Power of the sight, experience of a personal encounter
For the art historians and protectors of monuments in the 19th century the appeal of the historical past and the arts, the search for and examination of art works were all part of a deliberately chosen way of life. Art was regarded as something that ennobled life, a source of a good life. They toured the country with unquenchable enthusiasm, the sentences of their professionally correct but reserved descriptions are heated through by the irreplaceable joy of the first-hand experience of the works. It is no wonder that members of this generation did not only want to explore and document these works but also did their best for their preservation. It is also understandable that the primary goal was to keep the works in their original place and setting, and more importantly, in their original form. Being the officials, and at the same time scholars of nascent Hungarian monument protection, they were fully aware of their responsibility and the weight of their decisions. After the Trianon Peace Treaty, studying the monuments of former upper Hungary on location became difficult. Yet the professional results achieved ever since to expand our knowledge have nearly all rested on situations in which the direct face-to-face encounter with the works was possible, aided with the ever more up-to-date technical possibilities.
Let us see the example of the altarpieces of Kisszeben transported to the capital in the year of the Millennium, 1896. Brought to Budapest after decades of wrangling by the National Committee of Monuments and thus saved, the three altarpieces from Kisszeben, including the high altar erected in the Museum of Applied Arts in 1898, did not exert an extraordinary influence upon scholarship or the wider public in the first years. A new leaf was turned in its art historical evaluation after its erection in the Museum of Fine Arts in 1928: the sight captured both Kornél Divald, a member of the pre-war generation and Miklós Csánky, a “museum specialist”: the new publications added novel information to what was known of the high altar. As the all-round restoration of the altarpiece has made good headway now, there is a good chance to face up to several unsettled problems on the basis of personal viewing currently in the throne room of Buda Palace housing the exhibition of late Gothic altarpieces. This is the starting point for the future and the possibility of continued research. The 19th century descriptions, drawings and photos have become written and pictorial sources often documenting no longer existing states.
The power of sources: texts, drawings, photos
The “expert visitors” of the Kisszeben church in the 19th century – Arnold Ipolyi, Imre Henszlmann, Viktor Myskowszky, Frigyes Schulek and others – were primarily impressed by the sculpted ornaments of the high altar, and seeing the lavishly carved superstructure adorned with statues they acknowledged the extraordinary magnitude and pomp, also noting the mixture of stylistic forms. There wasn’t a shadow of doubt implied in their statement – one that could only be verified much later under museum circumstances – that the superstructure towering over the high altar comprised elements made at different points of time.
For art historians of today, the personal encounter with this long extinct form of the high altar can be replaced by photos in the first place. As regards this art work of salient significance, researchers have a rare and lucky position: Arnold Ipolyi’s collection of drawings and photos got back from Nagyvárad and preserved in the Christian Museum in Esztergom contains a photo developed from an original negative, which shows the form of the altarpiece as it looked in the second third of the 19th century – as it was seen by the listed scholars entering the chancel. The luxurious superstructure is captivating in the photo, too. A meticulous scrutiny can reveal which of its carvings perished still in the church during the partial collapse mentioned in the documents and which parts made it into the capital. It can be safely established that similarly to the carvings in the shrine, the statues of the superstructure also survived these tribulations without fail. The Virgin and Elisabeth, the kings and the Man of Sorrows above them, together with the two figures above the altar wings, adorned the altar both in the Museum of Applied Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts. When Miklós Csánky was examining the altar in the marble hall, he found that the statue of a sainted bishop, presumably St Martin, ought not to be in a side niche of the shrine where it replaced the figure of St Barbara restored almost in revival gothic style in Kassa. In the same paper he was the first (and until now the only one) to publish with a photo the statue of the apostle St Paul which he defined as belonging to the Lőcse school and dated to the beginning of the 16th century: it can clearly be identified in the mentioned photo found in the Ipolyi estate, in the “second storey” of the superstructure, as the pendant of the bishop statue. It probably got into a private collection from the Kisszeben church; its destiny could be followed for a long time but it has been lost from sight in recent decades. Miklós Csánky did not know the photo in the Ipolyi estate, and recognizing the close connection between the apostle statue and the style of the high altar he was a hair’s breadth away from the perfect conclusion. His analysis testifies to remarkable intuition on yet another count: while judging St Paul’s statue a noteworthy creation, he thought the bishop figure was alien. Had he seen them together, he would probably have recognized the stylistic confusion, or strangeness, to say the least.
It has been proven by several arguments that the carved superstructure and its figures, which were already part of the high altar in the original venue as the Ipolyi photo verifies, and applied again each time the high altar was built up in museum settings in the past, were not integral part of the medieval altarpiece. It is still a question to be solved if they were elements to replace the original, or they were additions of later times to satisfy changed demand. The uncertainty and odd feeling overcoming the viewer remain when the central, medieval part of the superstructure is studied, too (just remember the example of the statues). Research and test results have revealed that each element of this part of the superstructure is medieval. But are they also original? Were they included in the original conception, and was the altar built like that? Or is it the outcome of some later compilation? Further stylistic and iconographic research will only be able to provide the answers.
Art historians are still at fault for the interpretation of the pictures on the outer sides of the wings of the high altar of Saint John the Baptist from Kisszeben (Sabinov). Restoring work in the past decades has explored the original surface of several pictures, leading to an important insight: the reconstruction of the altarpiece in the baroque age left their contents unchanged. It can therefore be concluded that the baroque layer on the unrestored pic tures cannot hide wholly different scenes. What hinders interpretation is rather the deviation from the customary schemes. The narrative compiled from Biblical scenes is “jerky”: the episodes in some places do not follow in chronological order and while several “customary” scenes are missing seemingly without reason, certain scenes appear, however, to be repeated. Even more perplexing are the “hitches”, representations that are hard to interpret on the basis of traditional schemes, which, however, hide the key to the profound message of the high altar with an adequetely strict composition.
The first scene traditionally taken in the literature for The Miraculous catch of Fishes Christ walking on water is actually the appearance of God the Father, and in the second panel Christ's Transfiguration is shown. The two constitute a pair. With an unmistakable gesture the Creator points at Christ who assumed divine glory in the episode of the Transfiguration during his earthly life as well: “This is my beloved Son …hear ye him!”
The next pictures depict seven episodes from Jesus's human life: the Annunciation, Nativity, Ecce Homo, Crucifixion, Christ in Limbo, Resurrection and Ascension. The sequence is followed by the Holy Trinity in the company of music-making angels. Christ seems to have just returned to the Father occupying his due place on the throne after having completed his earthly life. In the next picture of the Deesis he appears as the chief Judge sent by the Father. The lily at the height of his mouth symbolizes celestial judgment, the sword stands for the earthly power of judgment over the resurrected, the living and the dead.
The pair of the Holy Trinity and the Last Judgment returns once more in the last two panels of the sequence. Christ enthroned under the celestial tent and the Father flank the Mother of God. The dove of the Holy Spirit is hovering above them with extended wings. In the lower strip kneeling figures with hands clutched in payer are turning towards them. The scene follows right after the second depiction alluding to the Last Judgment in which the graves burst open to the trumpet call of the angels announcing the resurrection. It is the reward of the just resurrected just people that they receive eternal life in heaven shown in the next panel.
The second, lower, picture of the left-hand moveable wing has a large church as the most accented motif above which in the middle the dove of the Holy Ghost is fluttering. The figures in the garden represent different degrees of religious absorbtion. A child is heading for the house of God with determined steps, the rest are watching him. This scene might as well symbolize divine filiation. The servants of the Law become the children of God who earn the right to eternal life in heaven on Doomsday but whose adoption as the children of God is effected by the Holy Spirit during baptism. People convert upon the influence of the Holy Spirit and hurry to the church. The church building symbolizes in this connection the Church of Christ.
In the next scene, Christ wearing a snow-white mantle in reference to the Lamb of God is surrounded by followers of all ranks and file who are no aliens or strangers any more thanks to Christ's sacrifice on the cross but the “fellows of the saints and the household of God”. The presentation of their group is thus another visualization of the Church of Christ, as was the church building in the previous scene. Next to Christ the Virgin and St John the Evangelist can be seen with St Peter behind them. They are the supporting pillars of the Church. The rest of the people are not characterized as individuals but as social groups, secular and ecclesiastic dignitaries. The young princess on the left holds St Catherine of Alexandria's attribute. On the right, the encumbents of secular and ecclesiastic power, a pope and a king are predominant. In the background on the right the attire of a young man resembles that of a cardinal while a bishop figure rises above the head of St Peter. The kerchieved women and bare-headed men represent the middle and lower classes. The arrangement of the people around Christ is another visualization of the community of the Church of Christ, its cornerstone being the Vir dolorum.
In the next picture a priest with a youthful face puts his right hand on the head of a praying youth. The black vestment and the gesture are symbolic: the picture shows the administration of the sacrament of penance. The men standing withdrawn to the background are witnesses. The hoary old man is holding a crooked stick and rosary in his left hand, the younger one is reading from a book. The wrinkled forehead, grey hair and beard are attributes of asceticism. The stick is an emblem of hermits and pilgrims, as are the rosary and the book. In the Middle Ages hermits and pilgrims were the paragons of counselling on matters of faith. The male figures of the Kisszeben altarpiece may even directly refer to St Antony the Hermit and St John the Evangelist. Reference to the virtues they represent directs the believers' attention to possible ways of absolution.
The contemplation of the workday-side of the altarpiece, the reading of the depictions from left to right guides one to the recognition of the basic message of the series: it is the illustration of the Apostles' Creed in sixteen episodes, proceeding doctrine by doctrine. It is unique and unprecedented in the art of Hungarian altarpieces, or for that matter in a broader geographical context, too. Further research into the patterns used for the individual scenes must go on to discover the model used for the entire cycle. Certain elements of the sequence are tied with several threads to the paintings feastday-side and are not independent of the themes of the superstructure, either. The full iconographic program, which certainly harmonized with the wish of the commissioner, will be known when all these implications have been clarified. The next great task is therefore to find the donator and the author of the program of the Kisszeben altarpiece.