Belvedere is most famous for its more modern art – Klimt, Schiele and the like.
But it’s also home to a collection from a time when a Klimt painting might have started a small war.
The bulk of this medieval collection is housed in the former stables, but the masterpieces are in Upper Belvedere: some 60 examples of fine gothic religious art displayed across four rooms on the ground floor.
Medieval altar panels and similar are not everybody’s cup of tea (or flagon of ale), but even the uncultured (i.e. me) can spot the difference between the masterpieces and the rest. And – equally important – the rooms themselves often offer something to marvel at in their own right.
Each has a description and engraving of what it originally looked like (Rooms 2 and 3 have been converted into modern galleries), plus an English description of the room’s art content.
3d Baroque design
The first room is the palace’s former large summer drawing room, with wall and ceiling paintings that give the illusion you’re looking at three-dimensional architecture, rather than a flat painting.
They’re mixed in nicely with real arches, so sometimes it’s hard to distinguish between what’s real and what’s illusion (story of my life). The central ceiling also features a celestial theme around the figures of Diana and Apollo.
You can see various Gothic 14th and 15th century religious statues here (for example, George and the dragon) and already spot how they appear more flowing and expressive than their equivalents in the stables.
The Znaim altarpiece
The second room contains altar panels and is dominated by the 1440s altarpiece from Znaim (in today’s Czech Republic) along one wall. Its realistic reliefs carved from lime and spruce detail chaotic Crucifixion scenes: the original colours are still clear almost 700 years later. 700 years!
A master at work
The third room has numerous late gothic panel paintings from the 15th and 16th century.
These include selected panels by the Master of the Schottenaltar from around 1470. Most of these altar panels are in the Schottenstift Museum and are notable for portraying biblical scenes, but with contemporary backgrounds (including 15th century Vienna). So their value to historians is enormous.
The room also features panels by Michael Pacher from the late 1400s, which leap out at you because of the sudden jump in quality. Even the untrained eye sees how he uses depth and perspective to stand out from his peers.
The open cabinet
The final room in the medieval collection still features its original grotesque frescoes (Roman-style decorative scrollwork) and hosts some original wooden sculptures from the late 1400s and early 1500s.
These include Mary and Joseph, possibly from a nativity scene, and three gilded limewood saints with rather serious faces.
Next: the Klimt collection