Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Locality, Nation and the 'Primitive' - Notions about the Identities of Late Medieval Non-Professional Wall Painters in Finnish Historiography from 1880 to 1940

Academic journal article Journal of Art Historiography

Locality, Nation and the 'Primitive' - Notions about the Identities of Late Medieval Non-Professional Wall Painters in Finnish Historiography from 1880 to 1940

Article excerpt

In 1937 the Finnish art historian Ludvig Wennervirta suggested in his book Suomen keskiaikainen kirkkomaalaus (Medieval wall paintings in Finland) that the painters of the enigmatic and uncanny medieval murals in Maaria church were 'naturally made by local men'.1 The reason for this evaluation seems to have been the 'magical' feel of the paintings that seemed to combine Christian and 'pagan' motifs, and have similarities with patterns found in local handicrafts (Fig. 1). Paintings similar to those in Maaria found in various other churches were grouped together and considered to be executed by 'local' artisans.2 In other parts of his book, Wennervirta went into great lengths to establish connections to Sweden and Northern Germany. According to him, the majority of wall paintings were made by painters who came to medieval Finland, to the Diocese of Turku, from abroad.3

At first glance, there seems to be nothing strange in this speculation concerning the identification and attribution of medieval artisans. What is interesting is the apparent duality: the majority of paintings were believed to be made by painters who travelled and moved from one place to another, but one group of paintings was made by local painters. Wennervirta also seems to be fairly certain about this, establishing his evaluation on the form and content of the paintings. Admittedly, the paintings in Maaria stand out when compared with medieval wall paintings in general. They are mainly single images and motifs, placed all over the vaults and on the walls. The motifs represent various humans and animals, some of which are difficult to identify and to interpret, ships and labyrinths, and different ornamental motifs and patterns. (Fig. 2). Some of the motifs are clearly Christian, such as crosses, the face of Christ, an image of St. Lawrence and so on, but the traditional narrative scenes from the Bible, from the Passion cycle or from the lives of saints are absent.4

Finnish research history has occasionally found it hard to interpret and analyse these paintings that can be found not just in Maaria, but in approximately thirty other medieval churches in Finland. For a long time the paintings were considered to be 'primitive paintings' and their defining feature was the notion of local or 'native' artistry. During the past few decades this notion has, however, paradigmatically changed and other perspectives on attribution have been considered. Currently the paintings are regarded as the work of medieval non-professional painters, probably artisan church builders who travelled to the Diocese of Turku possibly from Northern Germany or the Baltic countries. This hypothesis is based on one that has gained support in Danish research after the art historian Ulla Haastrup proposed in 1991 that certain types of simple Danish medieval murals were executed mainly by masons and never by professionally trained painters.5 This hypothesis gained ground among Finnish scholars and art historians Helena Edgren6 and especially Markus Hiekkanen begun to analyse the Finnish group of paintings from this perspective. According to Hiekkanen the paintings in the Diocese of Turku were commissioned from the church builders as a bargain along with the actual building work. In many cases the paintings are clearly a continuation for the actual building work for they were executed directly on fresh plaster after the completion of masonry and vaulting.7 Hiekkanen's analysis of the paintings and their execution has been mainly based on the close examination of actual church buildings, building history, and the relationship between different constructional elements.

Historiographically the notion of above-mentioned artistic mobility during the Middle Ages and in the Diocese of Turku is fairly recent. The 'primitive' paintings as the work of local, 'Finnish' men thus seems to be a notion somewhat contradicting the idea of medieval artisanship and its relatively free mobility. In this article I attempt to analyse how the locality and native origin of the makers was emphasised in the concepts of identity and origin in the late nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth century. …

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