Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Fairy Tales and Christian Values

In Bavaria, Germany, there is this tradition of painting murals on the facades of houses. It is called "Lueftlmalerei" (and sorry I have no clue how to translate that). This form of facade-painting is most popular in Upper Bavaria and Tirol and derives from the Italian Baroque facade-painting-tradition. In Germany it dates back to the 18th century, was mostly executed by craftsmen and showed the wealth and status of the citizens and farmers who ordered the facades to be decorated in such fashion. Spread by traders these buildings can be found mostly at marketplaces and on trade routes of the alpine regions. They show decorative or illusionistic medallions (trompe l'oeuil), Christian saints and episodes of the Bible, scenes of every day life. Oberammergau, a small town in the Allgau region, most popular for its passion-plays around Easter, has a variety of houses that are painted this way, but the chosen motifs do not belong to the Christian iconography or the everyday life as usual but show scenes from fairy tales.

The first frescoes were executed 1922-25 by the artist Throll who chose the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel by the Brothers Grimm to decorate a children's home that was founded by a local friendly society that cared for children orphaned in the First World War. The frescoes depict one of the most generous donors - the opera singer Marie Mattfeld - in the center of the composition and - grouped around that - the scenes of the fairy tale.
Each scene is combined with distiches that interpret the scene in a distinct - mostly Christian - way that transforms each motif from a "simple" folk-tale-scene to a parable of Christian value. Comparable to the tradition of emblematas each of these fairy tale scenes consists now of an "icon" and an "epigramm" and so, the fresco motifs don't contribute solely to the narrative of the fairy tale, but are simultaneously a "book of wisdom" telling the observer about God's love and giving advice in the manner of common proverbs. For example, the text under the first detail-image says: Don't forget to pray at night - then angels protect you while you sleep.

In contrast to the political national pictorial program of the Kaiserpfalz the frescoes in Oberammergau do not have anything to say to the 19th century endavour of building a great nation. They are really a bit naive, simple folk sayings such as "beware of witches, you see what they do to Hansel" or "trust in God and everything will be fine". It's not exactly a pictorial programm developed by an acadamical educated artist.

In 1926, the house was extended and Max Strauss decorated the newly acquired annex building with decorative frescoes still showing fairy tale figures such as The Hare and the Hedgehog or The Valiant Little Tailor, but now without telling a complete fairy tale.

This fairy tale paintings were obviously so popular, that, in 1953, Max Strauss also decorated the house opposite to the children's home with frescoes to Little Red Riding Hood. As before, there is a strong Christian interpretation of the story provided that integrate the fairy tale motifs once again in the traditional iconography of the "Lueftlmalerei".

Just a few final words about the painting technique: They are frescoes. You can see the partition-lines where the fresh chalk plastering was applied and then the chalk colour before both fused together and dried out.
In 1951, the frescoes were redone in Keim mineral paints (look here for more information on these special paints:
and are probably retouched every twenty/thirty years at least.

(photos by me, on a visit a few days back.)

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