Picture Perfect II: Frescos and (not so) Courtly Display

In my last post I looked at artworks from the castle at Runkelstein in what is now northern Italy inspired by popular courtly romances and epics. In this piece, I turn to murals from around the same period in Vienna inspired by the rather different court poet, Neidhart von Riuwental, and in rather less grand surroundings…


A visit to Vienna in the autumn provided an opportunity to make the personal acquaintance of a work of art I first came into contact with as a finalist, now an increasingly long time ago. The Neidhart murals are the earliest secular wall paintings in Austria, and remarkable for their size (there are extensive remains of about 30 metres of paintings), and for the vividness with which they give life to figures made famous by literature. They are based on the songs of the thirteenth-century poet Neidhart von Riuwental (a stage-name roughly translating as Deeply Envious of the Vale of Sorrows—surely a distant relative of that prolific letter-writer Disgruntled of Tunbridge Wells..). Neidhart also became the object of narrative texts that grew up after his death. The most famous, Neidhart Fuchs, was first published in 1491, and again in the sixteenth century—evidence of a remarkably long-lasting affection among audiences.

A crowd of medieval dancing figures in bright colours with arms upraised

Manesse Codex, Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, cod. pal. germ. 848, c. 1300-1340, Zurich, f. 273r

Neidhart’s poems play out the topoi of courtly love (the male love-servant who gains his lady’s favour after completion of difficult tasks, and by suppressing the expectation of fulfilment or reward, while both parties exhibit the most refined manners and behaviour) among the village world of farmers and peasants. They are, of course, not ‘proper’ courtiers, and so things do not go the way they should. Part of the anti-Ruritanian feel of the poetry is the strange choice of the word dörper (‘villagers’) to name the peasants. Rather Low German in colour (that is, the family of dialects spoken in the Netherlands and the north of modern Germany), it places these non-courtly events at a safe remove from Neidhart’s audiences in Vienna, where he was in the service of Duke Frederick II in the 1230s and 40s.

Interpreting the songs has proven somewhat difficult; some read them as an expression of snobbery, the court making fun of those striving to climb the greasy pole. This reading is certainly not without its merits, for instance Neidhart makes fun of the dörper’s affected dress, remarking in Winterlied 24:


Enge röcke tragent sî und smale schaperûne,

Rôte hüete, rinkelohte schuohe, swarze hosen.

Engelmâr getet mir nie sô leide an Vriderûne,

Sam die zwêne tuont, ich nîde ir phellerîne phosen,

Die si tragent:


They wear tight-fitting skirts and narrow hoods

Red hats, buckled shoes and black breeches.

Engelmar never did anything to Vriderun to hurt me so much

As those two do; I envy the purple purses

That they carry at their belt.


At the same time, though, we could also think about them as criticism of the skin-deep courtliness of certain courtiers. In Ursula Peters’ reading, this is particularly targeted at those members of the lower nobility whose drive to break through the glass ceiling in the thirteenth century was putting pressure on the Establishment ministeriales. That is to say that the dörper recall the alarming decay of old social structures. (Compare the image of the farmers putting on armour and playing at knights, an idea also sent up in Werner der Gartnære’s short story Helmbrecht. In that text, aspirations to courtliness are also mocked by the family of the title figure when he returns home spouting random fragments of foreign languages. Think Del Boy Trotter in Only Fools and Horses saying things like ‘Mange tout, Rodney...’)

Mein Bezirk, https://www.meinbezirk.at/donaustadt/lokales/die-neidhart-fresken-d740433.html 20th Nov 2017

The origins of the murals in Vienna also shed some light on the cultural capital of this literary material, even at quite some remove from its first ‘publication’ and from a non-courtly quarter. Commissioned by the merchant Michel Menschein possibly around 1398, they were rediscovered during building works in 1979 in a house in the street called Tuchlauben, named after the cloth merchants who lived and sold their wares there. The murals offer an exciting insight to some of the people who listened to Neidhart’s songs, as well as what happens to the works of court poets after their time. By this point Neidhart was a major folk hero, and a rather magnificent grave had been built for him on the south side of St. Stephan’s Cathedral in Vienna, although it is at best unclear that he was actually buried there.

Sepia photograph of tomb at St Stephan's Cathedral

Credit: Wiener Geschichte(n), http://wiener-geschichten.at/2017/08/01/neidhart-von-reuenthal/ 10th Nov 2017

What, then, was it that attracted this merchant to decorate his house with these rather lascivious misbehaving villagers? It seems reasonable to suppose that there is a certain amount of snobbery to be read here: Menschein was one of the city council, and a major international business man dealing with traders from Cologne and the Low Countries. Also, since silk was not produced in Vienna until the eighteenth century, he would have traded with Venetian merchants, whom he may well have entertained in this room. The choice of subject seems to tread a line between showing himself to be a man of the people on the one hand, and showing how comparatively refined he was.

After all, no-one could possibly think Menschein and his family capable of the unpleasant practical joke in the Violet scene. Based on the song ‘Urlaub hab der winter’ [‘Let winter take its leave’], this scene is also portrayed on an exterior wall at Runkelstein castle in Südtirol, discussed in my last post. In it, the ruler has decreed that the first person to see a violet each year must tell him about it, so that the community could celebrate the advent of Spring. Neidhart finds it this year, and places his hat over it, so that the duchess can pick it. He runs off to find her, and meanwhile a dörper picks up the hat, and applies what might be described as home-made fertilizer to the violet. The duchess, as one might imagine, is rather upset when she lifts up the hat. Sadly, in the Vienna murals, one can only see a section of the duchess’s party walking out from the city, on the left, raising their arms in shock at the dörper’s dirty trick. Poor old Neidhart.

Scene of a courtly party at Runkelstein Castle

Sagen.at, http://www.sagen.at/fotos/showphoto.php/photo/30298 accessed 20th Nov 2017

What would pass these days as fairly broad humour was evidently perfectly acceptable for the Viennese bourgeoisie at the end of the fourteenth century. Just as much as proving one’s propriety, it seems that the choice of what one puts on one’s walls was about showing yourself to be a good sport. So take note on your next trip to B&Q…

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.