Remembering the dead or Egon's mythical creatures
Here you find out why the people of Tulln exhumed bones and what Egon saw in the charnel house; how death and mortality found their way onto Egon’s canvases and what role death played in his life.
There are not many places in Europe famous for their ossuaries. The late Romanesque charnel in Tulln is one of the loveliest and most significant of its kind. It was built in the 13th century at the behest of Duke Friedrich II, the last of the ruling dukes of the House of Babenberg. The two-story tower rises upward from an eleven-sided floor plan, culminating in a striking pyramidal steeple. Yet the walls are curved inside. And the upper story, the former funeral chapel, is decorated with a host of pictures. The Last Judgment and the Adoration of the Magi can be seen here, as can a scene depicting the devil leading virgins into hell—plus myriad dragons, demons and mystical creatures. It was this eerie world that captivated Egon’s attention.
Late Romanesque charnel house, ca. 1875
At death’s door.
Of course the lower story is even eerier. It served as an ossuary for the exhumed skeletons of the deceased until the end of the 18th century. The old cemetery around the parish church had had no space for new graves, so the bones were dug up, moved to the charnel and stacked there. Death was all-present in that structure, just as it was in Egon’s life. First he lost his older sister Elvira. He was still a toddler when she died of meningitis. Then his father contracted syphilis. And Egon witnessed the decline of this imposing man, a town dignitary: loss of memory, personality changes, hallucinations. When the end came, fourteen-year-old Egon sat quietly in the corner of the room where Adolf Schiele had died, gazing at the deceased laid out in his gala uniform.
Allegory of life.
It was the cycle of becoming and passing away, a father’s death as a son’s trauma. Just a few years later Egon painted allegories of life and death. Death and the ephemeral nature of life became a central motif in his imagery: wilted flowers, naked branches, trees bent low by the wind. But he also painted sunflowers in glorious bloom as a metaphoric depiction of human beings. There was a measure of joy mixed in with all the sadness he felt for his loved ones. And there was his wish to be taken seriously as a visionary artist.