As we approach Easter, Richard Stemp enjoys a minor Passion

One of the great joys of teaching for Art History Abroad is the possibility to see some of the great masterpieces of world art on a regular basis. Given this ‘regularity’, students – both young and old – regularly ask which is my favourite city, and even which is my favourite artist. Finally, I can give you a definitive answer: I really don’t know. But in a balloon debate between the Sistine Chapel (Michelangelo and others), the Brancacci Chapel (Massacio, Masolino and Filippino Lippi) and the Scrovegni Chapel (Giotto) I would definitely save the last. Not that you could get a whole chapel into a balloon. It has an astonishing cycle of paintings, entirely by Giotto, with the early, apocryphal life of Mary at the top, the Nativity and Mission of Jesus in the centre, and on the lowest level, closer to us because it is the most important, the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. It is an astonishing sequence of images, superb storytelling, and scans perfectly across the walls. Throughout there are links between adjacent images, from side to side and, perhaps more remarkable, from top to bottom. And there are resonances crossing the chapel, making the whole space ring with beauty and meaning. You need to be there to appreciate it fully, it takes time to see each image, let alone the whole, and it has been a real privilege to share this wonder with many of our gap-year students, and to learn from their fresh insights and vital enthusiasm.

 

Giotto The Scrovegni Chapel Padua (c. 1305)

The Passion Cycle, leading towards the altar on the ‘north’ (left) wall, is particularly moving. Of course the subject is one of the great staples of Roman Catholic art, and can be just as beautiful and moving even when not as well known or, for that matter, as well preserved. Approaching Easter, I was reminded of a small, incomplete cycle I saw in Switzerland when on a failed ‘pilgrimage’ to see a curious relic of St John, not far from the German lakeside city of Constance (see my earlier post, from 17 February). Located in the village of Landschlacht (population a mere 850, apparently), it was painted in the first quarter of the 14th Century. Stepping off the train, it is not immediately apparent that this tiny place could house a church, let alone a fresco cycle. The 11th – 12th Century chapel of St Leonhard is unprepossessing: without the little steeple it could easily be mistaken for a barn. Like many churches, the frescoes were whitewashed either during the Reformation (which, around Constance, didn’t last very long), or later – the 17th Century probably – for reasons of taste, which we now find hard to comprehend, or changing fashion, which often had an impact on pre-existing art. Whatever the reason, it explains why the surfaces are worn, and why not all of the cycle survives.

St Leonhard’s Chapel, Landschlacht, Switzerland (11th-12th Century)

This very fragility of the material itself is one of the things that makes the paintings so moving, something which is all but impossible to reproduce photographically, the delicacy of the painted surface somehow contributing to the delicacy of Chirst’s damaged body. The first complete image is the Flagellation, conceived more pragmatically than later examples. Caravaggio’s painting, for example, glorious as it is, is designed to display a beautiful, physical form, but, despite its emotional depth, it is one of the few paintings in which he fails to communicate the physical reality of the act: Christ’s back is next to the column, how could they whip him? Here Christ’s arms are tied around the support, he all but hugs it, his back exposed to the lashes.  The extreme tilt of the neck allows us to see his face whilst also communicating an overbearing agony, which continues through the extreme, but elegant, sagging of the hips, bend of the knees and splaying of the feet.  By contrast, in the Crowning with Thorns, Jesus sits upright, regal, fully in control, blessing us, the onlookers, while the torturers use a metal bar to press the unmanageable thorns onto his head. Their calm concentration on the imposition of pain contrasts with his serene forbearance, and emphasizes how calculated their cruelty is.

Unknown Constance Master The Flagellation and Crowning with Thorns

The Virgin Mary assists on the Way to Calvary, her hands covered by her cloak just as a priest would hold the consecrated host: the cross is seen as a holy relic, even before it has performed its sacred function. She takes the same position – at the right hand of Christ – in three successive images. In the Crucifixion her heart is pierced with a sword – an illustration of the prophecy of the priest Simeon in St Luke’s Gospel: ‘Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. In the Deposition she takes her son’s right arm in the same way she supported the right arm of the cross, hands covered, wary of defiling the body (Christ and the Cross are one). John the Evangelist, looking even more than usually effeminate, stands across from Mary in the Crucifixion at Christ’s left, as is traditional, and in the Deposition supports his left arm. The two images are further united by the continuation of the cross as a bold horizontal from one painting to the next, and despite the lowering of the body the knees remain equally bent – Christ buckles up in front of our eyes.

 

Unknown Constance Master The Way to Calvary and Crucifixion

Other characters appear and disappear. In both scenes one of the other Maries stands just behind the Virgin, to the left. In the Crucifixion we see the Centurion, whose realization that, ‘Truly, this was the Son of God,’ would originally have been written on the scroll that curls behind John’s head.  He is replaced in the Deposition by the figure of Mary Magdalene, who takes the foreground and kneels at the feet of Christ, and by Nicodemus, who gently, affectionately lowers the body, the yellow of his sleeve cutting a swathe across the lifeless torso.
Sadly, this is where the cycle breaks up – of the next scene we can just make out the edge of the tomb, and appearing above a bubble of paint loss, the top of one of the witnesses to the Entombment. We know the story, but it would be wonderful to see how this unknown, uncelebrated artist depicted the ending. And I suppose that is just one of the reasons I would save Giotto over Masaccio or Michelangelo: his story telling in the Scrovegni Chapel is so brilliant, so carefully timed, so beautifully and movingly depicted, and so complete. However, if you can make your way to Landschlacht you will not be disappointed. And unlike Padua, you won’t have to book in advance, pay, or wait. It’s just there, in an unassuming chapel in a small, country village, near a beautiful lake. And you’ll probably have it all to yourself.

Unknown Constance Master The Crucifixion and Deposition

 

Extreme Weather: AHA tutor Richard Stemp goes on a pilgrimage to find a relic, a sculpture and a curious tradition whose origins are frozen in time.

The English are internationally famed for talking about the weather. Personally, I think this is the effect of English politeness: one isn’t supposed to talk about religion, politics or money, the weather is all that is left to us. But the weather in the British Isles is remarkably varied, and, as has become all too obvious, can be appalling. But however much water has fallen from the sky in the past month or so, it has been remarkably mild. The same cannot be said of the winter of 1962-63, famed for its heavy snows (and a corresponding boom in the birth rate in the following autumn).  But if we thought it was bad in England, it was worse on the continent: around Lake Constance in South West Germany (the Bodensee to the locals) the temperature was below zero from November to March, and in February it settled around -22°C. So cold, in fact, and for so long, that the lake froze over.

 

It wasn’t the first time that this had happened: the earliest recorded occurrence was in 875, by which time Benedictines had settled on what was (usually) the relatively inaccessible island of Reichenau, further west, on another part of the lake. Seegefrörni – the local dialect word (plural) for the freezing of the lake – gradually increased in frequency, peaking in the 15th and 16th centuries: the lake froze over seven times in each of these centuries. At some point – and nobody is entirely sure when – a curious tradition developed: a relic of St John the Evangelist was taken over the ice from one side of the lake to the other.

 

St John the Evangelist, attributed to Jakob Russ, early 16th Century. By now, the reliquary is back in Switzerland in the Abbey Church of Münsterlingen. The abbey closed long ago: its buildings now house one of Switzerland’s major psychiatric hospitals.

In the early 16th century a reliquary bust was carved and painted to contain a bone of Jesus’s favourite disciple. It is attributed to Jakob Russ, a sculptor active in Ravensburg, less than 30km from Hagnau on the Bodensee, one of the relic’s homes. Like the work of other Northern European painters and sculptors – think of Rogier van der Weyden or Tilman Riemenschneider (and if you don’t know his work, look him up!) – Russ is not happy to settle with the generic idealised faces so favoured by the Italians, who portrayed their holy subjects with an almost geometric perfection. He modulates every surface, giving the sense that the face was modelled in clay rather than carved in wood. He’s not a pretty boy, and would never be confused – as Dan Brown notoriously did – for Mary Magdalene. His intense presence, with a repressed sorrow in the eyes, suggests that Russ was imagining a detail from the crucifixion, and John’s suffering vigil at Christ’s left hand.

 

The first recorded example of the procession took place exactly 441 years ago, on 17 February 1573, although the tradition may well have begun earlier. The reliquary bust was carried in procession from Münsterlingen, on the Swiss side of the lake, to Hagnau, on the German side, accompanied by 100 people. The event is recorded on the base of the reliquary bust, although the inscription is far more recent, including, as it does, a reference to another ‘translation’ of the relic during the French War of 1796 (think Napoleon), when it was restored by F.X. Faivre. On the back (not illustrated!) it also mentions the procession of 1830. Although there was a seegefrörne in 1880 the ice was not hard enough – or thick enough – to warrant a procession.

 

The inscription on the base of the reliquary

The last procession took place just over 51 years ago, on 12 February 1963, and news even reached the British press. A report was published in The Sphere (an illustrated weekly newspaper published between 1900 and 1964) on 2 March. There was no Twitter then, and news could take two whole weeks. Rather than the 100 faithful who followed the procession back in 1573, this time there were over 3000: a contemporary photograph shows them winding away into the distance, leaving the German shore of the lake to walk a 9km route across the ice. Borne aloft on the shoulders of two of the faithful, the relic has remained in Switzerland ever since: with climate change who knows when the lake will ever freeze again?

 

12 February 1963, the sculpture of St John the Evangelist is carried across the ice.

I had been wanting to see this relic of an ancient tradition ever since I first visited the Bodensee three years ago, and finally made a pilgrimage to Münsterlingen last month. It wasn’t there. It seems that, with climate change, the locals have given up on the possibility of another seegefrörne, and to mark the 50th anniversary of its last translation, the relic had been taken around the lake by road. Or maybe it crossed on one of the two regular ferries that transport modern traffic 24/7 (even they had to stop in 1963). So last week, I went to Hagnau, where I finally found it, boldly eyeballing the visitors to its own exhibition.

 

An aerial view of Hagnau in 1963, with pilgrims disappearing into the distance at the top left.

I can’t help thinking the locals are being a little impatient – I mean, fifty years? It’s not that long. It was 113 years between the last two seegefrörni, so there’s a while to go yet. And ‘climate change’ does not have the same implication as ‘global warming’. One impact is likely to be an increase of more extreme weather events, and that could include more winter snow and extremely low temperatures. I’d start stocking up on jumpers now if I were you.