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Lower Belvedere exhibits restored fragment of the Lenten Veil by Thomas of Villach
Thomas von Villach, Fragment of a Lenten Veil, about 1470/80. Painting on linen, 108 x 171 cm. Belvedere, Vienna, © Abegg-Stiftung, CH-3132 Riggisberg, 2014; (Photo: Christoph von Viràg).

VIENNA.- Since 2009, the collection of medieval art at the Belvedere has been enriched by a precious textile. This outstanding and previously unknown “tüchlein” painting on linen is part of a late Gothic Lenten veil. CURRENTLY RESTORED: Fragment of the Lenten Veil by Thomas of Villach can be seen at the Medieval Treasury in the Palace Stables at the Lower Belvedere from 6 March to 25 May 2015 . It depicts scenes from the Old Testament: the Gathering of Manna, Moses Drawing Water from the Rock, the Brazen Serpent, the Dance around the Golden Calf, Moses Receiving the Tablets of the Law, and Moses Punishing the Israelites. Lenten veils have been documented for over a thousand years. During the forty days of Lent before Easter they were used to veil choirs, altarpieces, crosses or devotional images. In Central Europe, however, painted examples first appear in the early fifteenth century, and these were to be found especially in the region of the Alps. This fragment can be dated around 1470–80 and belongs to this tradition.

This sensational discovery was made in 2008 when the art collection at the castle Frey Schlössl on the Mönchsberg in Salzburg was broken up. The businessman, amateur photographer, and collector Carl von Frey (1826–1896) had furnished and decorated his NeoGothic summer residence with medieval artworks and furniture. The Frey collection was not completely documented in the published record of Salzburg’s art collections in 1919, which explains why it took so long for the veil to be discovered. This piece must originate from a Lenten veil with abundant images, probably depicting the History of Salvation from the Creation to the Last Judgement. These series of images, including comparable scenes from the story of Moses, can also be found on the few surviving Gothic Lenten veils in Gurk, Zittau in Saxony, St. Lambrecht in Styria, and Haimburg in Carinthia. The oldest and largest of these is the Gurk Lenten veil of 1458, comprising ninety-nine images and covering a total area of c. 890 x 890 cm. The impressive effect of this vast veil can be experienced to this day at Gurk Cathedral, where it forms a visual barrier to the high altarpiece from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday. This fragment from the Frey Collection is possibly the remains of a similarly vast Lenten veil from a large church in Carinthia, although there is no way of finding out where it was once displayed. “I am delighted to be able to present the fragment of the Lenten veil by Thomas of Villach in the exhibition series CURRENTLY RESTORED. Shown in the medieval study collection at the Palace Stables, this is the first time there has been a focus on a work of textile art,” Belvedere Director Agnes Husslein-Arco stated. “I am also extremely pleased about the two panel paintings from St. Peter near Salzburg, from a private collection, which have never been shown in Vienna before and will become a permanent addition to the Belvedere’s collection after the exhibition. As there were no works by Thomas of Villach in our medieval collection prior to this, it is even more gratifying that this important master is now represented by three,” Agnes Husslein-Arco continues.

“A particular aim of this exhibition is to show visitors the function and significance of medieval Lenten veils, which have survived in an unusual number in the region of the Austrian and Swiss Alps – from Styria to Carinthia and Tyrol to the Grisons,” curator Veronika Pirker-Aurenhammer explains. Lenten veils have been documented in many places and in many different manifestations for over a thousand years. Originally made of plain white or grey linen, as the custom spread, painted textiles followed by Lenten veils with pictures started appearing.

The Painter Thomas Artula of Villach
Thomas Artula of Villach, the master’s historically verified name, is rightfully regarded as the greatest Carinthian painter of his day. In his travel account of 1486, Paolo Santonino praised Master Thomas as the “second Apelles”. To be lauded by the humanist chancellor of the patriarchate of Aquileia was an unusual honour for a painter from the Alpine region. Thomas of Villach’s extensive oeuvre also included the wall paintings at Gerlamoos, Thörl, St. Paul im Lavanttal, and Graz Cathedral, as well as panel paintings, today largely housed in museums at Villach, Klagenfurt, and Bolzano. This Lenten veil fragment is the first and only known textile by the artist. One of his outstanding works, it is distinguished by its concentrated narrative and clear formal language. “In order to illustrate this Villach master’s wide-ranging oeuvre, in addition to this new discovery, the exhibition is showing a selection of panel paintings and reproductions of murals by Thomas of Villach. These provide a thorough representation of his varied skill as an artist and craftsman,” Veronika Pirker-Aurenhammer states. “In addition, it was my particular aim to document in detail the art-historical significance of this fragment and its restoration,” Pirker-Aurenhammer continues.

Restoring the precious “tüchlein” painting
When it was purchased, the damaged and faded veil was contaminated with the spores of dry rot; this called for immediate action. The Abegg Foundation in Riggisberg near Bern, one of the world’s leading institutions for historical textiles, took in the imperilled object for examination and restoration work. Non-invasive methods were first used to examine the Lenten veil fragment. Radiodiagnostic procedures, such as infrared reflectography and ultraviolet photography, emphasized contrasts, highlighted differences in material, and pinpointed damage. For example, in the scene of the Brazen Serpent, traces of pigment have been identified as the snake’s head in the infrared reflectography. Further important information was subsequently gained through invasive analyses of material samples. These processes have revealed microbial infestation and also detected the original colour pigments on the extremely faded cloth. “We are delighted that after comprehensive restoration, the veil has been returned to the Belvedere from

Switzerland and can be presented to the public for the first time – in a stabilized condition and specially mounted to protect it from any further damage,” Agnes Husslein-Arco said.

Appropriately this work, now fortunately saved from deterioration, is being presented during Lent in the medieval collection’s series CURRENTLY RESTORED. The show is accompanied by a publication compiled in collaboration with the Abegg Foundation. We would like to thank the Abegg Foundation for its support and for the great dedication of all the conservators involved in this project.

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