On a plateau high in the Austrian Alps, just beyond the tiny village of Pürgg, sits Johanneskapelle (or the Chapel of St. John). A small Romanesque building, almost windowless and fairly austere—at least from the outside. Inside however is what makes it I read a popular tourist attraction. The chapel is lined from top to bottom with frescoes that date to 1165, and are today regarded as the best preserved murals in Europe. The painted symbols and scenes are to be expected, religious in nature: images of saints; the Nativity and the Annunciation; tales such as the miraculous multiplication of fish and loaves; as well as depictions of the chapel’s patrons, the abbott Gottfried I and the margrave of Styria Ottokar III. That is until you get to the south side of the nave. There is one small tableau that seems to not quite fit in; it shows a battle is being mounted—the mice are at war again. This time they’re standing on the ramparts of their castle, equipped with crossbows and arrows, readied to meet the armored feline enemy who is shown lurking below.
In truth not much is known about the War between cats and mice: neither its creator nor its meaning. The scholarly speculation is enough to make one’s head spin. Certain art historians have argued that the style of War and that of the rest of the frescoes are similar to the illumination of a particular bible made by a workshop in Salzburg; others have pointed to a liturgical book that establishes a strong ‘connection,’ and may have been, or not have been, penned by the scribe and artist named Liutold. Meanwhile scholars initially thought the battle scene was an illustration of the Byzantine writer Theodoros Prodromos’s twelfth-century poem in which the king of the mice called his people to take up arms against the cats because the cats had eaten some mice. But this literary notion was dismissed by those who wanted to see a straightforward allegory of good versus evil, despite the virtue/vice metaphor’s lack of visual clarity. After all who, the mouse or the cat, represents good and who represents evil? Who is the superhero?
Sources: Philipp Dollwetzel, “Die romanischen Wandmalereien in der Johanneskapelle in Pürgg-Trautenfels,” 2010, unpublished paper; C.R. Dodwell, The Pictorial Arts of the West, 800-1200, Yale University Press, 1993.
(Image: War between cats and mice (detail), fresco, mid-12th century, Johanneskapelle in Pürgg, Austria, reproduced for non-commercial use only.)