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"Atectonic" retables in the 18th century north west Croatia


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Ožanić, Martina. (2017). "Atectonic" retables in the 18th century north west Croatia. PhD Thesis. Filozofski fakultet u Zagrebu, Department of Art History.
(Poslijediplomski doktorski studij povijesti umjetnosti) [mentor Marković, Vladimir].

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This doctoral thesis has determined a corpus of atectonic retables built without architectural columns in the 18th century on sixty-eight locations in Zagreb diocese, which at that time covered the area of North-West Croatia. They are mostly made of wood, polychromed and gilded, whereas marble and stucco works are exceptions. In the neighbouring Central European regions like modern Slovenia, Austria or Hungary, atectonic retables built without architectural columns had already occurred in the middle of the 17th century, so it can be assumed they were probably built in Croatia at that time as well. No evidence of their existence has yet been found, so this corpus consists of altarpieces constructed during the 18th century, from the earliest example in 1719 (Jezero Klanječko) until the last example in 1792 (Bednja). They reached the peak of their popularity from 1740s until 1770s. They were constructed with equal passion in parish churches and in chapels, in monasteries or castle chapels, in larger towns and small remote villages. Commissions were received from all members of society, from families of higher and lower nobilities, clergy and bishops, as well as common people, which leads to the conclusion they were not a specific phenomenon of any particular social class. The atectonic retables built without architectural columns existed at the same time on various locations, but also, which is very important, alongside architectural retables, in Central Europe and North-West Croatia alike. These opposed altar concepts coexisted as equally valued solutions, which has been indicated by the rare graphic models of altar designs stored in the archives across Central Europe that depict both of the proposed versions side by side. However, the quantity of atectonic retables built without architectural columns has demonstrated they were outnumbered by their architectural rivals. The medieval winged altarpiece (folding altar) had been abandoned throughout Europe as a result of the growing interest towards Antiquity in the beginning of the 16th century, when a new model was introduced based on the tradition of Classical architecture: an aedicule, an opening or a niche framed by architectural columns and surmounted by an entablature and pediment. Together with a triumphal arch, aedicule became a sort of an étalon for architectural type of retable from which the majority of architectural designs originated in the future periods. Apart from the typical, conventional altarpieces that repeated the usual patterns of altar architecture with only minor modifications, it can be observed that from the middle of the 17th century some architectural altar designs revealed a new approach to composition that reformed the old canon. On the territory of continental Croatia these novelties spread a bit later, at the beginning of the 18th century. These innovative forms tended to soften and deny the usually rigid constructive skeleton of previous examples based on the "Classical" strictness of architectural system. These rejections developed in various ways, for example, by eliminating the back surface the retable was reduced to columns and entablatures only, which enabled space to be integrated within the very volume of the altarpiece. This lightened the weight of the architecture and created a dynamic game of fullness and emptiness. If window openings were placed behind an altarpiece, its perforated architecture was pierced with light that dissolved, softened, highlighted or flattened forms. Thus the light became a new active building element of the construction and created a scenic effect cherished by the Baroque Zeitgeist (high altar in the chapel in Volavje, high altar in the chapel in HrašćinaTrgovišće). Furthermore, the attic regularly became a zone freed from the rules of the architectural orders and built exclusively with ornamental and figural elements, often with motifs of celestial scenery (high altar in the parish church in Čazma, high altar in the parish church in Pokupsko, high altar in the parish church in Velika Ludina). Frequently the hitherto rooted division of the altar composition to central zone and attic was abandoned as a result of "breaking" the entablature and reducing it to fragments only, thus opening a possibility to connect these previously separated zones. The shift is also visible in the very structure of an altarpiece where a statue or a painting from the central zone was traversed across the entablature into the zone of the attic. This created a strong iconographic connection and unity between the themes presented on the altarpiece (side altar in the parish church in Pribić, high altar in the parish church in Zlatar, side altar in the parish church in Čazma). Moreover, the main holders of architectonic qualities, columns, were frequently turned into decorative elements with a diminished basic function of a carrier element, either with their new position and role in the composition, or with their "dematerialised" bodies. They tended to separate from and step in front of a retable, thus becoming a freestanding vertical mark. Instead of carrying the burden of entablature, they often carried only its "stunted" fragments, thus losing their principal tectonic role (high altar in the parish church in Kloštar Ivanić). Similarly, their bodies were often "disintegrated" with ornaments, rocaille in particular, which noticeably denied their architectonic qualities (high altar in the parish church in Brezovica, side altars in the parish church in Sveti Petar Mrežnički, side altars in the chapel in Bojana). The position of sculptures in front of columns also contributed to the suppression of architectonic rigidity by making the structure difficult to distinguish (high altar in the chapel in Hrebine, side altars in chapel in Vinski vrh). The above mentioned "subversive" compositional techniques for weakening and relaxing architectonic principles became a significant characteristic of altarpieces in Central Europe from the middle of the 17th century until the Neoclassical movement towards the end of the 18th century, and one can rightly declare that atectonic features were the innovative impulse of that era. The atectonic altarpieces built without architectural columns were a bold continuation and further development of this concept, because they demonstrated the developmental achievements of the above-mentioned compositional innovations that reformed, transformed and in the end abandoned the architectonic model for retables. One of the characteristics of the atectonic retables built without architectural columns in the North-West Croatia was the diversity of designs. Consequently, the classification of such heterogeneous material which displays influence of multiple origins has been carried out on the basis of its definition: they are retables constructed with ornamental and figural elements without architectural columns. It has been analysed to what degree are present the remaining "passive" architectural elements (entablature), that is, to what extent the role of the ornamental and figural elements is decisive in the formation of an altar composition. Three groups of retables have been established on the basis of these criteria. Borders between the groups are by no means tightly closed; some altarpieces display the characteristics of two groups, hence the belonging to one or the other group has been decided given their dominant features. The first group consists of retables that retained an uninterrupted architectural entablature. The second group consists of retables with only architectural fragments, and the third group are retables without any architectural element. It should be emphasized that the groups abide by no chronological or geographical order – atectonic retables built without architectural columns of all three groups were constructed during the entire 18th century and all over North-West Croatia, with only occasional episodes of higher popularity. This division to groups illustrates gradual reduction of architectural elements and increasing aberration from the previous altar standards. The retables in the first group have revealed a more persistent reliance on the concept of altar aedicule, and their retained uninterrupted entablature echoed the standardized altar division to central zone and attic. Among them are retables with herms whose role of an architectural element has only been suggested by their position in the overall composition, but their role is primarily that of a figural ornament (side altars in the parish church in Osekovo, side altar of Holy Family in the parish church in Samarica, side altars in the parish church in Križ). Although they were inspired by Ancient and modern models, the herms on these retables were of predominantly Christian origin and emptied of all additional allegorical meaning. They were very rarely combined with the iconographic theme on the altarpiece (unique example of herms as dark skinned boys on the side altar of the missionary Saint Francis Xavier in Taborsko). Furthermore, some retables of the first group have substituted architectural columns with sculptures which took over their position in an altar organization but without their "active" role of a carrier, standing freely as saintly companions to the main iconographic theme (side altar of Three holy Kings and side altar of Flagellation of Christ in the parish church in Čučerje, side altars in the chapel in Virje, high altar in the chapel in Lučelnica, high altar in the chapel in Markuševec). Similarly, gigantic volutes were often placed instead of architectural columns, demonstrating a new role of ornaments that emancipated so much that they fully replaced architectural columns, claiming their new position and function (high altar in the chapel in Gradec Lekenički, side altars in the chapel in Gorica Lepoglavska, side altar of Saint Anne in the parish church in Čučerje). The second group consists of retables with only fragments of entablature as the sole surviving relicts of architectural orders. These fragments have opened a possibility to unite central and upper zones, thus eliminating the former clear division via continuous line of entablature. The changed relations between zones resulted in the better cohesion and unity of altar construction. Frequently the zone of attic became an integral part of the central zone. The elastic form of the reduced entablature very often overshadowed its architectonic properties so it could only be identified in reference to its place in the overall composition. The altar designs of the second group of retables have demonstrated two genealogical sources. Some of the retables continued the persistent idea of an altar aedicule (side altars in the chapel in Turnašica, side altar of St. Joseph and side altar of St. Barbara in the church in Belec, side altars in the chapel in Jamničko Podgorje), whereas others displayed a stronger influence of enlarged decorative frames, that is, a model which had developed into an altar design in the late 17th century (side altar of St. Valentine in the parish church in Slavetić, side altars in the chapel in Pogančec, side altars in the chapel in Moravče). The second group of retables has indicated that their genesis was complex and their starting point often difficult to detect: were they derivations of altar aedicule whose sides flattened and disintegrated themselves in ornamental forms, thus coming close to the idea of enlarged decorative frames, or, were they actually enlarged decorative frames whose sides turned into gigantic volutes instead of columns, thus reflecting distant echoes of altar aedicule? Some examples had merged these two typological formulas and created a fusion of forms, although the retained zone of the attic revealed a continuity of traditional altar organization (side altar of Virgin Mary of Sorrows in the church in Trg).Finally, the third group of retables contains examples cleared off all architectural elements, meaning that their compositions consists of non-architectural elements as the exclusive builders of constructions. Only one among them demonstrated influence in the model of altar aedicule with attic, which was completely transformed by giving ornament the role of a sole building part (high altar in the parish church in Zrinski Topolovac). The largest number of retables in this group, however, have been typologically referred to as Bildrahmen retables or retables as enlarged decorative frames. Their compositions have been built either with ornamental motifs such as acanthus, leaf and strapwork (Laub und Bandelwerk), the so-called pre-rocaille motifs and rocaille, all of them being motifs which possessed no additional symbolic meaning, or, figural motifs like wine branches, clouds, rays and heavenly scenery, which hold an additional iconographic content. Ornaments are prone to changes and are successively interchanged. Retables built with acanthus leaves in North-West Croatia came about at a decline in their popularity in other countries, although, there might had been earlier examples which have been lost. Only one survived until today, also the oldest one in the entire corpus (side altar of Virgin Mary in the chapel in Jezero Klanječko), whereas others were built with leaf-and-strapwork ornament which was modern at the time of their construction (side altars in the parish church in Dubrava, side altar in the chapel in Srijem, side altars in the Church of Our Lady of Koruška in Križevci). This altar type is a paradigmatic example of the new role of ornament that became so emancipated that apart from having decorative role, it could function as an independent carrier of construction. The Mannerist motif of an auricular (German Knorpelwerk) already demonstrated the potential for such role and there had been sporadic examples of auricular framed retables in the neighbouring countries, but it was the ornament of acanthus leaf that developed it to full extent. The retables built with the so-called pre-rocaille and rocaille motifs continued the formula of retables built with acanthus leaves (side altars of Saint Mary Magdalen and St. Barbara in the church in Taborsko, altar in Kurilovec manor, side altars in the chapel in Pušća). However, their evidently small amount not just in Croatia but in the neighbouring countries as well shows they had not been accepted with the same enthusiasm as their predecessors. There is only one example of a retable built with wine-leaves, unique in the entire corpus of altarpieces in continental Croatia (high altar in the chapel in Pušća). Its iconographic theme with characters of Jesus' family has been partly inspired with medieval depictions of the tree of Jesse, but its construction followed its contemporary retables built with acanthus. Instead of acanthus, the principle role here has been given to wine branches that also hold additional symbolism of Eucharistic sacrifice. Retables built with clouds, rays and figures form a larger number. The examples of striking resemblance in Štrigova, Volavje and Dropkovec stand out in particular: they were built around 1740, although on different distant locations, of different saintly patrons, authorships and commissioners. There must had been some unknown graphic model that had made such an impact and raised so much interest. It should be emphasized that examples of this type of retables in North-West Croatia retained only the formal characteristics of a monstrance (aureole of rays), because the patron statue or painting possessed no power of particularly venerated items. There has been another crucial iconographic feature – by placing a saint in a heavenly scenery filled with clouds, angels and rays, the altarpiece has been transformed into the scene of heavenly glory which has taken place in front of an observer. Celestial landscape signalled that the saint was already in heavenly glory where angles carried him in apotheosis and elevated in materialized God's light. Hence, it is probably more accurate to identify these retables as a type of glory or apotheosis. Their conceptual and formal characteristics have been closely connected with temporary scenography for festivities, processions and apparato/machina with the earlier visual designs (rays as a visual means to materialize light), successfully intertwined with the Baroque affinity towards theatrical and mystical, and the propaganda of Catholic saints in Counter Reformation. Ornaments, their behaviour and character are important parts of a Baroque altarpiece. Identical ornamental motifs can be found at the same time on architectural as well as atectonic retables built without architectural columns, but the key difference emerges from their function. On both architectural and atectonic retables built without architectural columns ornament can function as a subordinate decorative embellishment which has not obstructed the total altar design (side altars in the parish church in Martijanec, side altars in the chapel in Pušća). On the other side, only on atectonic retables built without architectural columns has the ornament been given an entirely new role: apart from decorative, it has been given the role of an independent carrier of construction, like for example on the retables built with acanthus leaves. It can be concluded that ornaments always keep their decorative role regardless of their emancipation, but their constructing role is only potential. Only some ornamental motifs developed this possibility, like volutes, auricular, acanthus and rocaille, which emancipated so much that they often took over an active building function and became not only a dominant but often the only building element. The other motifs that were modern during the 18th century like lambrequins, quadrillage, palmettes, floral motifs (sunflowers, roses), etc. had never become independent enough to achieve a dominant constructive role. On architectural type of retable ornament has primarily held a decorative function, but with a different effect. For example, it can add emphasis to the tectonic qualities of architectural order, so in that case, its function has been affirmative or in the service of highlighting the structural principles of a construction (high altar of the Franciscan church in Varaždin). As opposed to that, on earlier, so-called Late Mannerist retables, as well as on some retables with acanthus leaves, ornament had a completely different role. Its function was to deny tectonic features and to obstruct the architectural structure by overflowing surfaces and columns with its organic form (high altar in the Franciscan church in Krapina, high altar in the parish church in Vrapče). This obstruction was achieved only in optical impression, as opposed to the ornament of Rococo style that was even more radical, more "destructive" (high altar in parish church in Brezovica). Rocaille and its countless manifestations often completely "eroded" columns, changed their architectural form and turned them into a massive ornamental entity, which Hermann Bauer described as Ornamentarchitektur – ornament is not an embellishment to architecture, it is architecture. One of the manifestations of Baroque style was reflected in the affinity towards massive and colossal measure. In the context of altar production, this change of measure took place around 1720/1730s in North-West Croatia, and few decades before in the neighbouring countries. At that time, it was quite common that one gigantic acanthus branch stretched all the way to attic instead of many smaller acanthus leaves. Apart from acanthus, very often one can find volutes growing in size on numerous architectural retables where they frequently built the attic zone (high altar in the parish church in Pokupsko, high altar in the parish church in Čazma). The desire for maniera grande or monumental compositions reflected on the change of measure of the entire altarpiece, which aimed to unity and abandoned the hitherto model of retables divided into two or more separate, equal parts. Altarpieces mirrored the wider concept of church interior design dominant in Central European art. Altarpieces of the 17th century functioned as isolated items with their own spatial and plastic qualities, without interaction with other church equipment and interior design. This concept changed at the beginning of the 18th century when altarpieces, wall paintings and stucco decorations intertwined in theme and form. The peak was reached in the middle of the century during the Rococo, especially in southern Germany, when boundaries between altarpieces and church architecture were deleted, particularly by applying stuccowork whose material enables abundant possibilities. Space continuum was achieved, for example, by continuing the theme of the altarpiece on walls, playing with different illusions of reality and improving the unity of the interior. However, such interior designs didn't take place in church interiors of North-West Croatia. Only partly and a small number of examples successfully accomplished this ideal of Gesamtkunstwerk design, usually because they were not a result of a carefully planned programme in one go. Therefore, atectonic retables built without architectural columns remained isolated entities, with only occasional examples of intertwining with wall paintings, like in high altar in the chapel in Trema where the painted celestial scenery with the Holy Trinity on the wall complemented the sculptures on the altarpiece or in the example of high altar in the chapel in Štrigova where the same saintly figure can be found as a sculpture on the altar and painted on the wall. Furthermore, there are several examples of curtain motifs painted on the wall around the retable, like for instance on side altars in the church in Belec, side altar of St. Joseph in Svetice or high altar in the chapel in Tužno. Analysing the position of atectonic retables built without architectural columns in churches, one can notice they have been frequently situated aslant in the corner of a nave or next to a triumphal arch, thus rounding the space and softening the borders between nave and presbytery. Architectural retables can have the same function, however, the impression of fluidity and elastic flow of space seems more powerful with atectonic retables built without architectural columns. The analysed altarpieces confirm that the phenomenon of atectonic retables built without architectural columns in North-West Croatia manifested in diverse forms. However, they were not just a local expression, but a part of a far wider Central European artistic circle. As a rule, almost all comparative examples of atectonic retables built without architectural columns in the neighbouring countries were constructed a bit earlier, sometimes twenty, sometimes more than fifty years, like retables built with acanthus leaves that had taken place in Bohemia as early as the 1660s. Some compositional formulas were by no means a characteristic of stylistic tendencies of the 18th century and their conceptual predecessors can be found even before the middle of the 17th century. It was not uncommon that some so-called Late Mannerist retables of the second half of the 17th century replaced architectural columns with freestanding sculptures, providing the altarpiece with an anti-classical quality that opposed tectonic logic. This altar design was well accepted all over Central Europe, which is evidenced by its long duration over the course of different stylistic phases that adapted it to their formal tendencies and ornamental repertoire. It is an indicator that successful designs endured independent of stylistic changes, adapting and merging with new artistic impulses that spread from Rome and Gian Lorenzo Bernini's workshop as the epicentre of Baroque ideas. Bernini's legacy remained an inexhaustible source for numerous artistic generations and from whom originated numerous compositional themes and typological designs, like broken entablature on altar aedicule, which enabled unity of altar design instead of hitherto division to central part and attic (altar of Cappella Alaleoni, Santi Domenico e Sisto in Rome). Furthermore, a new function of sculptures was introduced, where they were placed in front of pilasters/columns in a new constructive role of active carriers of altar painting (side altars in Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome), or idea of materialized light as golden rays together with using theatrical tricks of hidden source of light which included windows in altar organization, and gave light an authority of an active constructional element (altar in Cappella Cornaro, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome or Cathedra Petri, Vatican). These selected crucial themes from Bernini's altar oeuvre had become influential prototypes with far reaching consequences for the development of altarpieces from the second half of the 17th across Central Europe. Although the majority of innovative formal designs in altar production originated in the 17th century Rome, atectonic retables built without architectural columns represented an important characteristic of Central European art. This deliberate deviation or noncompliance with the regulations of architectural orders was a reflection of anti-classical, anti-Vitruvian feature of the North, which Heinrich Wölfflin explained: "A history of the tectonic style cannot be written without going into the difference of nationality and scenery. The north, as has been said, felt less tectonically than Italy." It is this anti-classical trend north of the Alps that denied and neglected the regulated standards of classical architecture that might be an answer for their better acceptance in these regions in particular. This proposition might also explain the typological heterogeneousness of altar production in today's Croatia, where rare examples of atectonic retables built without architectural columns in Dalmatia, Istria and the Kvarner Gulf reflect activities of Italian, mostly Venetian, artists, and Viennese artists in Slavonia, which resulted in strong tendencies towards compositions based on Classical architectural order. The territory of North-West Croatia in the 18th century was politically and culturally connected with the provinces of the Habsburg Monarchy from where numerous artists arrived and brought new stylistic trends of more advanced artistic milieu like Styria, Tirol, south Germany and Slovenian regions. These regions were the crossroads of ideas between Italy and Vienna, which is a useful clue for the research of potential directions of dissemination of new altar models. Many artists born in Alpine region were educated in Italy (Fischer von Erlach, Lukas von Hildebrandt, Johann Paul Schor) and spread new ideas by travelling all over the Habsburg Monarchy. Given that the atectonic retables built without architectural columns in North-West Croatia expressed no local characteristics specific just for continental Croatia, it seems far more likely that, being a receptive region, it adopted graphic models that workshops exchanged among themselves and adapted them to donor's taste. However, this certainly does not imply that they just copied them with no creative contribution of their own. Rather the contrary, the diversity of altar creations is a proof that graphic models were used only as a starting point for one's own inventive interpretation. What is even more interesting, all analysed or just mentioned altarpieces in this dissertation show one crucial feature of all atectonic retables built without architectural columns: the variety of their formal design is almost inexhaustible. If we exclude counterparts and retables built according to some especially influential model (like monstrance type retables in Volavje, Štrigova, Dropkovec), very rarely one can find completely identical examples. Even with retables framed with acanthus, variations of the basic altar model were almost infinite. However, given that no contract has been preserved that could reveal the overall context of erecting one atectonic retable built without architectural columns in North-West Croatia, this analysis remains within the limits of assumptions. Very often, the only written preserved source are texts of canonical visitations, but even there one can rarely find even the basic information like date or authorship. The small number of preserved contracts for the construction of an architectural retable can help to draw analogies, which suggest that an important role was given to a carpenter. That was a crucial difference from the neighbouring countries where an architect was frequently the chief designer. No such case was registered in North-West Croatia, and sculptors and painters were subordinated to carpenters who selected them by their own choice. Most of the sculptures on altarpieces were attributed thanks to the expert eye of art historians combined with scarce written traces like register of births, census, litigations, etc. Apart from the names of sculptors (Claudius Kautz, Joseph Weinacht, Stjepan Szeverin, Antun Franjo Risner...) there have been no saved records about their lives, provenance, education, influences… so many questions remain unanswered. The catalogue of altarpieces stands without insight to all aspects of their creation, but valorisation is possible on the basis of artistic qualities in relations to similar works in the neighbouring countries. One can debate about the quality of sculpture works, but the quality of altar design and construction indicates that artists were capable of building a composition noncompliant to the usual altar standards. Moreover, the donors understood their value and chose them instead of their architectural rivals. The catalogue of atectonic retables built without architectural columns shows that they lack neither quality nor diversity in comparison with their similar examples in Slovenia, Austria, Slovakia, Hungary and other, and some works in particular like side altar of St. Joseph and St. Barbara in Belec, monstrance type retables or altar of St. Cross by Francesco Robba can equally stand side by side with European master-pieces of their time.

Item Type: PhD Thesis
Uncontrolled Keywords: altar production, 17th century, 18th century, Central Europe, architectural altarpieces, atectonic principles, ornaments, altar type of monstrance or heavenly glory
Subjects: History of art
Departments: Department of Art History
Supervisor: Marković, Vladimir
Additional Information: Poslijediplomski doktorski studij povijesti umjetnosti
Date Deposited: 27 Apr 2017 14:16
Last Modified: 27 Apr 2017 14:16

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