Thomas von Villach's Frescoes for St. Andrä at Thörl-Maglern

Birgit Stegbauer


One of the most outstanding examples of late Gothic fresco painting in Carinthia is Thomas von Villach's frescos for St. Andrä at Thörl-Maglern. Thörl-Maglern is situated at the junction of Slovenia, Austria and Italy. If you take the main road from Arnoldstein towards Tarvisio, this is the last village before the border to Italy. Thörl-Maglern is a gateway (or Tor or, spoken in dialect, "Thörl") from the Kanal valley to the Gail valley.


St. Andrä stands a little apart from the village on a green field site and it is only a small church. One enters the old church building through a modern, glass vestibule. From there you step into a dim, low part of the church, with no windows, just under the church tower, from where you glimpse the light, open nave and the choir stalls. You can see the two side altars and the high altar, all from the 17th century, and the fine sculpture of Our Lady of the Rosary by Hans Finkh, also a work of art from the 17th century. However, you will not find the famous frescoes here.


Once you enter the choir area of the church, you'll be overwhelmed by the frescoes, the richness of the colours and the multitude of presentations. A Last Judgment decorates the whole rear side of the triumphal arch. All of the vaults of the choir area are decorated, with the four Evangelists and angelic musicians for example. The sacrament house, which is built into the northern wall of the choir, has with an illusionistic architecture.


The centrepiece of St. Andrä's frescos, however, is a Passion with a most exceptional symbolical crucifixion: an illustration of a so-called Living Cross, which means that hands "sprout" from the four ends of the crossbars.


The hand at the lower end of the crossbar breaks open the gate to Hell, while the hand at the upper end of the crossbar opens Heaven's gate. The hand at the right end of the vertical crossbar dethrones the personification of the Old Testament - she is a young blind woman with a sword pierced through her body riding on a maltreated monkey. The hand at the left end of the crossbar crowns the personification of the New Testament; this young woman rides on the symbols of the four Evangelists and holds a model of the church in her hands.


This is, to be sure, quite a rare type of presentation, but, Living Crosses with exactly the same symbols can be found both north and south of the Alps from the 15th to the 17th century (Italian: croce vivante, French: croix vivante). In a departure from "the" stereotypical Living Cross, the one in Thörl-Maglern merges with an illustration of Heaven, shown with its seven flame-like angelic choirs and godfather on top. Thus the hierarchical order of the medieval world is mirrored in the presentation of Heaven.


The frescos lay hidden under several layers of paint until the 1940's. When they were unveiled an inscription with the name 'Thomas' was found. From then on, the frescos were attributed to the painter Thomas von Villach. The latter owned a workshop at Villach in the second half of the 15th century. This workshop, which was commissioned to create church decorations such as frescos, panel paintings and altars all over Carinthia, is nowadays known as 'school of Villach'. The frescoes were most probably painted between 1482 and 1489.


Catholic parish St. Andrä, Maglern 2, 9602 Thörl-Maglern. Driving through Thörl-Magerln towards Italy, follow the sign "St. Andrä" and turn left. From there you can see the church.


Viewing arrangements for the frescos are available in German here



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