blooming fields and mountains

There’s Something About Mary….

In this post, David Murray writes about the importance of the Virgin Mary in and around 14th century Salzburg.


It would be an understatement to say that the fourteenth century was quite keen on the Virgin Mary.

In Salzburg, the parish church, now known as the Franziskanerkirche, was dedicated to the Virgin, as were the Nonnberg convent near Salzburg and the Eigenkloster at Admont in Styria. Mary is also, unsurprisingly, heavily represented in the religious songs that were composed at the court of Archbishop Pilgrim II and transmitted to us attributed to the anonymous ‘Monk of Salzburg’. The religious pieces combine a varied selection of translations of Latin hymns and sequences from the liturgy with more idiosyncratic compositions and pieces sharing characteristics with the German Meisterlieder of the time. Of the forty-nine religious songs in the corpus, twenty are devoted to the Virgin.

A score of a German religious song

‘Richer schatz der höchsten freuden’, in Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm. 715, f. 12r.


Two of the sequences speak particularly eloquently to the value of Marian devotion in Salzburg. One, entitled ‘Plum gezartet, ros an doren’ (‘Delicate flower, rose without thorns’), is decorated with an acrostic so that the first letter of each versicle together spell PYLGREIM ERCZPISCHOF LEGAT, a clear reference to archbishop. Another, ‘Reicher schatz der höchsten freude’ (‘Rich treasury of the greatest joys’) has an acrostic reading RICHERUS PLEBANUS JN RASTAT. We can identify this Richerus as Reicher von Ettlingen, mentioned in 1384 in the liber vitae of St Ruprecht (that is, the book in which the cathedral community recorded the name of the souls for whom it was to pray) as being rector parrochialis ecclesie Rastat et quondam magister curie. A Member of a Bavarian noble family, Reicher, as Hofmeister, was responsible for managing the central portions of the archiepiscopal estates.


Rastat (now spelled Radstadt) in the Pongau valley was, as the impressive town walls still demonstrate, an important centre for archiepiscopal authority.


The song, ‘Reicher schatz der höchsten freuden’ has a particularly ornate text, with rhyme upon rhyme mirroring the unlimited joys as well as the help that Mary was thought to offer worshippers. For example, the third double versicle reads


Engelischer gruss dich grüsset,

götlich süss dich übersüsset,

dein suss wais chain pitterkhait

The angelic greeting greets you

divine sweetness makes you sweet all over

your sweetness knows no bitterness


Reicher seems to have been particularly devoted to Mary, and his devotions extended far beyond song: his seal shows a Virgin of Mercy, with Mary sheltering the people under her cloak (a popular piece of Marian imagery that is also picked up in the Monk’s song). Perhaps most striking though is the statue of the Virgin and Child that he appears to have acquired in 1393 for the parish church at Altenmarkt. The statue, which stands at 80cm in height is a particularly fine and relatively early example of the so-called Beautiful Madonna. I recently made an academic pilgrimage to Altenmarkt to visit the statue.



The Altenmarkt Madonna in close-up


The date for the statue’s arrival in Altenmarkt can be deduced from an indulgence promising the remission of forty days for all those who prayed before this particular statue, signed by the papal nuncio Ubaldino de Torres in Prague. This may or may not align with the three trips that Pilgrim von Puechheim made to Prague to try to win over King Wenceslaus for the Avignon obedience. In the seventeenth century, the statue is recorded as having been on display ‘on a pine tree’ in the churchyard. (The image of an enormous, year-round Christmas tree in Altenmarkt, complete with Marian angel-replacement is rather terrific. But given that the statue is made of cast stone, and thus not of the lightest, this picture does not seem entirely likely. Suggestions on a postcard please…)


Indeed, so prominent is Mary that she makes her way into songs where, normally at least, she would not be expected. For instance, ‘Sälig sei der selden zait’ (‘Blessed be the time of salvation’) is a contrafactum of a Latin sequence with the title ‘Mundi renovatio’. (Contrafacta are songs sung to the tunes of already existing songs; so, for example, ‘The Red Flag’ is a contrafactum of ‘O, Tannenbaum’.)  The text of ‘Mundi renovatio’ is a very well-known celebration of the Resurrection and thus focussed on Jesus and Easter, and may have been composed at the Abbey of St Victor, responsible for something of a revolution in sequence composition in the twelfth century. By contrast, the German text composed to be sung to this melody in Salzburg is as much concerned with the Virgin as it is with Christ. Mary, it proposes is actually an essential part of Easter, because without her, there would have been no Jesus to crucify. By singing this text with a shifted focus to an older tune that many people would know to ‘mean’ something rather different, the poet was able to blend together two ideas into one new song.


The Altenmarkt pietà, c.1410-1420.


Another late medieval sculpture in Altenmarkt, which dates from after Reicher von Rastat’s tenure (it seems to date from the first fifth of the fifteenth century), is an example of a very popular version of the pietà, in which the Virgin holds the body of the crucified Jesus. The book-end to the Madonna and Child, the pietà, or Vesperbild as it is called in German, it speaks of an intense engagement with the Easter story in this corner of the world, of a kind also found in one of the more unusual pieces of the Monk of Salzburg. ‘Die nacht wirt schir des himels gast’ (‘The night will soon leave the skies’), narrates in vivid manner the events of the Passion, with one strophe for each of the canonical hours (matins, lauds, prime, terce, sext, nones, vespers, and compline). The strophe for vespers ends with these lines:

man legt in da mit jammer groß

Maria toten in ir schoß.

vil haisser zäher sie vergoß

und halst in minneclich.

sie kusst in oft in irem laid

und sprach: ‘mein liebste augelwaid,

mein chind, so ich nun von dir schaid,

wer sol dann trösten mich?’

sie wand vor laid ir weissen hend

mit innerm seufzen ser:

‘ich bin so jemerlich ellend

und enwaiß wo ich hin ker.’

They lay him there, with great anguish,

Dead in Mary’s lap.

Many hot tears she shed

And embraced him with love.

She kissed him often in her sorrow,

And said, ‘My dearest darling,

My child, now that I leave you,

Who will be my comfort?’

She turned her white hand for sorrow,

With deep and inmost sighs.

‘I am so miserably anguished

And do not know where to turn.’


The fervour behind Marian devotion in fourteenth-century Salzburg and its area of influence, then, crossed the boundaries between media and points to an immersive religious experience for the worshipper. The vividness of the statuary in circulation (look, for instance, at the way the Madonna’s fingers depress the flesh of the infant Jesus in the Altenmarkt Madonna) echoes both the grandeur and the emotionality of the songs dedicated to Mary which are attributed to the Monk of Salzburg. Mary, then, was present to her worshippers in music, words, and physical representations, and at all points in-between.


Further reading

Hamburger, Jeffrey, ‘Rahmenbedingungen der Marienfrömmigkeit im Spätmittelalter’, in Schöne Madonnen vom Rhein: Eine Veröffentlichung des LVR-LandesMuseums Bonn, ed. by Robert Suckale (Leipzig: Seeman, 2009), pp. 121-137

Kvapilová, Ludmila, Vesperbilder in Bayern von 1380 bis 1430 zwischen Import und einheimischer Produktion (Petersberg: Imhof, 2017)

März, Christoph, Die weltlichen Lieder des Mönchs von Salzburg: Texte und Melodien (Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1999)

Spechtler, Franz Viktor, Die geistlichen Lieder des Mönchs von Salzburg (Berlin & New York, De Gruyter, 1972)

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