Extensive fragments of outstanding wall paintings have been preserved in the chancel of the former church of St Lawrence of St Anne’s convent. The most important of them were created some time around 1375, towards the end of the reign of the Emperor Charles IV, at a time when the lands of the Bohemian Crown were at a high point of their cultural history. At that time the walls of the recently reconstructed chancel were covered by three monumental scenes in the style of Master Theodoricus, or a group of painters working under his leadership during the previous decades on the decoration of the Chapel of the Holy Rood at Karlštejn, immediately preceding the work of another outstanding figure in the world history of art, the anonymous master, known after his best-known surviving creation the Master of the Třeboň Altar. It is highly probable that that painter, who employed the technique of chiaroscuro a hundred years earlier than Leonardo da Vinci, worked with Theodoricus’ workshop at Karlštejn, and a number of analogies suggest he was also one of the painters of the St Anne’s church frescoes.
Almost the entire free space of the south wall of the chancel, measuring 8 x
On the opposite wall of the chancel is a painting of the Seven Sacraments, an almost square composition with the original format of cca. 5 x
To the right of the Seven Sacraments is one of the most popular subjects of that period The Adoration of the Magi, three large separate fragments of which have survived. At the left is seated the Virgin Mary in a blue cloak holding the infant Jesus on her lap. Behind her one can make out the wattle wall and roof of the stable of Bethlehem. The gaze of the Mary and Jesus is fixed on the first kneeling king, of whom only the outline of his back has survived. Almost nothing has survived of the second king either. The best preserved is the figure of the third king in a green raiment, holding a bowl in his right hand and the handle of a walking stick in his left. In the background is a freely painted depiction of rock formations, details of vegetation and a beautiful motif of three horses going behind one of the cliffs. Of particular interest is the fact that the face of the third king is very similar to contemporary portraits of Charles IV’s son Wenceslas IV. In view of the fact that the theme of the three magi was often used for crypto-portraits of monarchs and the convent of St Anne was a royal foundation – confirmed by King John of Luxemburg, the Emperor Charles IV and Wenceslas IV, one may assume that the faces of the three magi were those of all three monarchs of the Luxemburg dynasty.
The paintings described were by no means the only wall decorations in the church in the course of history. Very soon afterwards the lower part of the south wall received a painting of St Barbara that partly encroached on the frame and landscape of the Lamentation of Christ. The figure of the saint is still quite visible, with her typical attribute of a cup and the strikingly red architecture of the interior of the tower in which she was imprisoned. The paintings of the bottom part of the northern wall date to the years around the turn of the 15th century – a fragment of the enthroned Madonna with the Infant Jesus and St John and St Jerome, (the latter with unusually youthful features, in contrast to the usual elderly portrayal of this pilgrim to Bethlehem and biblical translator, such as in the unfinished painting by Leonardo) and a beautiful detail illustrating the legend of his removing the thorn from the paw of the lion, which later became Jerome’s fellow pilgrim and attribute. Alongside the portal into the neighbouring convent, is a painting of the Consecratio virginis (the admission of a novice into the order of nuns when the bishop, as Christ’s representative confirms the mystical marriage with a gold ring, observed excitedly by secular and saintly figures). Of the other paintings, mention should be made of a beautiful isolated fragment of a royal procession.
The Hussite Wars drastically ruptured the continuity of cultural development in the Czech lands. At a time when Brunelleschi was building the dome of the Florence cathedral, churches in Bohemia were being plundered and artistic activity almost came to a halt. Even long after the Battle of Lipan, which marked the end of the wars, there were hardly any works to be found that were comparable with the previous period. All the more surprising therefore is the painting that continues to grab one’s attention: The Assumption of the Virgin with the Apostles Philip and James in the lower part of the southern wall. It is qualitatively quite unique in the context of the period because it is still inspired by the pre-Hussite tradition of Třeboň Altar, and links it with contemporary trends of West European late Gothic. Judging by the figure of the donor with a coat of arms displaying an arrow whose base is divided and curved, it was commissioned some time in the 1470s by Jaroslav of Dubá, assessor at the chamber court.
Gothic painting dominated the interior of the church until the repairs carried out in the 1620s, when they were covered over and replaced by new Renaissance-style decoration. But neither they, nor the subsequent paintings executed during the Baroque period before the convent was closed for good by Joseph II in 1782, came anywhere near the standard of their Gothic predecessors.
(Text and photographs by Martin Pavala, of the TRADICE, s.r.o. firm of restorers)
The process of fresco restoration
The Assumption of the Virgin
The Adoration of the Magi
The Lamentation of Christ
Fragments of Gothick and Renaissances paitings of the north wall