To the Glory of God and Personal Pride.

Monuments with Heraldic Programmes as Expression of Art Patronage in Late Medieval Transylvania





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In the past few decades scholarly research concerning the Middle Ages has made significant progress in the whole of Europe. In this context the approach to the medieval history of Transylvania has remained a traditional one, quite static, being characterized by editing primary sources, repertories and archaeological excavations. However, there are very few case studies concerning everyday life, the micro histories on social, institutional, and artistic themes. An interesting subject that could offer clues for even further research about the medieval history of Transylvania is art patronage.

HunyadiThe study of art patronage has been an “active subcategory” of art historical research for several years. The success of this kind of undertaking is based on the idea that works of art appeared mainly thanks to commissions of art patrons and not due to the creative freedom of the artists. Thus, research started to put the emphasis not on the artist, previously considered mainly responsible for the shape, aspect, representation possibilities and quality of an artwork, but rather on the commissioner. In this way a medieval concept was rehabilitated that the creators of art works were those who paid for them (sometimes mentioned on inscriptions as hoc opus fecit fieri). The study of art patronage covers a wide variety of subjects such as the social categories involved in this phenomenon, the reasons why patrons commissioned art, the degree of involvement of the patrons in artistic creation, as well as the events in the life of the patron explaining how different constructions and objects with artistic value took shape.

In the past the history of art was basically the research field of the “style researchers”. One of the main results of approaching art creation by patronage was that it took art history out of their hands, and put the accent on the historical background of the art creation process thanks to the person of the commissioner. The social status of the patron, the political events in which he was involved and many other aspects could offer clues for artistic creation. In consequence, the study of art history supposes investigations involving other auxiliary sciences, in fact interdisciplinary research to identify all the factors that influenced the creation process of works of art.

Medieval art patronage, although it can manifest itself in a number of ways, is often quite difficult to analyse from the perspective of the patron. Written sources rarely offer details of how commissioners acted, and it is essential to find other sources or methods of investigation, which could resolve the relationship between the patron and the monument. For the Middle Ages and Renaissance, one of the most important indicators of this patronage is heraldry. The present project aims at a detailed study of those medieval monuments of Transylvania, which are decorated with coats of arms emphasizing the role played by the commissioner.

In respect of the medieval heraldry of Transylvania there is only one existing corpus of coats of arms written in the 19th century (J. Siebmacher: Das grosses und allgemeines Wappenbuch. Der Adel von Siebenbürgen. Nürnberg, 1898). A great number of arms have been discovered since then, which makes a revision of this work absolutely essential. Jolán Balogh was the first who tried to define the role played by art patrons in her book about the Renaissance Art in Transylvania (Erdélyi renaissance. Kolozsvár, 1943). However, this work was never continued from this perspective, and our project aims at studying the previous period of art patronage, related to the Gothic. Recent research has already produced some relevant articles related to this subject. These articles show a new and increasing interest of historians and art historians in art patronage, which calls our attention to the importance of this subject.

The main aim of our research proposal is to define some specific ways in which art patronage acted. One of the most important pieces of evidence that link the patron to specific art works is heraldic display. This is the reason we approach this subject from the point of view of those monuments which are decorated with heraldic programmes. These programmes in some of the cases are quite impressive and consist of several dozen of coats of arms, but there are also monuments with simple heraldic display.

The geographical region to which this research refers corresponds to the historical limits of Transylvania, which is the medieval Principality of Transylvania (Voivodatus). This is a well-defined region with particular features concerning its nobility and towns. The province of Transylvania is broad and rich enough to offer a wide range of historical monuments in order to get relevant results for art patronage, but not so huge to thwart our three year project. Beyond its medieval boundaries Transylvanian art patronage has to be surveyed in the broader context of the Hungarian Kingdom, being part of it, and the relations with neighbouring Moldavia and Wallachia are also relevant.

The time span basically refers to the first period when heraldic programs were involved in art patronage. In the case of Transylvania heraldic arms appeared in the context of monuments around 1400. In the mid-15th century there was the first boom in using heraldic programmes in the context of historical monuments, especially in the case of church architecture and sepulchral monuments. In the first half of the following century a slightly different tendency can be observed since the town aristocracy gained in strength and took up the initiative in art patronage. It was a period when the Reformation spread throughout the country and the Renaissance style gained ground to the detriment of the Gothic. Considering all these changes, the mid-16th century will constitute the closing period of our survey.

The types of monuments involved in this research are very diverse. Architectural monuments occupy the most important position. There are several cases wherelay and ecclesiastical patrons funded the construction of parish churches and monasteries, many of them preserving the heraldic programmes as evidence for art patronage. Some of the late medieval castles preserve examples of coats of arms too, with reference to the owner, and even with a political message in a few cases. In the second half of the 15th century coats of arms made their appearance in the milieu of the town aristocracy, some of the houses being marked with heraldic decoration. In addition to church architecture, but closely related to it, the lavishly decorated winged altars, which were widespread in the late Middle Ages, are remarkable examples of art patronage. These altars, in many cases, bear the memory of the patron by depicting his heraldic arms. Although the majority of them were destroyed during the Reformation period, some Transylvanian churches still preserve altars with heraldic programmes.

The third main group of monuments involved in our research are sepulchral monuments. This is an important category in many respects: they provide an accurate image of how the coat of arms of a person or a family should look, can offer clues to attribution inquiries, and all this information can be linked to a precise date.