Friday, November 12, 2010

The earliest copies of Hungarian medieval wall-paintings

detail of the St. Catherine legend (copy)

In 1844, during repairs after a minor earthquake, medieval wall-paintings were uncovered in the Calvinist church of Máramarossziget (at that time the capital of Máramaros County, today Sighetu Marmaţiei in Romania). Instead of simply recording this fact in the Historia domus, and covering the paintings over, a detailed report was sent to Budapest, to the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, which had been founded not so long ago, in 1825. After requesting more information, Imre Henszlmann, the only art historian member of the Academy, delivered a lecture on the wall paintings of Máramarossziget in 1847. By this time, Henszlmann has already published his monograph on the Church of St. Elisabeth in Kassa (Kaschau, Košice, Slovakia) and also in 1846, was among those issuing a general call for the protection of historic monuments.

Máramarossziget church in 1846
In delivering his lecture, Henszlmann relied on a plan and view of the church (illustrated to the right) and also a copy of the wall-paintings. He did not describe the copy, and his description of the frescoes is not entirely clear. István Szilágyi, a teacher at the college of Máramarossziget and a member of the Academy corrected Henszlmann's interpretation in a lecture presented in 1850 (as it is well known, Hungary was occupied with a revolution and a failed war for independence in 1848-1849). Szilágyi did not have a chance to see the frescoes himself, but his interpretation was based on first-hand eyewitness accounts, in addition to copies. This episode represents the first true art historical debate in Hungary, concerning a medieval monument.

As it happened, the church of Máramarossziget burned down in 1859. The fire destroyed a large part of the town, the entire roof of the church burned down, and the vaults all collapsed. As a result of this catastrophy, the wall paintings - even more of them - came to light again. This time Szilágyi had a chance to examine them, and a new set of drawings and copies were made. A sad decision had to be made - the remains of the church had to be torn down, with the exception of the medieval tower. Rebuilding the church was halted by another fire in 1872 - the new building was only finished in 1892.

Máramarossziget, interior
of the church after
the 1859 fire 
The investigations made by Szilágyi provided the basis for the description of the frescoes in the great monograph by Flóris Rómer, published in 1874. Titled Old Wall-Paintings in Hungary, the book is a magisterial survey of medieval wall-paintings in Hungary, accompanied by a large series of illustrations. Rómer's summary of the earlier debate and his interpretation of Szilágyi's new findings effectively meant the final word about the Máramarossziget frescoes. As they were destroyed, no-one in the next 135 years had much new to say about them. The copies, last cataloged in 1905, vanished from sight.

In the last few years there's been a renewed interest in the frescoes and in Hungary's first art historical debate. Mihály Jánó in his 2008 monograph dedicated to 19th century research history of Transylvanian wall paintings wrote on the debate,1 and Tibor Kollár decided to include the monument in our overview of medieval wall painting in the north-eastern counties of historic Hungary (for more info, see here)2. Kollár has found the copies in the Archives of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, among the unsorted papers of the Archaeological Commission. The essay on the church for the book was written by József Lángi.

Máramarossziget, the church in 1857 
However, the Academy only holds the copies made after the 1859 blaze. We were fortunate enough to find the first and original copy of the frescoes, made in 1845, in the parish office of Máramarossziget. To the great surprise of everybody, the copy was signed by Miklós Barabás, the greatest Hungarian biedermeier painter, stating that it is a "true and faithful" copy of the original. After reading all the contemporary literature, I am now convinced that Barabás himself never visited Máramarossziget. His copy is only a replica of another copy, made by one József Szász, drawing instructor at the college of Máramarossziget. Looking at this watercolor copy, it is now clear why Henszlmann had some trouble making sense of the wall-paintings. The copy displays elements of the wall paintings - including scenes from the legend of St. Catherine and a majestic St. George figure - in a haphazard manner, without any regard to their original arrangement. As Szász himself confessed to Szilágyi: "he was not instructed to pay attention to the topography of the paintings". I believe that after Szász's copy arrived to Henszlmann at the Academy, he decided to have additional copies made of it. Naturally he turned to his friend, Miklós Barabás - the only painter in the Academy - to execute these watercolors. One of these watercolors was sent back to Máramarossziget, another was still at the Academy in 1905. The great painter Barabás thus only played an episodic role in what was the first instance of scholarly attention paid to medieval wall paintings in Hungary.

I am currently finishing a paper on the Barabás-copies, which will be presented at a conference next week, held on the 200th anniversary of the birth of Barabás. As the copy has already been published in 2009,  I can include a picture of it here for everyone to see.

Copy of the Máramarossziget murals by Miklós Barabás, 1845

1 Mihály Jánó, Színek és legendák – Tanulmányok az erdélyi falfestmények kutatástörténetéhez (Colours and legends - Chapters from the research history of Transylvanian wall paintings). Sepsiszentgyörgy – Csíkszereda, 2008.
2 Zsombor Jékely – József Lángi, Falfestészeti emlékek a középkori Magyarország északkeleti megyéiből. Edited by Tibor Kollár, with photographs by Attila Mudrák. Budapest: Teleki László Alapítvány, 2009.

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