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.