The Riddle of Armenian Letters on the Bavarian Fresco

The Riddle of Armenian Letters on the Bavarian FrescoThe grandiose and largest-in-the-world fresco by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo decorates the lobby of the Bavarian Bishops’ Palace in Würzburg. It features mythological creatures, ancient gods, nymphs, naiads, inhabitants of exotic countries, other figures fluttering among the clouds in a light dizzying flight, and… Armenian letters carved into a stone plate.

How did the artist manage to foresee the future of the people in his creation? Or maybe depicting them, he fatefully influenced the fate of his models?

The paint hadn’t even dried out on the biggest fresco in the world when Baltasar Neumann, the architect of the Würzburg Residence, died. Tiepolo had “seated” him on the barrel of a gun at the feet of the god of death Thanatos. And a year later, the owner of the castle, Bishop von Greifenklau, died. No wonder a disgusting old man, an allegory of the end of life, stared at him on the fresco.

And Chronos, the winged deity of time with a scythe and an hourglass counting the last months of the bishop’s life, settled on the very portrait of Tiepolo’s client. Is all this because the bishop did not approve the original version? Nonetheless, it had been for the better because there hadn’t been Armenian letters on it!

Giovanni Battista Tiepolo (1696 – 1770) enjoyed the glory of the most demanded and expensive Venetian artist. Families of patricians, monasteries, and churches sought to possess his paintings, although it was hard to reach Tiepolo in his homeland, Venice, which was considered the world capital of the arts in the 18th century.

Orders followed one after another. Along Tiepolo’s customers was the Minister of Saxony Brühl, who had already possessed the canvases of the greatest masters of the past but nevertheless wished to have the works of his contemporary artist as well. Orders even came from faraway Russia. Tiepolo’s “Triumph of Mars” for the Dutch house (later the Chinese palace) in Oranienbaum was one of those orders.

The “King of Fresco” received orders from Sweden and Germany, but he rejected the offer of the Swedish monarch. Tiepolo preferred the assignment of the Bavarian Bishop Karl Philipp von Greifenklau, who had just completed the construction of the Würzburg Residence. The bishop had an outstanding personality and was a subtle connoisseur of art.

Giovanni Battista was not only a rather expensive but also an outstandingly fast painter. Just a couple of years, and he was done painting the Kaisersaal, the imperial hall of the palace. The bishop was particularly delighted by the scenes associated with Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa’s stay in Würzburg.

So the question of who should be assigned with the ceiling painting over Treppenhaus, the main staircase of the residence, the most important place in the palace, the apotheosis of the demonstration of the power of the owners of any castle, was answered.

In 1752, Tiepolo began to create another masterpiece, the “Apollo and Continents” fresco. It was the high point of his creative career. A sketch of a fresco (which is today kept in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) was soon ready.

The aristocrats of Malta and Italy greatly demanded historical and mythological subjects, on the basis of which Tiepolo created the first sketches. But the popular secular subject did not satisfy the bishop, so he asked to add stories from the history of Christianity.

As a result, Asia, where Jesus was born and the oldest alphabets appeared, was represented on the fresco as the cradle of Christianity. Two pilgrims, who had bowed in a greeting to Europe in the sketch, bowed before the cross, on which Jesus was crucified, in the final variant of the fresco.

The symbolic meaning of almost all the figures depicted on the fresco is quite clear. But it still is surprising to see an old man with a torch in his hand sitting on a plate with letters, which have been hardly known in Europe. But a person familiar with the Armenian alphabet can easily recognize Armenian letters among them.

How did they appear on this famous mural? What does the elder have to do with them? And, finally, what does this composition symbolize?

Many people had such questions, but only two centuries after the creation of the fresco, German scientists started to discuss the Armenian component in Tiepolo’s work.

It turned out that the artist was connected to it indirectly. The fact is that in the forties of the 18th century, the beloved disciple of the great Venetian, Francesco Zunio, (1708 – 1787) spent considerable time in the monastery of the Mekhitarists on the island of Saint Lazarus in Venice.

There, he created altar images of the Holy Fathers of the Armenian Church. Among them was a magnificent picture of the baptism of King Trdat III by St. Gregory the Illuminator and the canonical portrayal of Mesrop Mashtots with the Armenian alphabet.

Perhaps, in the guise of an old man with a torch in his hand on a fresco in Treppenhaus, Mashtots appears before us. As for the letters themselves, there are forty-three on the fresco of Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, seven more than Mashtots had created.

Some of them are not complete, are inverted, or are similar to consonant Latin or Greek letters. But, undoubtedly, most are the letters of the Armenian alphabet.

Perhaps, depicting the Armenian letters and their creator, Tiepolo paid tribute to the people who first adopted Christianity. And in the letters themselves, some secret message has been encrypted, which is quite in the spirit of the Baroque era. But all those riddles are yet unanswered.

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