Fulco on Schmale and Romberg and Köstlbauer, 'The Language of Continent Allegories in Baroque Central Europe'

Wolfgang Schmale, Marion Romberg, Josef Köstlbauer, eds.
Daniel Fulco

Wolfgang Schmale, Marion Romberg, Josef Köstlbauer, eds. The Language of Continent Allegories in Baroque Central Europe. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag, 2017. Illustrations. 240 pp. $78.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-515-11457-8.

Reviewed by Daniel Fulco (Independent Scholar) Published on HABSBURG (May, 2017) Commissioned by Jonathan Kwan

A New Perspective on Continent Allegories

In their recent publication, Wolfgang Schmale, Marion Romberg, and Josef Köstlbauer have assembled a collection of essays devoted to a phenomenon whose scope and complexity is not often accorded the attention it deserves. While some studies have examined allegories of continents in early modern Europe, they typically discuss them more peripherally in relation to overarching concepts, personification, allegory, and overseas expansion, and tend to concentrate primarily on selected geographic regions, such as Africa and the Americas.[1] Rather than treating each of the continents as distinct entities, the present volume, which builds on the seminal work of Sabine Poeschel, is among the first of its kind to comprehensively look at all four continents as a thematically and visually interrelated group of allegories in the context of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century central Europe.[2] Much praise is in order for this publication’s focus on the rich artistic heritage of the Germanic and Slavic lands in this period, areas that are too often displaced or marginalized by scholars in favor of the dominant canon of French, Italian, Dutch, or English traditions. With a host of fresh perspectives on a type of allegorical imagery that can sometimes be viewed as purely programmatic or ancillary, the authors convincingly demonstrate both the importance and relevance of the continent allegories to critical issues in the history of visual art, architecture, religion, society, and politics during the era in question.

This book, which developed from the digital research project Continent Allegories (financed by the Austrian Science Fund, 2012-16) and an academic conference on the topic, employs both a documentary and an interpretative approach through a variety of case studies. The project concentrates on “immovable media” (frescoes, stuccoes, and sculptures) produced in the southern German lands of the former Holy Roman Empire. Specifically, the Germanic regions under consideration are located south of the River Main, from Freiburg im Breisgau in the west to the east in Bavaria, Tyrol, Lower Austria, and Vienna. This study also takes into account areas to the north in the Czech Republic and Poland. Although the primary focus is on churches, documentation and discussions also include palaces, town houses, abbeys, parks, and gardens, many of which can be viewed in the book’s color and black-and-white illustrations as well as in the online database, Continent Allegories, located at http://continentallegoriesunivie.ac.at. Since this invaluable resource is cited so frequently in the essays and inherently connected with the endeavor as a whole, readers are encouraged to view the webpage as they explore each section in order to appreciate the diverse range of artworks and monuments most effectively.

Among their key aims, the editors and contributing authors seek to determine and elucidate what continent allegories actually meant to people living in central European lands of the former Holy Roman Empire. The contributing authors discuss the relationship of this imagery to Jesuit missionary activities abroad, its profusion in parish churches, and the roles played by these institutions. Other themes include the impact of the Counter-Reformation on the iconography and Catholic liturgy in the south German territories. A special interest is taken in examining the “language” of these allegories (as referenced in the book’s title), in other words, the political, religious, and liturgical discourses that are meant by this term. An equally important aim of the volume is to shed new light on the meanings and nature of visual discourses, particularly the accessibility of continent allegories and their content to persons of different social backgrounds. As the authors argue, such imagery contrasted sharply with other mythological and highly abstract allegories because they could be understood by both elite and lay audiences through their representation of universal, less obscure themes in the public sphere of village churches.

In their introduction, the editors begin by laying out the book’s scope, identifying its broad goals, providing an introduction to the Continent Allegories database, and citing examples of how this resource can be used to observe major iconographic trends in depictions of the continents. Subsequently, Schmale explores how several secular ceiling frescoes created for palaces in the German and Austrian states embody Enlightenment theories of the history of humankind and the development of world civilization. He compares Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s Apollo and the Allegory of the Four Continents (1752-53) in the Würzburg Residenz to Johann Rudolf Byß’s similarly themed painting (1717) at Schloss Weissenstein, Pommersfelden, and points to differences in their conception, execution, and meanings.

Within the context of eighteenth-century Europe, he argues, cultural evolution was divided into four stages of the human life cycle (infancy, youth, adulthood, and maturity) that corresponded to each respective continent, and where Europe appeared at the pinnacle of development. Although such continent allegories reinforced an image of European intellectual and cultural superiority to the other parts of the world, they, like the written histories of their time, nevertheless sought to portray all human beings with a degree of dignity and compassion. Schmale’s arguments and observations provide an excellent starting point for exploring the diverse relationships that existed between early modern stadial theories of human civilization and depictions of continent allegories, an area that some scholars have begun to investigate in more depth.[3]

Centering on a group of Tyrolean churches and the manorial park of Obersiebenbrunn north of Vienna, Köstlbauer discusses how fresco programs of the continents can be viewed and analyzed as “elements” of a baroque media “cosmos.” The author employs such terms as “seriality,” “typology,” and “double coding” to identify major formal and iconographical characteristics of baroque art. Fresco programs of this era constituted part of a trans-media process in which painting, stuccowork, and architecture work together as a cohesive ensemble. According to Köstlbauer, the continents sometimes evolved into “double-coded” images, that is, hybrids that melded parts of the world with the four seasons and other allegories drawn from Renaissance sources and ancient Greco-Roman imagery. In the author’s view, not much emphasis was placed on the individuality of the imagery. Instead, a key trend emerges and reoccurs in all of the works of art under examination: the highly valued recycling and adaptation of iconographic motifs, which helped establish a familiar visual repertoire that could be interpreted by diverse audiences in a range of contexts.

The next set of essays by Haruka Oba, Katrin Sterba, and Romberg focus on continent allegories within the sacred sphere of eighteenth-century village churches. The first two contributors examine the phenomenon in relation to St. Francis Xavier’s Jesuit missionary activities in Japan, Africa, and the East Indies. Apart from St. Ignatius of Loyola, Francis Xavier was one of the most frequently portrayed missionaries (in the visual arts and Jesuit dramas) because he was associated with global missionary activities closely. His evangelization and writings inspired other young missionaries to take up the cause.

Oba maintains that the messages and themes conveyed in mid-eighteenth-century Jesuit dramas about Japan and the four continents parallel the veneration of Francis Xavier and his depiction in the visual art of the south German lands. Specifically, the portrayal of King Francis of Bungo (Sorin Otomo), a Japanese convert to Catholicism and a friend of Francis Xavier, can be identified in dramas, sermons, and ceiling frescoes painted by such artists as Phillip Jacob Greil and Christian Thomas Scheffler. Perhaps most significantly, theatrical works brought these stories, images, and their underlying concepts to a broad public. They made missions abroad more accessible and readily understood by viewers through an appeal to their senses, a crucial part of Counter-Reformation ideology and practices. While we gain a thorough understanding of Francis Xavier’s endeavors in the context of the imagery, the reader is unfortunately left to speculate on further specifics regarding the plots, structure, and staging of these Jesuit dramas, which would have helped to illustrate more clearly the complex relationships between visual and performance-based works in church settings.

Following a similar line of inquiry, Sterba demonstrates that representations of the four continents found in Bavaria and Bohemia could be portrayed as foreign regions to be converted by Jesuit missionaries or alternatively refer to areas that had been evangelized by them already. She divides the Jesuit imagery related to the continents into two distinct types (based on models proposed by Poeschel): “mission type” and “devotion type.” These designations refer to their function as images dedicated to evangelization efforts in exotic lands, the adoration of a specific religious figure by all four continent personifications, or in some instances a combination of the two types. The notion of universal Catholicism and its dissemination throughout the world under the divine supervision of Saints Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier are explored. It is argued that the latter mission type was gradually supplanted by the devotion approach in the 1730s because the majority of evangelizing missions had been completed by this time.

Romberg’s first essay examines statistical data of predominant iconographical themes related to the four continents in Bavarian and Swabian church frescoes. As we discover, the continents appeared in several common Adoration subjects, including those of the Virgin Mary, Christ, the Eucharist, the Holy Trinity, and lives of various saints. Her second essay innovatively explores how the four continents were employed in Catholic Counter-Reformation imagery to teach and instruct churchgoers about religious doctrines. As the author demonstrates, instruction occurred both via sermons and private oral traditions within and outside of services. In particular, drawing on the post-Council of Trent notion of creating a highly compelling sense of visible authority, the church became a permanent theatrum sacrum of religious education and a place where all believers could express their piety. Most frequently, German frescoes by Gottfried Bernhard Göz, Franz Martin Kuen, and Johann Jacob Fröschle celebrated the ecclesia triumphans and advertised a brand of universal Catholicism that dominated over Protestantism. In these images, figures dressed as Protestants are portrayed as opponents or enemies of Catholicism and are expelled from the composition, whereby they illusionistically fall below into the viewer’s space.

In the altar and mural paintings of Kuen, the devotional poses of the continent personifications sought to connect contemporary worshipers to cult objects (most notably portraits of the Virgin). As Romberg astutely contends, they acted as earthly representatives of the religious community and helped to clarify abstract theological doctrines, such as the physical presence of Christ conveyed by the Eucharist or the Virgin’s Immaculate Conception. By combining images of these themes with the adoring four continents, the concept of a Catholic world community united in faith and adoration of subjects related to transubstantiation (a notion rejected by Protestants that cast them out of the Catholic faith) was privileged and glorified. Hence, the church’s infallible holy authority could be bolstered and imparted further on worshipers.

Turning to a different region within the empire, Christine Moisan-Jablonski and Katarzyna Ponínska explore how continent allegories manifested themselves in secular and sacred monuments of the Polish territories, broadly defined as Silesia (Greater Poland in the West), Royal Prussia, and the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the East. As both authors make clear, any consideration of this geographic area must take into account the destruction and loss of key visual examples as a result of pre- and post-World War II political events, particularly the Nazi and Soviet occupations of Poland, which devastated the country’s cultural heritage as a whole. The primary purpose of these essays is to introduce the theme of the four continents in Polish art, and Moisan-Jablonski’s study is the first of its kind devoted to this topic, a notable achievement.

Rather than predominantly documenting various works, this essay could have centered on a restricted group of examples and allocated more space to developing several focused interpretations of selected images, an approach that is employed more extensively by Ponínska. In examining depictions of the continents in Warsaw, she concentrates on both church and palace frescoes, most notably those created by Giovanni Battista Colomba, Walenty Zebrowski, and André Le Brun. As Ponínska contends, the imagery found in Polish lands, like its counterpart represented in the neighboring Germanic states, conveyed a universal message of knowing and understanding the world and its diverse cultures.

Overall, this volume effectively achieves its key goals and tackles an ambitious subject that is both fascinating and multifaceted. With that said, this compendium could have benefited from several improvements. Chief among them would have been to tie the essays by Britta Kägler and Claudio Ferlan more closely to the book’s main objectives. Although these authors discuss important historical circumstances pertinent to early modern continent allegories in central Europe, they rather surprisingly fall short of a direct, critical engagement with the imagery and its underlying concepts, an ommission that inadvertenly and unecessarily separates their work from the other essays in the study. Apart from this issue, a comparative method could have been implemented more extensively in order to bring secular and religious depictions of the continents into a dialogue with one another rather than treating them as distinct entities by virtue of their intended audiences.

In addition, the reader might have hoped to learn more about continent allegories created in Austria proper given both their abundance there and the fact that many of these lands were under direct control of the imperial Habsburg government, one of the dominant powers in this region. In particular, a consideration of works produced for palaces, abbeys, and civic monuments by such artists as Carpoforo Tencalla da Bissone, Antonio Beduzzi, Johann Michael Rottmayr, and Daniel Gran would have helped strengthen this area. Notwithstanding its shortcomings, this volume does a great deal to expand our understanding of continental allegories, particularly in relation to their proliferation of religious imagery, and it opens the door for future research on a subject ripe with possibilities for further exploration.


[1]. For example, see most recently Walter S. Melion and Bart Rammakers, eds., Personification: Embodying Meaning and Emotion (Leiden: Brill, 2016); and Benjamin Schmidt, Inventing Exoticism: Geography, Globalism, and Europe’s Early Modern World (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015).

[2]. Consult Sabine Poeschel, “Studien zur Ikonographie der Erdteile in der Kunst des 16. bis 18. Jahrhunderts” (PhD diss., Ludwigs-Maximilians Universität, 1985).

[3]. For a recent interpretation of Tiepolo’s Würzburg fresco in relation to this concept, see chapter 6 in my Exuberant Apotheoses: Italian Frescoes in the Holy Roman Empire, Visual Culture and Princely Power in the Age of Enlightenment (Leiden: Brill, 2016), 436-501.

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Citation: Daniel Fulco. Review of Schmale, Wolfgang; Romberg, Marion; Köstlbauer, Josef, eds., The Language of Continent Allegories in Baroque Central Europe. HABSBURG, H-Net Reviews. May, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49428

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