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Fascinating & For Sale: Rare 15th Century Topographic Painting of the Holy Land

October 11, 2011

Tomorrow at Dorotheum in Vienna, this fascinating topographic painting of the Holy Land is coming to auction, lot 423 estimated at EUR 90,000-120,000 (UPDATE: This work went unsold). Here’s an image and the catalogue entry:

Palestine, 15th Century Topography of the Holy Land, tempera on canvas, 82 x 118 cm, framed, Dorotheum.

Palestine, 15th Century

Topography of the Holy Land,
tempera on canvas, 82 x 118 cm, framed

Provenance: Austrian private collection

Certificate: Univ. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Speyer, University of Salzburg (e-mail messages of 13 and 14 June 2010).

An examination carried out by Prof. Manfred Schreiner, Professor for Colour Theory and Chemistry at the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, has revealed that the painting dates from the 15th Century.

The present painting is a significant art historical and historical document, being one of the oldest known examples in a small group of rare topographies (maps) of Palestine and Jerusalem, the Holy City of Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Speyer of the University of Salzburg describes the painting as “an excellent work of great singularity and high significance for the history of Palestine mapping”. He writes: “The city of Jerusalem … appears as the centre of the world, as its hub or ‘omphalos’.”

Prof. Speyer identifies a polygonal layout reminiscent of a dodecagon, corresponding to the ‘Twelve Gates of Divine Jerusalem’. Remarkable places and cities of the Holy Land are arranged around Jerusalem in the centre in the form of a synopsis. At the upper left we discern Nazareth, according to recent research not only the town of Christ’s childhood, but also the place of his birth. At the upper margin appears a symbol of the River Jordan. Prof. Speyer assumes that the present painting, provided it is a Byzantine original, must have been made before 1453, the fall of Constantinople. However, he also considers it possible that the work’s author was an emigrated Byzantine painter. We can see the city of Jerusalem surrounded by walls enclosing the sacred places as scenes of biblical events: the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, today claimed by six Christian confessions, with the tomb of Christ, and the Rotunda, the place of the Resurrection. In the picture’s centre, Golgotha is fascinatingly emphasized with bright colours as the most essential scene. What is particularly interesting is that Golgotha, the site of the Crucifixion, seems to have been located within Jerusalem. This contradicts the entire Western painting tradition, which shows it outside the town’s walls, probably because it was more effective to depict the procession of the Cross in open countryside.

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