Tuesday, April 13, 2021

An Overview of the Excavations of Pétermonostora near Bugac

Detail of one of the reliquary plaques
It is well-known that the majority of the medieval monuments of the Hungarian Great Plains had been destroyed, primarily during the Ottoman Period. However, the territory had already suffered a major trauma before that: the Mongol invasion of 1241. Already at that time, entire settlements were destroyed and many of these locations were never rebuilt in later centuries. One such place was the medieval town of Péteri. The town was located near present-day Bugac, just south of Kecskemét, on the Kiskunság plains between the Danube at Tisza rivers. It was established possibly as a royal foundation in 1050 and developed quickly during the next two centuries. Around 1130-1140, members of the Becse-Gergely clan established a monastery there, which likely contributed to the development of the town. Pétermonostora was first mentioned in 1219. In the Spring of 1241, the town was overrun by the Mongols of Batu Khan and the site seems to have been abandoned after that. Recent excavations have brought to light evidence of the massacre of the town's population. Sometime after the Mongol invasion, Cumans were settled in the area - who used the ruins as a convenient quarry.

The site of the monastery

Excavations of the area lead by Szabolcs Rosta since 2011 have brought to light the remains of the medieval monastery of Péteri or Pétermonostora. A large, three-aisled basilica was discovered here, along with various monastery buildings. Remarkably, the ruins preserved a large number of important liturgical objects from the church. Along with the ongoing excavations of the nearby cemetery and the remains of the town itself, Péteri by now has become an extraordinarily rich source of Árpád-period material objects. The most famous objects come from the monastery church itself: among several smaller enamel reliefs from Limoges, the most important finds are two enamel plaques, which originally must have decorated a reliquary. Based on its iconography - the scenes show the Washing of the Feet, Christ talking to St. Peter, and the Ascension of Christ - the reliquary must have preserved the relics of the patron saint of the church, St. Peter. The enamel plaques were made in the Rhine region, around 1180. They are kept at the Katona József Museum in Kecskemét, and an interactive feature developed by Pazirik Ltd. gives a very useful overview of them.

Enamel plaques from Pétermonostora

Another extraordinary find came to light in 2018: it is a book cover made of bone, with figures of the evangelists and inlaid rock crystal decoration. Here are some pictures, along with some other pieces from several hundred finds:


Excavations of the medieval town of Péteri and its monastery dedicated to St. Peter will likely continue in the coming years and will undoubtedly shed more light on the flourishing life of the Hungarian Great Plains in the decades before the Mongol invasion. To get more information on the site, have a look at this study of Szabolcs Rosta or this very useful 2017 overview by Edit Sárosi or watch a short film focusing on the site and on the restoration of the reliquary plaques (2020, in Hungarian). Pétermonostora is part of the Central European Via Benedictina network.

Tuesday, January 05, 2021

The Restoration of the High Altar of Kisszeben

After many decades of restoration, the High Altar of Kisszeben (Sabinov, Slovakia) has been assembled in the Hungarian National Gallery. The restoration of one of the largest and most ornate winged altars from the medieval period of the Kingdom of Hungary began in 1954 and was completed in the summer of 2020. The high altar was put on view from 24 September at the Gallery’s exhibition titled Late Gothic Winged Altarpieces (it is currently not on view due to the national lockdown).

I wrote on this altarpiece several years ago, when it was first put on display at the National Gallery, at that time still without its gable - see this earlier post. Further details about the history of the altarpiece can be found there. 

The winged altar, which was one of the largest and most ornate ones in the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, is dated to 1496 according to an inscription on the frame of the paintings - but it naturally took a longer period to complete. The altar was “renovated” in the baroque period, the panels of its workday side were all overpainted. This overpainting was not removed in the restoration campaign. The predella and the gable of the altar - both of which got seriously damaged - were both reconstructed.

On the occasion of the completion of the restoration, a special website was launched by the Museum of Fine Arts - Hungarian National Gallery, and a short film was also released about the altarpiece (both are in Hungarian). 
Art historians are also encouraged to read a study about the gable the altarpiece, which details the limits and possibilities of the reconstruction of this part of the altarpiece. Poszler, Györgyi: Kutatás-módszertani gyakorlat: új források, új gondolatok a kisszebeni Keresztelő Szent János-főoltár oromzatával kapcsolatban. Művészettörténeti Értesítő, 64 (2015/2). pp. 239-267.

(Source of text and images: Museum of Fine Arts - Hungarian National Gallery. For additional photos, see this report.)

Tuesday, December 01, 2020

In memoriam Zsuzsa Urbach (1933-2020)

Zsuzsa Urbach at the Piliscsaba campus, 2003 
(Photo by János Jernyei Kiss)

It is with great sadness that I report the passing of art historian Zsuzsa (Susan) Urbach, Hungary's foremost scholar of Early Netherlandish Painting. She was 87 years old. She studied art history and archaeology at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest - even though it was hard for her to get accepted to University in the early 1950s for political reasons. Finishing her studies also took some time, as, after the 1956 revolution, she spent two years abroad (studying in Munich and in London). Eventually, she returned to Hungary and finished her studies in 1959, receiving a doctorate in 1963. She started working at the Collection of Old Master Paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts in 1966. She worked at the Museum until her retirement in 1992. Although she continued to study the Old Masters, in 1994 she started a new venture: she established the second Department of the History of Art in Hungary, at the newly founded Faculty of Humanities at Pázmány Péter Catholic University, Piliscsaba. She was instrumental in creating a very successful art history program, hiring a number of young colleagues who teach there to this day. 

The primary field of research for Zsuzsa Urbach was Gothic paintings. She published groundbreaking studies on medieval iconography - on subjects ranging from the Visitation (focusing on the painting of Master M.S.) to the Nativity and the Doubt of St. Joseph to portrait iconography. She was among the first ones to draw attention to copies of Early Netherlandish Painting - publishing important early copies of Hieronymus Bosch and Jan van Eyck in Budapest, among others. She was also a champion for the use of phototechnical examinations for medieval paintings in Hungary. At the Museum of Fine Arts, her attention focused on Early Netherlandish Painting, and she published a series of important studies both in Hungary and abroad on the topic. She also wrote several smaller monographs on the holdings of Hungarian museums. Her research culminated in the monumental catalogue of Early Netherlandish Paintings in the Museum of Fine Arts, which was published in two volumes by Brepols in 2014.

By the time I got to know her, she was one of the grande dames of Hungarian art history. She was usually at the library of the Museum of Fine Arts, always eager to talk to younger researchers. I remember these conversations fondly. In preparation for the 2006 exhibition on King and Emperor Sigismund, her connections made possible the restoration of the copy of the Way to Calvary after Jan van Eyck in Brussels. This panel is a highly interesting item in Old Master Paintings collection in Budapest and its restoration was done at KIK/IRPA in Brussels. Volume 44 of Acta Historiae Artium was dedicated to her in 2003 and another Festschrift, titled Als Ich Can, was published by her colleagues and students for her 80est birthday in 2013. It is well-known that her students at Pázmány Péter University greatly admired her. For the reminiscences of her career, Hungarian-speaking readers are encouraged to read the interview with her, published in MúzeumCafé in 2014.

After Jan van Eyck: Way to Calvary. Budapest, Museum of Fine Arts
for high resolution, see here

Susan Urbach, Early Netherlandish Painting in Budapest I & II. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers, 2014.
ISBN: 978-1-909400-09-2
ISBN: 978-1-909400-29-0

For a fuller bibliography of the works of Susan Urbach, click here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Mapping Eastern Europe Website Launched

The North of Byzantium initiative has launched a new open-access digital project – Mapping Eastern Europe – intended to promote the study, research, and teaching about the history, art, and culture of Eastern Europe between the thirteenth and seventeenth centuries among students, teachers, scholars, and the wider public.

Mapping Eastern Europe gathers a multitude of specialists – early career and senior scholars who have either already published or are currently researching new topics – to supply original online content in English in the form of historical overview, art historical case studies, short notices about ongoing projects, and reviews of recent books and exhibitions. 

This platform aims to stimulate new research and outreach focused on the networked regions of the Balkan Peninsula, the Carpathian Mountains, and further north into early modern Russia, which developed at the crossroads of the Latin, Greek, Slavic, and Islamic traditions during the late Middle Ages and early modern periods. This a very wide focus, and so far most of the resources on the website are related to Byzantine and Post-Byzantine art - after all, the North of Byzantium initiative focuses on art and culture of the northern frontiers of the Byzantine Empire in Eastern Europe. The website has a map-based interface to browse overview, notices, and book reviews and it will be continuously updated. Already in this early phase, there are a number of pins in the territory of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary as well.

Mapping Eastern Europe is made possible through generous support from the “Rapid Response Magic Project of the Princeton University Humanities Council”. Co-founders and editors are: Maria Alessia Rossi and Alice Isabella Sullivan.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Croatia and Hungary. 800 Years of Common Heritage

Chest of Saint Simeon in Zadar, 1377-1380

The coronation of  King Koloman as King of Croatia in 1102, an act which established the Hungarian-Croatian personal union, was one of the formative events of the Middle Ages for the region. Starting from this point, the two countries were ruled by the Hungarian Kings - although control over the Dalmatian coast was lost for long periods to the Republic of Venice. Currently, and exhibition is on view in Zagreb to illustrate highlights of the common history of the two countries. This joint project of the Hungarian National Museum and the Galerija Klovićevi Dvori (Zagreb) will be shown in Budapest at the end of the year as well. The goal of the exhibition project is to present the Croatian-Hungarian cultural and cultural-historical relations in a broad and illustrative context, thus strengthening the feeling of belonging together in the two nations. The exhibition is divided into eight chronological and thematic chapters, starting with the Middle Ages and continuing with the Renaissance period. Later on, in the early modern times, heraldic representation of the Croatian-Hungarian state community was somewhat special, the relationship of the partner countries manifested in many different ways. In the Baroque era, the veneration of the Hungarian holy kings was lively in both countries. Several examples from the iconographic program and liturgical objects of the Zagreb Cathedral are showcased to highlight this common cult. A special unit is dedicated to the most emblematic family of the era, the Zrínyis/Zrinskis. Their activities in the spirit of dual patriotism left an indelible mark on the culture and art of the two countries. Other sections focus on more modern periods. 

Gianfrancesco da Tolmezzo: Crucifixion with Hungarian saints. Zagreb, 1505

A virtual exhibition was also created to present chief objects. The virtual exhibition, currently consisting of 60 objects, guides the visitor - partly chronologically and partly thematically - through the representative spaces of the Hungarian National Museum, the Dome, the Ceremonial Hall, and the Fireplace Halls. CLICK HERE to start the virtual exhibition, then select the English language version.

Virtual exhibition of the Hungarian National Museum, 2020

Monday, August 24, 2020

10 Years of the Medieval Hungary blog

Chronicler from the Illuminated Chronicle, c. 1360

I started this blog 10 years ago, in August 2010. Originally, the idea was to try another platform, in order to provide up-to-date information - information that was hard to provide on my rudimentary website Art in Medieval Hungary. I created the first incarnation of the website in 1998, and by around 2005, it existed in its current form, with frequent updates until about 2011. Incredibly, the website is still up and running (although I no longer have access to update it). Both the website and the blog grew out of the frustration that there is almost no information available about the art of Medieval Hungary in the current English-language scholarship. One of the largest and most stable kingdoms of medieval Europe is usually just a vast empty expanse, a terra incognita in survey works and overviews of medieval art. I can identify at least three reasons for this: first, the medieval Kingdom of Hungary collapsed after the 1526 battle of Mohács and the 150 years of Ottoman rule that followed in much of the country had disastrous consequences. The central areas of medieval Hungary and its culture along with it were obliterated in this period, and even greater destruction took place at the time of the sieges of re-conquest in the seventeenth century and during the rebuilding and modernization after. Coupled with the well-known effects of the Reformation on medieval ecclesiastical art, there are vast areas of Hungary where there is almost nothing left from the medieval period (at least as far as visual arts are concerned). 

Neither destruction nor modernization affected each part of Hungary equally. The outer areas (with the exception of the southern border), in particular preserved a large part of their medieval heritage, including countless churches still in use. And here we come to the second reason: following the Treaty of Trianon after WWI, these regions are no longer part of Hungary, as they were ceded to newly-formed states. Today the great majority of important medieval sites from the medieval Kingdom of Hungary are found in the neighboring Central European states - especially in Slovakia and Romania (Transylvania). And here we reach the third obstacle: language. Most literature on the art of medieval Hungary is written in Hungarian - but there is also significant literature in Slovak and Romanian, not to mention the languages of all the other countries bordering Hungary. Also, most places have at least three names in the literature - a Hungarian name, a name in the language of modern nation-states, and a German name - creating a lot of confusion at times. 

When it comes to the first two historical factors, there is not much we can do about them - we just have to be aware of these factors when writing about medieval Hungary, and deal with them as best as we can. However, there is an easy way to fix the third factor: more publications are needed in English and German about medieval Hungary. As such publications were few and far between, I felt the need for this blog, to provide timely information about the research of medieval Hungary, and to call attention to new publications in more accessible languages. 

Detail from the Legend of Saint Ladislas, at Homoródkarácsonyfalva (Crăciunel, RO)

In the ten years since I've started this blog, the situation has improved considerably. Most importantly, a new English-language survey book is now available on the subject, providing up-to-date information.  There is also a growing number of English-language books both by Hungarian and international publishers on various aspects of medieval Hungarian art. To get an overview of new publications, please consult the detailed annotated bibliography I wrote for Oxford Bibliographies in Art History. It is a rather comprehensive bibliography on Art and Architecture in the Medieval Kingdom of Hungary and can be consulted online (with a valid institutional subscription). You could also just click on the new books tag, to find the most important new publications right here on the blog. Museum databases (such as the Museum of Fine Arts/Hungarian National Gallery, the Hungarian National Museum, or the Christian Museum in Esztergom) and library collections of medieval manuscripts (see especially the new database of the Bibliotheca Corviniana) make a lot of material much more readily accessible. Thus it is much easier for English-speaking scholars to find information about the art of Medieval Hungary than it was a decade ago.

Nevertheless, you can still expect updates on medieval art here on the blog, so please keep following here or on Twitter.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

An Antonio Tempesta rediscovered in Budapest

The following news does not have much to do with medieval art in Hungary, but it is a very significant discovery made at a Hungarian museum - specifically, at the Museum of Applied Arts, where I work - and I believe that the story is of interest to readers of this blog. So here it goes - the text below is based on the research and exhibition texts of Miklós Gálos, curator of the exhibition:

A rare, two-sided painting by Antonio Tempesta was rediscovered and restored at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest. The painting was painted on lapis lazuli, a rare and precious stone from the Middle East, which is the raw material of ultramarine, the marvelous deep blue color of paintings. This prestigious semi-precious stone was used by Antonio Tempesta, a painter active in the early 17th-century Rome, as support of paintings made for aristocratic patrons. Tempesta’s paintings on various types of stone are real curiosities. Only three paintings on lapis lazuli survived – one of them is housed in the Louvre in Paris, the other has recently been published by Alberto and Alessandra di Castro (the work is in private collection).

Another of them – a hitherto unknown lapis lazuli painting by Tempesta – was discovered in one of the storage areas of the Museum of Applied Arts some years ago. This work actually consists of two paintings: both sides of this thin, scarcely one-millimeter thick, translucent slab present scenes from the Old Testament. One side shows the Creation of Eve, and the other the Crossing of the Red Sea. Both depictions demonstrate a perfect collaboration between nature and art. The stone slab used as support is not painted on the entire surface, therefore, its color and patterns form an integral part of the depictions. The boundaries between the natural patterns of the stone and the artist’s work are imperceptible. The frame, with its mother-of-pearl inlays, is also unusual because of its complicated, contrived image field.

Antonio Tempesta: Crossing of the Red Sea (Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest)

In January 2016, the artwork was discovered in a ruined state in one of the storage areas of the Museum of Applied Arts. The inlays of the broken frame were missing, and the stone support had been shattered with some pieces lost. Plaster infills made up a fifth of the painted surface. The shoddy inpainting on the plaster areas created a sharp contrast to the artistic quality of the original. The object did not appear in the museum’s inventory. During the next few years research managed to shed light on the provenance of the painting and later its deletion from the records. Fortunately, it was possible to determine the identities of the painter and, with considerable certainty, the original commissioner of the work. Thanks to the enthusiastic support of the Museum of Applied Arts’ Friends of the Museum, restoration was also carried out. The restoration of the lapis lazuli panel and the paintings on both sides was carried out by Ágnes Kuna. The frame was restored by Mária Szilágyi of the Museum of Applied Arts. As a result, this once-forgotten work of art has now regained its former glory. 

Antonio Tempesta: Creation of Eve, during and after restoration (Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest)
Now, the results of this work are presented to the public, in the form of a temporary exhibition at the György Ráth villa. Besides Tempesta’s painting, the exhibition includes some goldsmith works which, just like Tempesta’s painting, are examples of the fusion of an object of nature and an exceptional product of artistic talent. Like the Tempesta painting, the goldsmith works are from the former collection of Miklós Jankovich, a renowned Hungarian art collector of the early 19th century.

A detailed publication of the newly discovered Tempesta paintings - including a reconstruction of its history - was published by Miklós Gálos in volume 32 of Ars Decorativa, the Yearbook of the Museum of Applied Arts.

Miklós Gálos: An Antonio Tempesta Rediscovered in the Collection of the Museum of Applied Arts, Budapest, Ars Decorativa 32 (2018), 7-36.