There is no doubt that Paul Troger (1698–1762) is one of the most important Austrian painters of the Baroque. His importance and fame is mainly due to his work as a fresco artist, although his oil paintings and drawings are just as extensive and artistically significant. After several years of training across Italy’s artistic hubs and, following the first commissions by his patron, Prince-Bishop Jakob Maximilian von Thun und Hohenstein, in Gurk and Salzburg, Troger went to Vienna to kick off a successful career. However, he wasn’t as productive in Vienna as in the important foundations located Lower Austria, such as in Altenburg, Geras, Göttweig, Melk, Seitenstetten and Zwettl, as well as in the former Augustinian monasteries of St. Pölten and St. Andrä an der Traisen.
The frescoes in the church of the ‘ehem. Englischen Fräulein’ in St. Pölten, in the Kuefstein’schen Gruftkapelle in Röhrenbach-Greillenstein, in the chapel of Heiligenkreuz-Gutenbrunn and in the pilgrimage church of Maria Dreieichen should not be forgotten, as well as those on the other side of the Lower Austrian borders, such as his work in Hradisch, in the monastery of Elizabethan order in Bratislava and in the St. Ignatius church in Raab. Finally, the early cupola fresco in the Kajetanerkirche in Salzburg (1728) and the magnificent late work in the Bressanone Cathedral (1748–1750) simply have to feature among the list of Troger frescoes. In the abbeys mentioned above, his main focus was decorating the representative rooms such as the staircase, the library, the banquet hall and the refectory.
A very prominent example of a representative staircase is the ‘Kaiserstiege’ in Stift Göttweig, where Troger painted the ceiling fresco in 1739. The theme – depicted using all techniques available in Baroque allegory – is the apotheosis of Emperor Charles VI, who appears in the middle of the fresco as a Helios Apollo, travelling on the sun carriage drawn by two horses. One year prior to the Kaiserstiege fresco in Göttweig, Troger also painted the ceiling fresco above the staircase to the imperial wing in Altenburg Abbey.
With this work, the conviction is expressed to the emperor and the guests that in addition to monastic life, the arts and sciences also have their place in the monastery, with the main allegories of religion and wisdom reaching out their hands in the centre. The chosen theme of the harmony between faith and science is embodied by the formula ‘Quam bene conveniunt’ (Look at how compatible they are), placed below the main figures, was already encountered in 1735 in the fresco of the Marble Hall in Seitenstetten Abbey and was already used by Troger in a variant in the Marble Hall of Melk Abbey. The theme, consisting of mythological and theological elements, focuses on Hercules’ fight with Cerberus, the three-headed hellhound, and the triumphant procession of Pallas Athena, goddess of wisdom. The inclusion of the mythological figures of Hercules and Pallas Athena were popular allusions in baroque subjects to the size and strength of the imperial family, in particular Emperor Charles VI.
… HE’S BEEN ONE OF THE BEST PAINTERS WE’VE EVER HAD.
Obituary, 24 November 1762
In Melk, due to the architectural correspondence of the marble hall and the library, the frescoes are to be seen in connection, also complementing each other in the furnishings. Just as happens in the marble hall, reference is also made in the library to state power in general and to the emperor in particular. Just as in Melk Abbey, the library frescoes in Zwettl Abbey are dedicated to the theme of ‘Hercules Christianus’. Troger also faithfully reproduced some subjects from the Melker frescoes in the marble hall and in the library, e.g. the figure of Wisdom and Hercules upon killing Cerberus, in the Zwettler library. Despite the completely different spatial situation, all five monastery libraries that Troger decorated with frescoes have one thing in common: the allegorical reference to religion and science or the glorification of faith in front of the sciences.
Troger dealt with the topic of the four traditional branches of science – theology, philosophy, medicine and law – both in the library of the former St. Pölten Augustinian Canons‘ Abbey, today’s diocese building, and in Altenburg Abbey library. The completely different rooms inevitably led to completely different solutions. The two small rooms in St. Pölten, adapted from former monastery cells, saw Troger painting the four branches in two medallion sections each with a few figures: theology associated with the ecstasy of the apostle Paul, philosophy with the observation of the solar eclipse by Dionysius Areopagita which occurred during Christ’s death on the cross, medicine with the healing of blind Tobias, and law with the parable of the Tribute Money. In the spacious and representative library in Altenburg, the depictions of the branches are dealt with in much more detail and in a more differentiated way. Two domed sections are dedicated to the four studies, while the central dome, similarly to the library in Melk and in Zwettl, depicts divine wisdom in the centre and earthly wisdom in the surrounding
peripheral zone featuring the visit of the Queen of Sheba to King Solomon.
The subject of the fresco in the library of Seitenstetten Abbey is based on the Revelation to John, namely the depiction of the lamb offering and the 24 elders (Passages 4:1 to 5:11). With the quotation, ‘Quis est dignus aperire librum?’ (Who is worthy enough to open the book?), the abbot of the monastery, Paul II. de Vitsch, who came up with the concept of the fresco, apparently wanted to tell his brother friars and the library visitors that they should prove themselves worthy of the Holy Scriptures and the books in general. Like the libraries, the furnishings of the festival halls are usually based on a more or less complex theological concept, which was usually assigned to the painter by the client, a theologian, or scholar of the monastery. The clients were not primarily interested in merely decorative decoration: what was even more important was the content or the theme. Not just any painter could be entrusted with bringing the concept to life, and clients pulled out all the stops to commission only the very best. And, as it so happens, this was none other than Paul Troger between 1730 and 1750.