Franz Anton Maulbertsch, one of the leading exponents of fresco painting in central Europe in the second half of the eighteenth century, was born the son of a painter in Langenargen on Lake Constance in 1724. By 1739 he was enrolled as a student in the Imperial art academy in Vienna, where he was taught by Paul Troger, who brought experience from study in Venice, Naples, and Rome. Maulbertsch established his studio in Vienna and was based there until his death in 1796. From the 1750s onward, he completed numerous large-scale ecclesiastical and secular commissions, most often in the eastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire, at locations in the modern states of Austria, the Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Romania, and Slovakia. Maulbertsch handled color with extraordinary mastery and inventiveness, and he is best know for the explosive, dynamic intensity of his frescoes of the 1750s and early 1760s, as demonstrated, for example, on the ceiling of the Piaristenkirche in Vienna (1752–53). Later in his career, he accommodated elements of his style to the more restrained representational requirements of Neoclassicism, while continuing to exploit the expressive potential of color.
The Metropolitan Museum’s canvas depicts the royal saints of Hungary, members of the kingdom’s founding Árpád dynasty, borne aloft on clouds beneath an apparition of God the Father. It is a preliminary sketch in grisaille for the ceiling painting of the choir of the Cathedral of Győr, Hungary, a commission Maulbertsch received in 1772 and completed the year after. That fresco was just one part of an extensive redecoration of the church overseen by Bishop Ferenc Zichy (r. 1743–83). In addition to the present subject, the program encompasses the Annunciation, the Triumph of Christ, scenes from the life of Saint Stephen (the first Christian martyr), scenes from the lives of the Hungarian kings, and saints, Stephen I (r. 1000–1038) and Ladislaus I (r. 1077–95), several altar canvases, and the Transfiguration of Christ, the latter an expansive fresco on the ceiling of the nave, completed by Maulbertsch in a later phase of work in 1781 (see Klara Garas, Franz Anton Maulbertsch 1724–1796, Budapest, 1960, nos. 262, 265–66, 269–80, 308). The placement of the fresco glorifying Hungary’s royal saints in the privileged space of the choir is attributable to the local significance of Kings Stephen and Ladislaus. The foundation of the diocese of Győr dates from Stephen’s reign, and the church houses the skull of Ladislaus in an important bust reliquary.
At the center of the Museum’s study, on an arched cloud formation, appear Saint Stephen, the first king of Hungary, bearded and wearing a heavy cape, and his son Emeric (d. 1031), identifiable by the lily he holds in his left hand. Nearby are two key symbols of Christian and royal Hungary: the double-barred patriarchal cross held by an angel to the immediate left and the crown of Stephen carried by two putti below. The towering figure wearing a miter to the right of Stephen likely represents Saint Gherardo Sagredo (Saint Gellért), the Italian-born bishop of Csanád who was tutor to Emeric. Alternatively, it has been suggested that this bishop is Saint Martin of Tours (d. 397), who was born in Roman Savaria, modern-day Szombathely, Hungary. However, his placement near Stephen and Emeric tends to support an identification as Gherardo, as all three were canonized together in 1083, upon the urging of King Ladislaus I. Ladislaus, who himself was sainted in 1192, is shown seated on a cloud at the lower left; his staff and armor are references both to his military campaigns and the chivalric ideals he personified. Although the woman to the right of Ladislaus is not clearly identifiable, she may be Gisela, wife of King Stephen and first queen consort of Hungary, as she appears to wear a diadem here and is adorned with a crown in the completed ceiling painting. The man to the upper left of Ladislaus, who is dressed in monastic habit and folds his hands over his chest in an attitude of piety, is probably the Blessed Gunther, a Benedictine hermit and brother-in-law of Stephen, who assisted the king with Christian missionary efforts in Hungary. Saint John the Baptist, identifiable by his cross-staff and the lamb at his side (only vaguely indicated here but clear in the finished work), sits at the edge of the cloud bank that circumscribes the upper heavenly realm where God the Father appears.
Another oil sketch for this composition exists. That canvas (Gemäldegalerie, Berlin) is in color and represents an earlier stage of the design, showing a more cursory handling of poses and spatial structures. While in the first study Maulbertsch was able to arrange the overall chromatic relationships, the grisaille technique of the Museum’s canvas allowed him to clarify the distribution of light and dark, while further refining individual figures toward the final form he gave them on the ceiling in Győr. Oil sketches of this kind not only served the artist in developing the design and iconography, but also gave the patron opportunity to examine and approve the work proposed. For the Győr commission, review by the patron must have prompted iconographic revisions that Maulbertsch incorporated into the finished ceiling painting, such as the addition of further royal and holy women at the center and bottom, or the omission of the standing figure garbed in a dalmatic at the center right, probably the martyr Saint Stephen, to whom Maulbertsch devoted separate frescoes in the Cathedral (see Franz Martin Haberditzl, Franz Anton Maulbertsch 1724–1796, Vienna 2006, fig. 263).
The Museum’s oil sketch probably dates between the signing of the contract on May 27, 1772, and the commencement of the Glorification fresco in the spring of 1773. The color study in Berlin could have been completed prior to entering into the contract, but a somewhat later date is possible for it as well. The relative flatness of the Glorification composition, in comparison to earlier works, is consistent with the artist’s gradual accommodation of his style to Neoclassical taste during the 1770s.