A Howard Carter moment in a Prague crypt

Don’t you sometimes wonder what it would be like to enter a crypt that has not been accessed for hundreds of years and to discover, in Howard Carter’s words, “wonderful things”? Such an event occurred in the Church of the Nativity in the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Loreto, Prague, in 2011.

The Loreto church and complex, Prague, with in the center the Santa Casa

The Loreto church and complex, Prague, with in the center the Santa Casa

The church lies within the Loreto complex in Prague which includes a Capuchin monastery. At the heart of the complex is the Santa Casa, a replica of the house where the Virgin Mary supposedly lived when she was told she would give birth to Jesus, richly decorated with beautiful stucco work. The cloisters surrounding the Santa Casa were completed in 1661 to accommodate the increasing numbers of pilgrims that came to worship at the Sanctuary.

cloistersThat a crypt was opened here after almost 400 years was the result of a mistaken interpretation of an archival document that described crypt decorations of scenes from the Passion of Christ. It was later found that the document referred to a different monastic church. The Loreto crypt had been left undisturbed because it was not a crypt as we understand it but rather a burial vault that could only be entered by lifting a heavy stone slab. It was situated not as one might expect under the church choir but at on the opposite, western, end. The existence of this burial vault was known: it had been commissioned for the benefactors of the sanctuary by a patron of Loreto, Countess Elizabeth Apollonia de Kolowrat. Work on the crypt was completed in 1663 and it was consecrated the next year. But it would take until the discovery of the archival document and its mention of Passion murals for it to be opened. And so, in 2011, the heavy slab was lifted.

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2011, raising the heavy stone slab covering the vault at the entrance to the cloisters

Curators Petr Basta and Marketa Bastova, the first to enter the vault after centuries, must have been completely taken by surprise when instead of colourful Passion scenes they faced a series of murals in monochrome black wash with some additions al secco (painting on dry plaster as distinguished from buon fresco painting on wet or fresh plaster), all with subjects relating to death and the resurrection. Several murals turned out to be more or less faithful copies of Dutch 17th century engravings, a unique phenomenon.

The entrance to the burial vault

The entrance to the burial vault

The most striking and prominent of these murals is an imaginative adaptation of Rembrandt’s etching The Raising of Lazarus, the so-called “larger plate” in its 5th to 7th state (after 1632).

Mural on the eastern wall of the crypt

Mural on the eastern wall of the crypt

Rembrandt, Raising of Lazarus, 1630-40, Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt, Raising of Lazarus, Rijksmuseum

Rembrandt’s Raising of Lazarus (1630-40) is indeed a fitting subject for a burial vault. In one of his most dramatic and powerful etchings the Master captures the moment when Jesus commands Lazarus to “come forth” against the dark tomb wall. As Lazarus rises from the dead, Mary and Martha lean in over the edge of the tomb, their raised hands signifying their faith and readiness to embrace their beloved brother. The onlookers express open-mouthed amazement at Christ’s miracle. In the etching Rembrandt uses powerful contrasts to evoke the heightened drama by distinct use of light and shadow. Lazarus and the faces of the onlookers are bathed in the light of Christ, while the surrounding darkness symbolises the blackness of death.

The Czech artist adapting the etching had to work with the different dimensions of the niche that could not take its vertical composition. He therefore reversed the image horizontally. While Christ’s position is elevated in Rembrandt’s etching, in the mural the group of witnesses and Lazarus himself appear on the same scale and prominence, a creative adaptation of the original etching for practical reasons and with the added benefit that the church patrons were able to more fully identify with the witnesses and Lazarus, thereby becoming part of the miracle.

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Detail of the Lazarus mural: Christ, Lazarus and the witnesses have been given the same scale and prominence

The layout of the crypt showing the position of the murals

The layout of the crypt showing the position of the murals

Rembrandt’s etching is reproduced in full but there are several interesting single figure murals that use details from Dutch 17th century prints. These prints must have been in a  local collection, perhaps owned by the Countess who commissioned the crypt. The details chosen indicate a sophisticated iconographic programme on the theme of death and resurrection or Ars Moriendi, the art of dying, whose author, alas, is not known; neither is the name of the artist who painted the murals. Cosmas of Austria has been put forward, an artist who entered the Capuchin order in 1659, but as yet there is no documentary proof. It is know, however, that the murals were painted between May and November 1664.

Cornelis van Dalen I, after Govert Flinck, c. 1650

Cornelis van Dalen I, after Govert Flinck, c. 1650, Rijksmuseum

One of the murals on the south wall shows an angel blowing the heavenly trumpet taken from a 1650s etching by Cornelis van Dalen I after Govert Flinck’s painting of the Allegory of the Birth of Prince William Henry of Brandenburg (1648-9). Interestingly, van Dalen adapted his exceptionally large print for the Dutch market as Allegory of the Birth of Prince William III (Dutch Stadtholder, later William I, King of England) who was born in 1650 and it was further adapted in the 1680s and 90s by Van Dalen’s son and successor to represent the birth of Princess Maria Amalia van Nassau-Dietz and later still the Peace of Rijswijk. Of the 1650s print the artist of the crypt murals used the winged figure hovering high above the scene. While in Flinck’s and Van Dalen’s interpretation she is the mythological Roman “Fama”, Fame, with her traditional emblem of a trumpet, in the crypt she has been transformed into the Angel of the Resurrection and as it so happens, this Angel is clearly a female figure, quite unlike the asexual or masculin angels usually depicted in art.

Angel mural, based on Cornelis van Dalen

Angel mural, based on Cornelis van Dalen I

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Fame, detail from the print by Cornelis van Dalen I

Two other single murals are taken from the same painting which today is only known from contemporary copies and a 1610 engraving mentioning the original artist: The Struggle of Men and Animals against Death and Time by the Flemish born painter David Vinckboons who died in Amsterdam in 1629. A rather weak contemporary copy is in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.

After David Vinckboons, before 1610, MFA Boston

The Struggle of Men and Animals against Death and Time, circle of David Vinckboons, MFA Boston

The painting must have been popular given the many contemporary copies that survive even today and already in 1610 Dutch graphic artist Boëtius Adamsz. Bolswert (ca. 1580-1633) published his engraving after it.

Boëtius Adamsz. Bolswert after David Vinckboons, 1610, British Museum

Boëtius Adamsz. Bolswert after David Vinckboons, 1610, British Museum

The scene shows how Death fires arrows at a crowd of all classes; Time with his scythe and hourglass tramples earthly objects while in the background animals are also fired on by a skeletal Death. Of this crowded print, the Loreto artist (or more likely: the author of the iconographic programme) selected the two most powerful figures for the crypt’s murals on the lower left of Bolswert’s print: menacing Death with his bow and arrow and Time. From both, after all, there is no escape.

Detail of lower left corner of the print by Bolswert

Detail of lower left corner of the print by Bolswert from a later edition of the print in the Rijksmuseum

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cRYPT1Another borrowing, but here again of an entire print, is Hendrick Goltzius’ print of 1594 of a Homo Bulla (man as a bubble) type, a familiar Vanitas symbol from the 16th century on. We see a small boy blowing bubbles while he is leaning on a skull, symbols of the brevity of life. Goltzius’s engraving is inscribed with the words Quis Evadet (who evades [death]?). The print also bears a caption in Latin that likens the transience of human existence, even a child’s, to the fleeting life of a soap bubble.

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Hendrick Goltzius, Homo Bulla, 1594, Rijksmuseum

Hendrick Goltzius, Homo Bulla, 1594, Rijksmuseum

The discovery of these murals is of great significance for Czech art. At the same time it is a valuable testimony to the popularity and spread of Dutch 17th century graphic art in Bohemia. In addition, the prominence of Rembrandt’s etching on the most dominant wall of the crypt adds an interesting chapter to the international reception of the artist’s graphic oeuvre during his lifetime.

I came upon the story last summer through an announcement by CODART member Anja K. Ševčík, curator at the National Gallery in Prague, of an exhibition at the Loreto dedicated to the findings. Because, for obvious reasons, the crypt cannot be made accessible to the public – it is, after all, a burial vault and, moreover, the murals are quite fragile – the crypt was recreated full-scale so that the public could experience that dramatic Howard Carter moment felt by the curators when they first went down the narrow stone steps into the darkness of the vault and saw “wonderful things”.

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A discovery becomes a dilemma

The greatest secrets of Amsterdam lie behind façades of historic buildings that are not open to the general public. These hide many original features such as wall paintings, sculptured decorations and original ceiling paintings. A prime example is the “Trippenhuis”, the grandest of the 17th century city palaces. Recently, a 17th century ceiling painting was discovered that had been hidden from view by an early 19th century plaster ceiling. An art historical and historical dilemma: since both are part of the history of the building, which ceiling should stay?

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The Kloveniersburgwal looking towards the medieval citygate, later weighing house and the Trippenhuis (right) by Isaac Ouwater (1783), Amsterdam Museum

A house for two brothers

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Hendrik Trip by Ferdinand Bol, 1660

The Trip brothers Louys (1605-1684) and Hendrick (1607-1666) made their fortune in the weapons trade. In 1660, the construction of their double house on Kloveniersburgwal, designed by architect Justus Vingboons, began. The building took two years to complete. In 1662, the brothers and their families moved in. Both interior and exterior were lavishly decorated. Many paintings were commissioned from the great painters of the time, most notably Ferdinand Bol and Allard van Everdingen. Nicolaas de Heldt Stockade (1614-1669) was responsible for the ceiling paintings emphasing the wealth and status of the Trip family.

kloof29_bThe Trippenhuis becomes the Rijksmuseum

What would later become the Rijksmuseum was, during King Louis Napoleon’s brief reign, housed in the Royal Palace on Dam Square in Amsterdam. When the Trip premises became available in the early 19th century, it was decided to move the museum to the Trippenhuis where it would share its premises with the Royal Institute of Sciences, Literature and Fine Arts (the precursor of the Royal Netherlandish Academy of Arts and Sciences, the current occupant of the building). A complete overhaul was necessary. This took place from 1815-1817 and was carried out by the city’s architect Abraham van der Hart (1747-1820). Thankfully, while he covered most of the ceiling paintings with plaster ceilings of his own, behind these, the original 17th century paintings were preserved.

The Rijksmuseum in the Trippenhuis, mid-19th century

The Rijksmuseum in the Trippenhuis, mid-19th century

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The cassette ceiling in the “Rembrandt Room”

To let it be or not to let it be – that is the question

The current restoration, begun in 2011, aims to restore the halls and stairs with their magnificent ceiling paintings to their former 17th century glory. Many beautiful ceiling paintings, among which a particularly attractive one illustrating Aesop’s fable of the crow and the raven, had already been uncovered during a previous restoration.

Recently, when peepholes were drilled in one of Van der Hart’s plaster ceilings on the first floor, the restorers caught glimpses of a 17th century ceiling painting of exceptional quality and beauty. It also looked better preserved than others. How tempting to remove van der Hart’s plaster ceiling completely to reveal de Heldt Stockade’s new birds!

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One of the ceiling paintings by de Heldt Stockade already uncovered, before restoration

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Ongoing restoration work

In the case of the Trippenhuis, the dilemma for the restorers is whether van der Hart’s 1815-1817 architectural concept is of similar historical and architectural importance as de Heldt Stockade’s ceiling paintings. Should not at least part of that early 19th design be preserved? It is a dilemma that many restorers face. You might compare it with old master paintings: if, for example, a 14th century panel painting was restored only fifty years later and partly overpainted, have not those overpaintings also become of art historical importance and should they for that reason not be left untouched? Likewise: is not van der Hart’s design as much part of the history of the Trippenhuis as the 17th century ceiling decorations are?

It will be interesting to see what the owners of the building, the Rijksgebouwendienst (the Government Buildings Agency), in conjunction with the Academy and the restorers, will decide. We have been promised that the new discovery will remain partly visible until the next edition of the Open Monuments Days in September, when the general public can visit buildings normally not open to the public, including the Trippenhuis.