Painting and Sculpture in Medieval Hungary

Wall painting (12-15th century)

Hungarian art history quotes over 550 buildings decorated with medieval and early Renaissance frescoes. Some of the frescoes are still present, the rest, however, was destroyed over the centuries. Relics are rather scanty in areas where Turks occupied the country (e.g. the Great Hungarian Plain), in other areas, however, e.g. in southern parts of West Hungary, Transylvania, the Highlands including the Szepes area, Gömör and the Liptó-valley, more buildings and frescoes survived the centuries.

Fresco painting in Hungary developed in close contact with European art. Different styles and changes in content established themselves in the Carpathian Basin but local styles and iconographic approaches were also present.

The earliest frescoes from the Romanesque period were influenced by Italian, and Byzantine painting. During early Gothic, frescoes were shaped by French influences, later by German and Czech impacts. Further Italian contacts reflected the orientation of Hungarian fresco painting in the early decades of Renaissance. Contacts and European assimilation of art were decided by historical reasons.

The earliest set of frescoes of the 12th century can be found in the Lower Church of Feldebrő. It is quite obvious that the Byzantine style came to Hungary via Italy which is proved by subject matters and inscriptions in Latin letters.

As Romanesque cathedrals and their fresco decorations were destroyed, only frescoes which survived in villages lead one to conclude that the 12th century must have been rich in frescoes. Of these, the church of Hidegség is the most significant. The apse of the chapel extended at a later time is covered by frescoes following styles of frescoes in South Germany and Austria.

The royal castle of Esztergom was built at the turn of the 12th century. The chapel of the palace in French taste was decorated with Gothic frescoes. Their remains, pieces of coats-of-arms with lions indicate that painting was accomplished after the castle had been built which is an important fact as it reflects cultural contacts of the royal court.

While the apostle cycle executed around the mid-13th century in the lower part of the Gizella-chapel in Veszprém definitely reflects the plastic approach of Byzantine and Italian archetypes, Romanesque frescoes in churches of small villages (Szalonna, Süvéte) have epic forms with a folk character.

The oldest of frescoes portraying the legend of King St. Ladislaus can be found in Kakaslomnic, Szepesség. The background is a neutral, symbolic landscape. Series of events in bright colours with expressive contours follow classical Gothic traditions. It is closely related to frescoes in the sanctuary of the Premonstrant provostal church of Ócsa.

Late classical Gothic style was inspired by Austrian and Czech art as can be traced in churches in Túrócszentmárton (early 14th century), Somorja (around 1330) or in Homoróddaróc, Gelence and Bögöz, Transylvania.

Ceremonial frescoes, which were commissioned by Henrik, provost of Szepes in 1317 to be painted on the northern wall of the provostal church of Szepeshely, were influenced by late-classical Gothic traditions. The picture declares the heavenly origin of the rule of Charles Robert who came from the House of Anjou.

The picture with Byzantine ideas and styles is closely related to two frescoes in the sanctuary of the church in Szepesdaróc (Annunciation, Crucifixion).

Frescoes for the chapel of the castle in Esztergom were ordered by Csanád Telegdi, archbishop of Esztergom. Most of the medallions portraying apostles and prophets remained in their places. The frescoes followed the pattern popular with masters in Siena.

As opposed to soft portraits in Esztergom, the fragment of a fresco in the Cathedral of Nagyvárad, started in 1342 by András Báthori, portraying the head of an archbishop is more plastic. It can be assumed that the bishopry of Nagyvárad had direct Italian contacts.

Frescoes of Esztergom are quite likely to have influenced the Highlands which belonged to the archdiocese of Esztergom. Masters who worked in the churches of Gömör made Italian trecento painting, elegant and plastic, popular. Pictures are arranged by decorative stripes imitating stone inlay in the Italian style, painted curtains, sills and lines of consoles to create the illusion of space. Perspective decoration was quite usual at the turn of the 14th century.

Italian trecento was of decisive influence in the late 14th century e.g. pictures in the church of Magyarfenes (Crucifixion) which was accompanied by the elegance of French painting and dynamism in frescoes of the parish-church of Almakerék.

János Aquila anticipated the style of international Gothic while working and signing in Velemér in 1378.

Contacts with Czech art served as models for international Gothic art in the late 14th century. Examples of the style can be found in small churches in the country: figures and soft folds of clothes appear in pictures of Zseliz, Csaroda and Kiszombor.

Frescoes in Lőcse refer to illuminations and Czech contacts at the turn of the 14th century. (The Acts of Charity in the Minorite Curch, the Seven Vices and Charity from the St. Jacob Church popular written explanations belong to these.) The rich painting in Szepesség played a significant role in the neighbourhood, e.g. Master András Szepesi accepted commissions in Szalonna in the early 15th century.

Major frescoes of the soft style include pictures in the southern sanctuary of the St. Elizabeth Church in Kassa (around 1420).

Frescoes in Székelyderzs represent a peculiar style of international Gothic painting. At first sight, they appear to be flat pictures as if carpets, yet figures with great plasticity are moving in front of a decorative background full of stars.

Around the second quarter of the 15th century, the style, so far soft, changed into more plastic figures with more definite proportions (Castle Chapel, Siklós).

Rich plasticity of figures appears in frescoes of the St. Michael Church in Kolozsvár. Passion and Calvary with a lot of figures are closely related to calvary compositions of the parish-church of Nagyszeben.

In the late 15th century, the castle of King Matthias in Buda helped spread a new style, Italian Renaissance. Unfortunately, portraits of monarchs in Esztergom, pictures of deeds of Louis the Great, battle-scenes painted on walls of the royal castle, and horoscopes of the king were all destroyed. Frescoes which survived in the Vitéz-János-Hall in the Castle of Esztergom indicate the prevailing style. Albertus Fiorentinus, who lived in the court of Ippolito d'Este, archbishop of Esztergom around 1490, is supposed to have painted the allegories of Virtues around 1495. Frescoes in palaces of Matthias and Ladislaus, which were all lost, were probably characteristic of a somewhat dry graphic style of late quattrocento of Florence.

Fresco painting found its way to homes of citizens, e.g. residences in Sopron, Besztercebánya and Nagyszeben.

At the time when Renaissance appeared, late Gothic was still present, e.g. in the Highlands. Coffered ceiling in Gógánváralja (1501-19) was the result of an amalgamation which was related to panel pictures in technique but to frescoes in function.