Painting and Sculpture in the 17th Century

Ecclesiastical Art

Architects attempted to create a uniform impression in interiors of ecclesiastical and secular buildings. Church interiors are especially characteristic of restlessness and crowdedness. The most important element is the high altar which completely fills the wall of the sanctuary and decorates architecture with paintings and sculptures. Normally it was the product of a team of several masters of different trades. Subjects of altar-pieces and sculptures reflected the concept of the builder. The motif of Mary's country (Regnum Marianum) is a recurrent one, proclaiming the exceptional situation of Hungary, a country which King Stephen asked Mary to protect. This is the reason why so many pictures of the Blessed Virgin Mary were painted to which miraculous qualities were attributed, or votive altars were completed. They are, naturally, not always of artistic value. The figure of Mary in a Cloak in the Church of Árpás is an excellent representative: Mary, floating in the air, is receiving the map of Hungary, under her figure portraits of major personalities can be seen (anonymous master, 1666).

Epitaphs, typical decorations in churches mainly in the west and east of Hungary, are related to altars in many ways. Epitaphs, memorials for the dead placed in the wall of the church, are not resting places, they are only expected to serve memorial purposes. Epitaphs, like altars, reflect a mixture of genres: paintings and sculptures are present hand in hand, the latter being of higher artistic standards. Epitaphs became simpler and simpler with time, and very soon they turned into mere stone dressings. As a result, their artistic quality became rather changeable. Epitaphs, a genre popular with the Protestant Church, had much more defined subjects than altars. The epitaph of the Gross family in Szepesszombat erected by Pál Gross Jr. in 1688 is second to none in artistic quality.

Painting and sculpture rival with each other in the decoration of other objects, e.g. pulpits. Strong relationships between Upper Northern Hungary and Transylvania are present in art, too, especially in the decorative art of churches.


Tombs, various in type, needed exclusively sculptors to be completed. The richest aristocratic families favoured free-standing tombs. They were particularly popular in Transylvania, the best known being that of György Apafi, with the deceased on the cover plate (by Illés Nicolai, 1635). Here we witness a clumsy mixture of elements of late Gothic and Renaissance. The tomb of György Sükösd dates from 1632, but it lacks medieval motifs on the whole (by Péter Diószegi, in the Museum of Kolozsvár). Memorials on walls were particularly frequent: there is some inscription and sculptural decoration on cover plates bearing the coat of arms of the deceased.

Due to schematic simplicity, it is almost impossible to trace back artists and styles, yet they were most popular with middle classes.

The end of the century saw the triumph of Counter-Reformation and the expulsion of the Turks. With regard to art, open air religious memorials were erected at the time. The first such in the line is Mary's Column (1686) proclaiming the idea of Regnum Marianum. The Trinity Memorial richly ornamented was erected in Sopron in the late 17th century (1695-1701). The memorial, a unique one of its kind, is a somewhat theatrical demonstration of bigoted Catholicism.

Secular Painting

Painting, sculpture and decorative art became more and more important not only in ecclesiastical, but in secular architecture. In addition to decorative frescoes, the so-called gallery of ancestors played a highly important role. Besides frescoes, paintings in oil and watercolours have survived which shows that subjects must have been important for persons commissioning artists: they were intended to sound praises of his family and nation. A series of Hungarian leaders larger than life-size used to decorate the Batthyány Castle in Rohonc or the court of the Princes of Transylvania. "Mausoleum" (1664), a series of prints published by Ferenc Nádasdy showing Kings of Hungary, served as a model, but portrayals were changed according to the tastes of individual painters.

Besides portraits, still-lifes and battles gave the subjects of normally small size panel paintings which served as interior decorations. Battle-pictures generally showed scenes of fight between Kuruts (soldiers of Imre Thököly and Ferenc Rákóczi fighting against Hapsburg oppression at the turn of the 17th century) and Turks, or Kuruts and Labants (nickname of soldiers in the Hapsburg army), events and masters are equally impossible to determine. Apparently, series of prints served as models.

Pictures and copper engravings by Georg Philip Rugendas (1665-1742) were popular in Hungary: they contributed to making the fight led by Ferenc Rákóczi for national independence well-known even in areas with which there was no direct contact. Masters of small-size pictures of the time remained anonymous. Portrayals indicating poor skills were manifest in figures and actions in an annoying way. Circumstances of the time would not let painters earn their bread in Hungary: masters were obliged to wander or even go abroad.

János Spillenberger (1628-1679), a painter from Kassa, was one of the wandering painters who spent most of his life abroad. Only very few, perhaps one or two altar-pieces can be attributed to him with some certainty. Mention must be made of Tóbiás Stranover (1634-1724) of the Stranover-family in Transylvania who was a pupil and later the son-in-law of Jakab Bogdány. Both lived abroad, painted still-lifes with animals and fruits, and neither of them was involved in the development of art in Hungary.

Jakab Bogdány of Eperjes spent all his life abroad, mostly in London where he died in 1724. His artistic skills and portrayals are equal to the best works of the same genre. Subjects and structures of his pictures show no great variety. Besides colourful still-lives minutely painted he had a preference for exotic birds which brought him success and made his pictures popular. Perhaps they were meant to express the delight over travelling to and discovering new continents. As they were highly decorative and large size, they were suitable to decorate spacious interiors of the English aristocracy. It is a logical conclusion that Bogdány could never be an artist involved in the development of art in Hungary.

Mention must be made of Jan Kupeczky (1667-1740), a master of Czech descent, although he left Hungary shortly after his childhood. His well-known picture portraying a Kuruts soldier secure him a high ranking place in Hungarian painting. Pictures of other Hungarian personalities, e.g. the portrait of Mátyás Bél, a historian, are also quite well-known.

Last bust not least, bier pictures, another type of panel pictures are to be included in the list: they are realistic life size portrayals of the deceased. They were probably meant to be prefigurations of tombs to be completed at a later time. Bier pictures are special documents in the history of art.

Although pictures from the 17th century are not of high standards, they represent painting of an age marked by the popularity of prints.