in 1184. In 1213, Queen Gertrude, the wife of Andrew II was murdered, and the queen was buried at Pilis Abbey, which - at least the eastern part - was surely completed by that time.

At this period, a renewed impact of French Gothic (High Gothic, to be precise) can be detected in Hungary - especially at Pilis and at the Benedictine Abbey of Pannonhalma. Crucial monuments include the tomb of Queen Gertrude and the famous Porta Speciosa at Pannonhalma, both dating from the 1220s. It is perhaps not coincidental that roughly at the same time, the famous Villard de Honnecourt visited Hungary. Just as we are not quite sure of his profession, it is similarly unclear what he did in Hungary or when exactly he visited. Evidence for his visit is included in his sketchbook: on fol. 10v, next to the drawing of an aisle window at Reims, Villard writes: "I had been sent into the land of Hungary when I drew it because I like it best." He also mentions on another folio the he "was once in Hungary, where [he] remained many days". Of all the things he saw there, he chose to draw a pavement, which he saw in a church - at a place he did not name.
On top, Villard's drawing of pavement
motifs he had seen in Hungary

Theories abound concerning the date and purpose of Villard's Hungarian visit. Pilis abbey emerges as a place he may have visited for several reasons:
One of the pavement motifs drawn by Villard in Hungary is known from Pilis Abbey.
The tomb of Gertrude, as well as the fragmentary tomb slab of a knight is in the same style (the characteristic Muldenfaltenstil) as Villard's drawings - leading Gerevich to believe that these were designed by Villard. 

Mentioning these and similar comparisons, Imre Takács also proposes a hypothesis for the historical context of Villard's Hungarian trip (published first in a study: “The French Connection: On the Courtenay Family and Villard de Honnecourt Apropos of a 13th-Century Incised Slab from Pilis Abbey,” Künstlerische Wechselwirkungen in Mitteleuropa, ed. Jirí Fast and Markus Hörsch, Ostfildern, 2006, pp. 11-21.). After the murder of Queen Gertrude (of Andechs-Meran), King Andrew II married Yolande de Courtenay, and Imre Takács emphasizes the role of the Courtenay family in Hungary. They were also the lords of the area where Villard was from. Takács proposed that the red marble tomb slab from Pilis was that of Robert de Courtenay, Latin emperor of Constantinople (1221-1228).

Drawing of a soldier from Villard's sketchbook
and fragments of the tomb of a knight
(Robert de Courtenay?) from Pilis

Takács also poses the following questions: “Is it possible that Villard … may have been traveling in the entourage of Emperor Robert on his way east in the winter of 1220? Could we not suppose in fact that Villard was a multi-talented individual in the Courtenay court and capable of carrying out “engineering” tasks, giving theoretical advice and making practical decisions? And finally, is it not possible that the quality of the drawing on the Pilis inscribed slab is so similar to Villard’s personal style, because he may actually have taken part in the work’s creation, if only in so much as making the sketches?”

Fragments of the tomb of Queen Gertrude (died 1213)
from Pilis Abbey (Hungarian National Gallery)

It seems then that a careful review of the fragmentary evidence concerning Villard's Hungarian adventure may lead to new insights about his entire career. Other researchers also work in this field, so surely there will be more results for me to report on here.

(Readers of my blog likely know by now that the buildings of Pilis Abbey are not standing any more, you can read about the causes of this a previous post. The ruins - including the tombs fragments - have been excavated by László Gerevich in the 1970s. Most of the stone carvings are in storage, with the best pieces on view at the Hungarian National Gallery. For the present condition of the site, see here. A few more photos are available on my Flickr site.) 

More on Villard de Honnecourt

Resources on Villard de Honnecourt abound on the internet. 

The entire portfolio (Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS Fr 19093) can be browsed on a website of the BNF, titled Les cathedrales et Villard de Honnecourt, see here. Also, a black and white facsimile can be browsed at the website of the Association Villard de Honnecourt, based in Honnecourt de Escaut.

A most useful resource, which includes a complete annotated bibliography is the website of Carl F. Barnes, Jr., at the address:

The website of AVISTA (Association Villard de Honnecourt for Interdisciplinary Study of Medieval Technology, Science and Art) is also very useful.

Interest in Villard is also shown by various events, such as an upcoming seminar on Dec. 3 in Paris, titled Qui est Villard de Honnecourt? (organized by INHA, see here).

A complete color facsimile of the Villard-portfolio, accompanied by a monograph, has been published last year. Also written by Carl F. Barnes, Jr., the book can be browsed in Google Books, and is included below.

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