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Abstract

The frescoes decorating the stateroom of the Episcopal palace of Szombathely were painted by Franz Anton Maulbertsch in 1783 on commission from bishop János Szily. The lateral walls received scenes from the history of the Roman predecessor of the town Savaria in the form of grisaille murals imitating bronze reliefs. The four paintings – Tiberius Claudius founds Savaria, Septimius Severus is elected emperor, Triumph of Constantinus Chlorus, and Attila chases the Romans out of Pannonia – conjure up the Roman world with a multitude of detail and with historical authenticity. Besides, they also deliberately apply the iconographic and compositional rules of relief sculpture in the Imperial Period. This historicizing rendering is an indicator of the new accent on historism, suggesting the 18th century transformation of the concept of history fed by the recognition of the historical distance between the event and the observer.

The ceiling shows the process of salvation under the governance of Providence. Some elements were borrowed by Maulbertsch from his earlier work in the former library of the Premonstratensian monastery in Louka, Moravia. The theme is the temporal process of the enlightenment of mankind, but the historical examples are replaced here by abstract notions, the time and space coordinates appearing highly generalized. In the middle the allegorical figure of Divine Providence arrives on clouds, with personifications of the Old and New Testaments beneath him suggesting periods in the history of salvation. As a counterpoint to Providence bringing the glimmer of dawn, the Allegory of the Night is depicted at the other end of the ceiling. The two sleeping figures are captives of the lulling power of the fauns symbolizing irrational existence governed by instincts. The pseudo-reliefs and sculptures painted in the corners represent heathenism, the ante legem period of the process of salvation. The medallions show typical episodes of bacchanals of putti, and the grisaille figures most likely repeat motifs of the bacchanal scene in the Louka fresco. The themes of the other three colour frescoes are Europe's apotheosis among the continents, Revelation of the True Religion, and the Apotheosis of Truth in the company of Religion, Humility and the Christian martyrs. It is actually a modernized psychomachy, presenting the victory of Christianity, faith and the virtues over paganism, the instincts and vices. The allegoric groups are witty renderings of conventional formulae.

The rich painted architecture of the ceiling is based on Paul Decker's pattern sheet complemented with neoclassical elements but preserving its irrational character. The illusory architecture, the rivaling lifelikeness of colourful and monochrome figures creates a play of degrees of reality that mobilize the imagination. Maulbertsch's pictorial world can be characterized with the concepts of delicieux and charmant used to describe Mozart's music; his tools of expression convey an ease and serenity that are not light-minded but with the tools of subtle irony and humour invite the viewer for more sophisticated reflections, contrary to the propagandistic allegories.

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