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26 September 2014

The Baroque, Then and Now

The Frescoes

Ottobeuren, crossing
Since I’m a painter as well as an architect, the frescoes in particular of South German eighteenth-century churches interested me, and while there is much that they have in common, particular artists brought unique styles and interpretations to their subjects. From the sort of purple sfumato of the ceiling at Marktoberdorf, to the limpid clarity of the vaults of Ottobeuren, artists drew on diverse sources for their emulations and aimed at different qualities of form and light as the century progressed.

Maria Steinbach, nave ceiling
Not that this is all calculated and deliberate; different artists practiced with different hands, and the happy combination at Ottobeuren was not, in my experience, matched elsewhere. These ceilings of the Zeillers, seemingly and plausibly influenced by the crisp chiaroscuro of Tiepolo at Wurzburg, are to my taste the epitome of what such frescoes should be. They merit careful looking at in their own right, not merely as colorful eyewash scattered among the stuccowork.

Ottobeuren, nave

But the surprise of the excursion was the last stop in Innsbruck, where I went to see the Asam brother’s work in the cathedral of St. Lorenz. There I discovered that, having suffered damage in WWII bombing, part of the apse and transept were rebuilt and their paintings repainted—not copied, mind you, but new works inspired by the old were created. And credit for this goes to two local heroes, practitioners of an otherwise unknown twentieth-century baroque:

St. Lorenz, apse
Hans Andre worked in the apse, finishing his painting in 1950 for the third centenary of the translation of the miraculous Lucas Cranach Madonna and Child to the church:

St. Lorenz, right transept altar
But for me the star was Wolfram Köberl, who finished in 2003 (!) at the age of 76 the right transept altar painting, so Venetian in form and spirit:

So there’s hope. The glories of the eighteenth century are available to us if we have the will to Beauty, the desire and capacity to revel in the splendors of what we’re capable of at our best. It seems we mostly resign ourselves to Modernist ugliness, or mediocre “traditionalism” at best. But these two Innsbruckers remind us the fault is not in our stars, but ourselves.

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