03.01.06, Rosario, Art and Propaganda

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Zsombor Jekely

The Medieval Review baj9928.0301.006


Rosario, Iva. Art and Propaganda: Charles IV of Bohemia 1346-1378. London: Boydell Press, 2001. Pp. v, 153. ISBN: 0-851-157874-4.

Reviewed by:
Zsombor Jekely
Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary

The title of the book raises hopes that we are getting the first English-language monograph on the art patronage of Charles IV, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia. As is quickly made clear in the preface, the scope of the book is somewhat narrower: it focuses on the portraits of Charles IV, and only on those commissioned by the emperor himself or by members of his court, and located in Bohemia. As Rosario states, the book sets out to investigate "the images of Charles IV from the point of view of what they reveal to us about the ideology of royal power and the nature of political propaganda in a European court in the second half of the fourteenth century" (xv). This statement and the title of the book both include the term "propaganda," which we would more readily apply to twentieth century art than to the fourteenth century. While the choice of words is perhaps not the most fortuitous, the subject definitely deserves a detailed examination, a task that Rosario carries out admirably.

Rosario's monograph is the first comprehensive examination in English of the rich series of portraits depicting Charles IV. Raised in the French court, Charles was inspired by the example of the Valois kings, and clearly recognized the importance of proclaiming his power and bolstering his legitimacy through images as well. Rosario's book contains the analysis of more than thirty portraits still extant in Bohemia, depicting the King-Emperor in various guises and roles. Whether viewed as realistic or not, they all present the features of Charles the same way: he is characterized by "long, dark, wavy hair and beard, broad cheekbones and prominent forehead and eyes" (33). As virtually all these images come from the time of Charles IV, it is reasonable to expect that they provide clues as to how the ruler wished to portray himself. Rosario argues that the images proclaim Charles as the legitimate ruler of both the Holy Roman Empire and of the Bohemian realm, state the ruler's link with his imperial predecessors (Charlemagne and Constantine among them), as well as with the Czech Premyslid rulers and the dynasty's ancestor, St. Wenceslas. In addition, several images express various concepts of medieval political thought regarding the nature of earthly rulers.

The book is arranged around themes such as these, at the same time providing an overview of the most important artistic commissions of Charles IV in Bohemia. The first chapter gives a good overview of the political context of Charles's rule, and of his activities as a patron. The portraits here are discussed in the larger context of the development of realistic portraiture in the fourteenth century. After this introductory material, the book groups its incredibly rich material into larger units, dealing first with images presenting Charles as Holy Roman Emperor (chapters 2-3), then with those showing him as the legitimate king of Bohemia (chapters 4-7). Chapter 8 focuses on images expressing the timeless nature of Charles as a ruler, while chapter 9 is dedicated to images reflecting the emperor's relationship to the Church. The book ends with a look at how the emperor's son and heir, Wenceslas, appeared in these images (chapter 10). This grouping in some ways comes naturally, as at different locations different aspects of Charles's rule were emphasized. Thus another way in which the material is arranged is by the most important buildings Charles built, including Karlstein castle, the choir of St. Vitus Cathedral (with the chapel of St. Wenceslas within), and the Charles Bridge. The first building, housing the imperial treasury and Charles's collection of relics, is a treasure-trove of images of Charles as emperor. The images include three representation of Charles in the famous frescoed relic-triptych, and several donation-scenes. The portraits in Prague -- including his likeness inside the chapel of St. Wenceslas -- focus on Charles mainly as a ruler of the Czech lands, emphasizing his continuity with the sainted king of the Czechs, St. Wenceslas. Another key image, emphasizing dynastic continuity as well, appears on the so-called Coronation route of the Bohemian kings, on the gate tower of Charles Bridge. Charles also appears kneeling as a patron in several important images, among them the mosaic above the south (main) portal of St. Vitus.

In addition, the book discusses a number of portraits on seals and in manuscripts, as well as some of the crypto-portraits of Charles. In the latter group there are images where the physical features of the emperor appear in representations of one of the three Magi (Morgan diptych) or even of Christ (Missal of John of Streda). Relying on primary sources, such as the autobiography of Charles and medieval chronicles (many of which she quotes in her own translation), Rosario analyzes these images in ample detail and with great skill. A good example is her treatment of what is perhaps the most famous of Charles's portraits, the bust carved high in inner triforium of the choir of St. Vitus Cathedral (pp. 63-68). Part of an unprecedented portrait gallery, which was (and still is) accessible to only a select group of individuals, Rosario argues that the bust expresses the divine nature of Charles's rule (because of the position of the bust and its relation to a bust of Christ on the outer triforium); stresses his legitimacy based on a right of inheritance from the Premyslid dynasty (because of its proximity to the Premyslid tombs in the choir); and presents Charles as the one who fulfilled the aspirations of his predecessors (by raising Prague to the rank of an archbishopric, and by extending the fame and prestige of the cathedral through relics and new construction).

Because the book is arranged in thematic units, the issues mentioned above are treated in different chapters. Similarly, many images keep reappearing throughout the book, due to their highly complex nature. Thus some repetitions are unavoidable, and a complex system of internal references has to guide the reader to different treatments of the same portrait. While tracking down the various references to an image is also facilitated by an index, a catalogue of all the portraits of Charles discussed in the book would also have been a welcome addition. Such a list was last compiled more than thirty years ago (H. Wammetsberger, "Individuum und Typ in der Portraets Kaiser Karl IV," Wissenschaftliche Zeitschrift der Friedrich- Schiller-Universitaet Jena, Gesellschafts und sprachwissenschaftliche Reihe 16 [1967], 79-93), and several images have since been identified and are here discussed (see p. 13). The best overview of the portraits is thus provided in the form of the illustrations, which are all grouped together in the book. Here all the portraits discussed in the book are illustrated, most in color. With a few exceptions -- such as ill. 17 of the Chapel of the Holy Cross -- the illustrations are of good quality, and when browsed through, they provide a kind of visual catalogue.

Another aspect perhaps not given enough attention in the book is a Central European comparative investigation. The extensive bibliography consists of the most important general books of western scholarship on subjects such as rulership and representation, as well as a complete list of works on Bohemian art, but there is barely a reference to the contemporary situation in neighboring Bavaria, Hungary or Poland. We learn next to nothing about the patronage of Charles's predecessor, emperor Ludwig the Bavarian, despite the fact that Suckale's recent and exhaustive monograph would have provided a good starting point for a comparison (Suckale, Robert, Die Hofkunst Kaiser Ludwigs des Bayern [Munich, 1993]). Suckale devotes an entire chapter examining what Charles learned from his great enemy, but the book is not even listed in Rosario's bibliography. A look at Charles's contemporary, the Hungarian king Louis the Great of the Angevin family (1342-1382) would have demonstrated some of the effects of the imperial iconography of Charles: in the Hungarian Illuminated Chronicle, commissioned by Louis, images of emperors invariably bear the likeness of Charles IV (Marosi Erno, Kép és hasonmás. Muvészet és valóság a 14-15. századi Magyarországon [Image and Likeness. Art and Reality in the 14th and 15th Centuries in Hungary] [Budapest, 1995]). It would have been fruitful to examine how the second son of Charles, Sigismund, King of Hungary and later Emperor, used the pictorial formulas established by his father to bolster his shaky legitimacy -- especially as a monograph and a study have already been dedicated to the portraits of Sigismund, and one study even attempted such a comparison (The following titles are missing from Rosario's bibliography: Kéry, Bertalan, Kaiser Sigismund - Ikonographie [Vienna, 1972]; Studnickova-Cerna, Milada, "Sigismund von Luxemburg und die Hofkunst Karls IV.: ein Beitrag zur Ikonographie Karls IV. und Sigismunds von Luxemburg," in Sigismund von Luxemburg: Kaiser und Koenig in Mitteleuropa 1387-1437 [Warendorf, 1994], 271-78.).

Thus Charles and his court in Prague, apart from a brief discussion of the influence of the French court, stands somewhat in isolation in this book. On the other hand, it is a great advantage that Rosario, who is of Czech descent, is able to draw on the results of Czech research as well, because -- as she states in the introduction -- the most significant research is only available in the original Czech (xvi). While interest has always been high in court art under Charles IV -- as demonstrated by the many non-Czech titles listed in the bibliography -- apart from Czechs, German-speaking scholars carried out most research. English-language books have previously been published by Bohemian or German scholars -- the last piece in this line of books being the exhibition catalogue dedicated to the court painter of Charles, Master Theodoric (Jiri Fajt, ed., Magister Theodoricus: Court Painter to Emperor Charles IV [Prague, 1998]). Rosario's book thus breaks new ground, and gives access to this rich material for a wider audience. It appears that this monograph comes at a time when general interest in the golden age of medieval Central European kingdoms under the Angevin, Luxemburgian and Jagiellonian kings is in its infancy. One book, published after the present monograph, has to be mentioned here as it is directly relevant to the subject of her book: the Autobiography of Charles IV is now available in a Latin- English edition, with the first ever English translation of the Legend of Saint Wenceslas also included: Autobiography of Charles IV of Luxemburg, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Bohemia, edited by Balázs Nagy (Budapest, 2001). With Rosario's book, the ground has been paved for the kind of comparative analysis missing from this book, and the incredible achievements of Charles IV as a patron of the arts were presented in an adequate form.

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Zsombor Jekely

Museum of Fine Arts, Budapest, Hungary