By Trine Møller Madsen, art and culture writer, 2006
A triangular miracle
How do you illustrate an inexplicable, divine event? And how do you make it so vivid that the scene captures an audience seated several metres below on a cold pew? In the first half of the 15th century, “Unionsmesteren” (“The Union Master”) knew the recipe. With his painter’s gear, he toured the churches of the Kalmar Union countries (Denmark and Sweden) - thus his nickname. He also passed by Undloese Church in Sealand where his picture Resurrection still shines clearly in the arch right above the altar.
Are you asleep?
The Resurrection is a key scene in The New Testament. Death is no longer a major player and Jesus Christ rises from the grave. Unionsmesteren used the triangular bay in the vault to underline the hierarchical setup: the victorious Christ at the top and the dull, unenlightened soldiers underneath. And he uses the image field all the way to the frame.
Observe how Christ rests his foot on the arch in the bottom of the vault. It’s as if he is on his way to enter the church. The story comes alive and comes close to us. Note also the individual features and lifelike characters of the soldiers. They help to capture our attention: You aren’t asleep down there on the pew, are you? But it is not an everyday event that takes place above the altar. Unionsmesteren indicates this by letting a red ornament meander down from the top wind around Christ - as fiery tongues or a burning glory. A striking and artful description of the Holy Spirit carefully lifting Christ out of the dark, humid grave and into eternity.
The Holy Bible as a cartoon
In the Nordic area, the first frescos appear in the 12th century. The picture stories were a help for the many illiterate and unlettered churchgoers. All those who did not understand the Latin that was preached. The paintings acted as a kind of cartoon, making the biblical teachings more acceptable. In the myriad of frescos in Danish churches, sometimes there are these special pearls painted with a fantastic sense of imagery and an unusually lively line. This is how Unionsmesteren painted.
Did you know?
The figures in Undløse Church's frescoes have unfortunately been treated at one point with a so-called Carlsberg preparation that causes them to darken. The National Museum has initiated a study of what the preparation consisted of and how to make the frescoes appear as original.
The committee's justification
By the Committee for Visuel Art, 2006
The Union Master in our fresco, Opstandelsen, in Undløse Church in Zealand from 1430-50 is a medieval artwork. Its artistic brushwork, its motivational originality and its composition contains qualities we call aesthetically, formally and stylistically excellent, so it can be considered a work of art with canonical values. The central objects of the motif are Christ and the grave. The fact that it is a sarcophagus and not a cave is more physiological as it was common at the time to use what was known and, because the king, bishop and nobility lay in sarcophagi, so did Christ. The figure is nicely drawn with nail holes and the puncture from the spear in the side. However, the turning of the body is interesting as the man is literally standing with one leg in the grave. This gives a strange twist to the body – he must have asked one of his apprentices to stand like this, he must have used a model.
The stunted landscape and the virtuously curving gothic plant ornament confirms the mastership. The art is international, or as international as one could be European. The Catholic church’s universal dominion and the first voyages of discovery are ongoing – the church is creating the Europe we are a part of today, but the fresco art form with biblical motifs began in the Coptic church in Egypt almost a millennium before. In the 8th century, it made its way through Greece and the Balkans and arrived here in the 12th century – the same motifs, the same craftsmanship. But sometimes a work breaks through with its originality and aesthetic power, such as the work in Undløse Church in Zealand.