September 13, 2016
Although most of the Photoarchive’s 1.2 million reproductions illustrate art from just eight national schools, works from an additional forty countries and regions classified “minor schools” are also represented. An artist from the Tyrolese School, which encompasses works from the intersection of Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and Germany, is presumed to have painted this representation (see illustration) of a fifteenth-century statue called the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln.
Einsiedeln Abbey, near Zurich, Switzerland, stands on the former hermitage of the ninth-century St. Meinrad; the figure of the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, revered as “Our Lady of the Hermits,” is housed above the Abbey’s Lady Chapel. The Black Madonna (see illustration) is one of several hundred statues of its type throughout Europe. The history of the Einsiedeln figure is somewhat convoluted: it is thought to have been carved about 1450, replacing a much older, seated Madonna. In 1798, the statue was secreted through Switzerland and Austria to protect it from the invading French army. It was uncovered the following year and given to the restorer Johann Adam Fuetscher, who describes having “repainted” the black face. It is assumed the original statue did have light, pink-colored skin, but the figure is thought to have turned black long before its restoration. While many sources further the idea that the statue was darkened from years of exposure to the flames and smoke from nearby candles, the image of the Black Madonna is nonetheless a distinct object of worship and pilgrimage.
This curious painting reproduced in Photoarchive files documents one point in the history of the equally mysterious statue. The upper part of the canvas shows the Black Madonna of Einsiedeln surrounded by a host of local saints. Embedded below is a small scene describing the miraculous consecration of the Abbey in September 948 (illustrated below). The work is signed “J. Wörl” at lower left, a name the New York dealer Gerard Stern associated in 1964 with Johann David Werl, an early seventeenth-century German painter. Frick Library staff, however, thought it more likely the signature of Johann Woerle, a church decorator in Tyrol active in the second half of the eighteenth century. Stern sold the painting to Kunsthaus Lempertz in Cologne, Germany, and its current location is unknown.
From the early seventeenth century, the Black Madonna at Einsiedeln was dressed up in different colored robes to reflect the changing liturgical calendar. The Photoarchive reproduction presumably shows the statue in the clothes it would have worn in the late eighteenth century. Today, the statue’s clothing is changed throughout the year and its wardrobe includes elaborate, satin and sequined robes donated by the Abbey’s congregants. The rigidity of the fabric belies the gentle sway of the Madonna’s pose underneath, only visible today through photographs.
Johann Wörle (active 18th century), The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln, Surrounded by Saints, with the Scene of the Madonna Appearing on the Altar at the Foot, undated. Oil on canvas. Location unknown.
Detail of The Black Madonna of Einsiedeln