My name is Maya Sajnani and I am a graduating student at the University of St Andrews. I study art history, and I have a particular interest in medieval material culture in addition to English painting of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
My approach has always been interdisciplinary with a strong focus on social histories, using literature, theatre, and other forms of media to analyse the social backdrop behind an artwork’s creation. Despite the way it has traditionally been approached, I do not exempt medieval art from this. The following article thus examines medieval secular wall painting as an indicator of contemporary class dynamics of the era.
Painting a new picture of the Middle Ages through Secular Wall Paintings
There are few things more revealing of a person’s character than their home. The objects we place on coffee tables and the pictures on our walls are a direct communication of our personal preferences, tastes and ideologies. This was no exception in the Middle Ages, when wall paintings were a popular form of decoration at nearly all levels of society. Research indicates that the art form was common in all homes but the very poor, where there were no excess funds available to be spent on embellishments. Most commonly found from the late medieval period to approximately 1625, wall paintings crucially visualised the transition from a medieval to an Early Modern society.
These paintings consist of a number of different motifs which reoccur in large quantities, implying that they were executed by itinerant painters or craftsmen who utilised pattern books for image sources. These templates were likely used for paintings which consisted of decorative scrolls or other forms such as masonry pattern, a popular design consisting of rectangles painted to emulate cut stone blocks. Such motifs gave the home the illusion of having such lavish features as stone carvings, wooden banisters and other structural decorations.
Portraits were also common in domestic wall paintings, a practice found in homes at every echelon of society. Most commonly dated to the sixteenth century, these generally picture household members in their finest contemporary fashions, making them very easy to date precisely. They visualize stylistic changes as Europe made the shift into an Early Modern world, as seen in the fashionably attired figures in the wall paintings of New Hall in Shropshire. The costume is firmly Tudor, confirmed by the Tudor Rose held by one of the female figures pictured. This portrait in particular holds a certain narrative quality, suggested by a running hare and devilish figure lurking off to the side. Hunting scenes were also common, and traditionally featured men on horseback chasing foxes. Narrative wall paintings such as these are rarer, but their occurrences give us fascinating insight into late medieval and Early Modern life outside of sacred contexts.
Indeed, secular narrative art is scarce compared to the wealth of sacred medieval art in existence today, and its research remains in relatively early stages. Christa Grössinger attributes this phenomenon to the “variable” and “unstable” quality of secular narrative art compared to that in sacred contexts. Whereas religious art of the Middle Ages assumes a uniform voice, secular art reflects the infinite variability of contemporary peoples, allowing us an intimate look into the everyday lives and mundanities which characterized medieval Europe.
In 1979, a set of medieval wall paintings were uncovered during building works in central Vienna. Cited as the city’s oldest existing secular wall paintings, they were probably completed around 1407. While the paintings originally adorned all four walls of the home’s banqueting hall, only a handful have survived the centuries spent beneath layers of plaster. The images adorned the home of Michel Menschein, a wealthy garment fabric merchant and member of the council who occupied the home from 1398 to 1415. The wall paintings illustrate assorted scenes from the 2 Neidhart story, a text written by an undocumented minnesinger around 1240 that was retold for centuries following its initial conception.
As a wealthy merchant and council member, Menschein was very intent on keeping up appearances. The narrative content of the wall paintings consequently satirises the peasant classes through a bawdy and uncouth sense of humor which pervades the images. Interpreted as a seasonal cycle, the scenes representing “summer” and “winter” are situated along the north wall. Among these lies a scene referred to as “Violet Prank.” In this comical tableau, a young man is pictured discovering the first violet of spring. He covers it with his hat to keep it safe while he goes to fetch his lady-love, but while he is gone an impish peasant replaces the violet with a stinking pile of excrement, horrifying the lady upon her discovery. While this sort of humor may seem completely inappropriate for the adornment of a formal dining room today, medieval humor was often bawdy, lewd and ruthlessly satirical.
Above: a playing card printing plaque, before and after conservation by Fine Art Restoration Company
In figuring narratives of foundational peasant satire throughout his banqueting hall, Menschein transmitted a clear message of cultural dominance to his guests, assuming his status as a member of a social group leagues above the vulgar peasants fighting and misbehaving upon his walls. At the same time, however, narrative wall paintings were a popular substitute for tapestries, which were highly luxurious commodities much pricier to procure than a wall painting. While the latter was often executed by craftsmen, tapestries required skilled weavers and highly expensive materials. A cheaper alternative, Menschein’s wall paintings speak to the way social status was regulated and enforced during the Middle Ages. Although the narrative content of the images asserts a level of superiority over the peasant classes, the medium of wall painting fixes the space to the middle-class stratum.
Peasant satire was one of the most popular forms of humour in the medieval period, found everywhere from playing cards to manuscript marginalia. A set of playing cards designed by Hans Schäufelein from 1535 pictures a female charlatan analysing feces in a urine glass, a male peasant entertaining a hare with fife and drum, and a woman attempting to milk a bull. As exemplified by its placement on a deck of cards, this form of ridicule was casual and insidious throughout medieval material culture. Like playing cards which were shared and distributed among groups of friends, the wall paintings adorning Menschein’s banqueting hall were designed to be viewed by guests.
Because of their situation in the secular, domestic space, these paintings provide us with insight on medieval class dynamics which are largely inaccessible in sacred spaces. Interestingly, paintings have been discovered in almost all rooms of medieval homes but the servants’ quarters, with only one exception – a simple red scroll pattern in the buttery at Stokesay Castle. This speaks to the performative nature of the medium. Displayed in the primary, most public rooms of a home, wall paintings reflected the tastes of their patrons, tailoring whatever image was desired to be presented to their guests. In scenes of peasant satire such as Menschein’s banqueting hall as well as trompe l’oeil masonry pattern and illusionistic wooden paneling, the image desired was one of wealth and status: an exhibition of cultural dominance, opulence and taste.
Compared to a marble sculpture or an oil painting, wall painting is a transient art form – particularly when found in residential homes. Like a tattoo on a human body, it has a lifespan immediately dependent upon that of its host. While many houses built in the Middle Ages remain inhabited today, most have been greatly altered over the centuries. Early examples of painted decoration in secular buildings are thus incredibly rare, usually found within higher-status buildings that have long been recognized and protected. Considering the suspected frequency of wall paintings in medieval secular buildings, few survive. Those that do are generally in very poor condition. This is due to a number of factors. First, medieval wall paintings are often hidden beneath covering layers of materials such as limewash, paint or wood paneling as the building changed hands over time.
Often the discovery of painted decorations in historic properties is accidental, uncovered during building works or after destructive events such as fire or flooding. Because these discoveries are accidental and unplanned, resurfacing them in this manner can be highly damaging. Inadvertent damage is the greatest cause of the lack of surviving wall paintings in secular spaces, thus most surviving examples of paintings in “vernacular” buildings date from the late fifteenth century onwards. This is what makes the Neidhart discovery so great, despite the poor condition in which the paintings were found. Secular narrative art is some of the most revealing of medieval culture as a whole, and findings of this sort are incredibly rare. They tell us about the daily lives of medieval people, allowing us a glimpse at their humor, habits, class dynamics and general tastes, enriching our perspectives of the Middle Ages in a way that is impossible when only sacred art is brought into consideration.
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