Often when I am in a museum I find myself by-passing something that is a “major” attraction to focus on a more obscure work. Last month’s visit to the Tiroler Volkskunst Museum was no exception. They have so many wonderful pieces on display but for some reason one relatively small work caught my attention.
In 1772 in the market town of Tefls – about 40 kms from Innsbruck – the Confraternity of the Scapular celebrated the centenary of the society’s founding in the region. Though the Vision of the Virgin to Saint Simon Stock is reputed to have happened on July 16, 1251 the laity were not granted the wearing of the miraculous garb until the 1500s. Confraternities sprang up throughout Europe as the pious vowed to faithfully pray to the Madonna and received the small pieces of brown cloth with the promise of salvation that the Virgin had pronounced to St Simon. Though membership in the Confraternity was chiefly from the ruling and merchant classes the poor – as was befitting for the Barefoot Order of the Carmelites – were not excluded from either the benefits of the scapular or the festivities of the celebration.
There would have been any number of events to commemorate the occasion – High Masses, Te Deums, sermons, perhaps even concerts in the homes of the more well-to-do and guild halls – but one event that is carefully documented is a Procession which took place involving the clergy, guilds and people of the surrounding area. An anonymous artist recorded the procession in detail on a carved wooden plaque and left us a record of a parade typical of the Baroque period. It was this small oil on wood recording this procession that caught and held my attention.
I took a series of close up photos (without flash and with permission – any reflection is from the overhead lighting) and began to examine the small figures in detail. My curiosity led to an e-mail asking for information about the painting. I received a very speedy and detailed reply from Herlinde Menardi of the Museum staff; in answer to a further inquiry she went to the added effort of transcribing and translating the Latin-German notations into English. 1000 grazie to Frau Menardi – another reason that the Volkskunst Museum should be proud.
As well as this contemporary record the museum holds a wealth of the standards, lanterns and statues that would have been carried in procession. Finely worked banners – some painted, others embroidered – would flutter in the air, portable tableau (many painted, some in plaster) of scenes from the Gospels or stories of the Saints (particularly local favourites or Guild patrons) were carried on the shoulders of the stout men of the town and statues would be processed among groups sometimes of scrubbed boys and girls under the watchful eye of a nun or priest or guild members in their finest. Ornately carved standards would show the passion of a saint, a miracle of Christ or an event from the Old Testament that would illuminate the role of the church in the life of the populace.
Though other saints and worthies representing the various groups would be carried the most important were representations of the Madonna and Child. The figures’ heads, hands and feet were painted wood and the bodies of canvas stuffed with horsehair. They would be outfitted in elaborate dresses and robes – studded with faux gems and heavy with embroidery – to fit the feast being celebrated. In fact in many towns and villages the statute of the Madonna had more changes of clothes than some of the local women!
The local craftsmen would create elaborate cherub bedecked and baroque curlicued thrones to bear the Madonna and Child. As the cult of the Virgin Mary gained importance her statue with the Christ Child – though as the cult strengthened he would often take a back seat – would become central to any celebration. Orders and parishes would out do each other in the splendid presentation of the Madonna to indicate both the devotional and material wealth of the parish. For an Procession such as the one on record the robes would have been the finest – if not by our standards the most tasteful – that could be afforded.
Though the splendour of the baroque has become little more than memories and curiosities in museums it is still possible in parts of the Tirol to see processions moving from town to town on High and Holy days. Less elaborate than those of their ancestors nonetheless these parades continue to show the devotion and the traditional craftsmanship of the Tirol region.
Again many thanks to Herlinde Menardi for her help with information on this fascinating (for me at least) piece of Tirolean history.
01 Marzo – San David del Galles