The destruction of the Roman Catholic Church in Ruskinovce (Ruszkin, Rissdorf) at the end of the 20th century, northwest of the Levoča Mountains, 9.5 kilometres south of Kežmarok, is a serious loss for art history literature. The remains of the village, which was evacuated after World War II, became part of the military training area called Javorina, founded in 1952 under the Warsaw Pact, while the church, once dedicated to St. Agnes, was blown up in the 1980s. As the medieval murals uncovered in fragile and poor condition were unfortunately not saved, the biggest loss besides the church building is these frescoes, especially the fragment depicting the scene of the Decapitation of St. Ladislaus.

It is believed that beginning with the middle of the 13th century, German-speaking hospices arrived in Ruskin. The first mention of the settlement appears in a written source from 1277: at that time, Roland, the župan of Spiš, made a decision in a property dispute between the feudal lord of Spiš and the German hospices. According to another written source, Ruszkin was certainly still a village in 1294. In 1393 Pope Boniface IX granted an indulgence permit for the church, which was built on the outskirts of the village. From its surviving details, it is believed that they originate from two medieval periods. The first church can certainly be dated to the end of the 13th century. This early building, from which the foundation walls of the west tower and the longhouse, as well as the south lined gate survived, began to be expanded to a two-nave building in the years 1350–1360. Completion of these works is indicated by the papal indulgence permit. As a result, a two-nave church was created, typical to the Spiš region, the obvious analogies of which, according to Kornél Divald, can be found in Poprád, Felka, Szepesszombat, Mateóc, Menhárd, Leibic and Szepesbéla.

Divald’s site description from the early 1900s reports in considerable detail, among other things, about the interior decoration and liturgical equipment of the church. However, it does not give any news of the existence of murals; he could not, since at that time the 18th century layer of lime still covered the interior walls of the building. But probing wall research during the 1950s uncovered medieval fresco fragments on the north and south walls of the nave, the walls of the sanctuary, and the walled window linings of the south nave on relatively extensive, continuous surfaces.

Today, we can only conceptualize the Ruszkin frescoes and the interior of the church itself relying on two black-and-white photographic documentation. One is a series of photos taken between 1961 and 1962 and kept in the Bratislava archives of The Monuments Board of the Slovak Republic (Pamiatkovy Úrad Slovenskej Republiky). The other is a photograph of Juraj Záry, published by Milan Togner in 1992. However, the overall picture that can be outlined by the photos contains some contradictions.

The black-and-white photographs from 1961–1962 delineate the overall picture of the former frescoes in the longhouse. The surface of the trunks of the free-standing pillars was covered with a painted ornamentation consisting of a stylized floral pattern. The ornament was framed by a double line at the bottom and top. The carpet-like surface consisted of bands representing three motifs, each vertically and horizontally. The cross-shaped, four-lobed floral motif is square, framed with a notched ornament on each side. Above this mesh-patterned embellishment was a stylized plant ornamentation consisting of leaves, but at the same time rather difficult to interpret due to its fragmentation.

Traces of a decorative mesh-patterned painting on the south wall of the longhouse can be seen in the photos. The mesh-patterned decoration was bordered on top by a thick white border, on the surface of which two rows of X-shaped, four-lobed, stylized floral motifs formed an ornamental frieze. The mesh pattern itself was built to represent the same motif in two colours. Its double-contoured, rhombus-shaped frames feature four-lobed, stylized, standing floral motifs. The research uncovered figurative fragments in the middle arch section of the southern side-aisle, above the decorative painting. Only the lower parts of the representations of the standing figures have survived, originally facing each other. Of the contemporary long, ample mantles, both the dark and the light drapery fragments may have been characterized by expressive fold castings modelled with thick internal lines. In the case of the former, both feet of the figure are visible. However, the walled-in medieval windows mentioned in the literature, whose inserts carried frescoes, are not visible in the photos.

The probing wall research also revealed a fragment of a face, which, according to Slovak art history, is female. This fragment is documented in a 1961 photograph of the said photographic documentation. Unfortunately, however, the recordings documenting the north wall of the longhouse do not show in which part of the wall section this fragment was located. Just as the visible details do not make it clear whether the fresco depicts a male or female face. The sharply incised nose and eyebrows of the figure were painted with a single thick, black, continuously drawn line. Above the high forehead, the removable part of her hair testifies to a dense, stuffed, roughly modelled execution. All of this shows seemingly convincing similarities to what was seen in the case of the Ladiva figure in the Beheading scene, which may suggest that the two murals were the work of the same hand.

Of the medieval fresco fragments of the Ruszkin church, the Beheading scene of the legend of St. Ladislaus has clearly the most notable significance in art history. This fragment, dated by Milan Togner to the years 1310–1320, can be ideated based on a black-and-white photograph by Juraj Záry and on reports in the literature. However, in the course of its investigation, some hardship is caused by the fact that none of the photographs in the photographic documentation taken in 1961–1962 shows the scene in question, moreover, the Slovak literature doesn’t mention its exact location. All we know is that it was located on the north wall of the longhouse, according to one of the traditional ways of placing the legend of St. Ladislaus. Since the photos available to us barely show the wall of the third arch section counted from the west of the northern nave, it is believed that the Beheading was painted here. All the more so since – on the northern wall of the longhouse, moving from west to east – we should look for the last or penultimate scene of the sequence on the eastern wall section. But we should also not overlook the fact that in the photographs of 1961–1962, much of the northern wall of the longhouse is still covered with 18th century plaster, as only one or two research probes were opened at that time. It is conceivable, therefore, that a fragment of the legend of St. Ladislaus, on which the first publication came out in 1969, was discovered in a later period of the probing wall research, after 1961.

Based on Záry’s photo, we can see a fresco painted in a rather dynamic and expressive style. This characteristic is mainly due to Ladiva’ slender “gothic” figure. Although, based on the visible details, the inner fold of her long mantle is characterized by a flat, rough modelling, her shape contoured in thick black on both sides bends in a slight curve. This momentum, as well as the drama of the scene, is enhanced by the large, long, arched saber of the female figure, raised with both hands above her head, with which she is about to struck the Kun warrior defeated by St. Ladislaus. This vigorously composed, hectic Beheading scene seems to be less typical of the frescos of St. Ladislaus painted in the first half of the 14th century (perhaps the fresco of the Roman Catholic Church in Gelence can be related to Ruszkin) and much more common in the period around 1400 (an example is the mural of the Roman Catholic church in Karaszkó). Furthermore, at this point it is worth mentioning the Beheading scene of the Legend of St. Ladislaus in Vitkóc, which is related to Ruszkin in several respects by Slovak research. Ladiva’s depiction here is in almost every respect the opposite of the Ruszkin figure: her almost weightlessly floating figure holds her weapon rigidly, straight, which, moreover, is not a sword but a halberd. Her rather large, black pupil, as well as her seemingly suggestive gaze, can perhaps really be related, according to the literature, to another analogy to the Ruszkin relic, the legend of St. Ladislaus painted on the north wall of the sacristy of the Roman Catholic church in Kakaslomnic, more precisely to its figurative type.

The mural in Lomnic dates from around 1310–1320. It was painted on a thick layer of lime on the plaster using a combined fresco-seco technique, utilizing a finely crafted underline of marked red lines that plastically outline the individual figures as well as some details of the composition. This monumental sequence of the legend of St. Ladislaus presents scenes of the Pursuit, the Wrestling and the Beheading. The dignified, strict, rigid face of King Ladislaus, galloping on his horse, has Byzantine features, while the Kun warrior, who fires the arrow backwards, represents a much more vivid, characteristic, individualized figure type. The faces of all the characters were painted almost in a pastose manner on the olive-green background, using wide brush strokes and a layered technique. The Ruszkin female figure is less related to the striking features of the Kun warrior than to the Byzantine character of St. Ladislaus, and mainly to the depiction of Ladiva’s face cutting the Kun warrior’s tendo uncinatus. It is illustrative, that her nose and eyebrows were depicted with a single, continuous line in both cases.

According to Milan Togner, in Ruszkin, the painter portrayed the characters of the closing motif of the legend of St. Ladislaus, especially Ladislaus, in a strong expressive manner, with marked features. To this Ladiva allies, with her saber, who represents the same type of figure as the king and the beheaded Kun. Based on the details shown in the photo, the heavier figure of St. Ladislaus, like Ladiva’s, was depicted with thick black contours, as well as flat-modelled, heavily collapsing clothes. You can also take out her simple, unarticulated glory and the highly prominent socket of the crown worn on her head. She grabs the defeated Kun warrior by his head with a powerful movement, quite similar to the one seen in the murals of Kakaslomnice and Vitkóc. The plasticity of this gesture is enhanced by the depiction of the opponent’s hair in a large knot (dense, stuffed, stylized with otherwise rough inner lines).

However, in the study cited, Togner makes several statements about the Ruszkin murals that are unverifiable based on the photographic documentation available to us as the only visual source. They are most probably based on on-site observations following the uncovering. According to the author, the drawing and line style used to paint the Beheading, as well as the striving for a more perfect spatial placement of the scene, are based on the large-scale example of the fresco in Kakaslomnice. In Togner’s interpretation, the analogies dubbed as obvious allow us to consider the Ruszkin mural as a variant and even a direct derivative of the legend of St. Ladislaus in Kakaslomnice. However, the mural may have been executed in the first half of the 14th century, presumably by the hands of local masters. Furthermore, despite these supposed analogies, in Ruszkin we encounter an image sequence with a fundamentally different structure. One of the most striking imprints which reveals the difference is that some scenes of the legend were separated by an illusory frame without decorative ornament, while in Lomnic and Vitkóc they fall in line with no frames, so the narrative unfolds without interruption.

The dating of the Ruszkin mural fragment to the first decades of the 14th century can be confirmed by the decorative painting formed on rhombus-shaped floral patterns, which can be seen and appreciated much more clearly in some of the photos, and its parallels with the Vitkóc pattern dated around 1340 are extremely important. At the same time, the assumption of an analogy between the Ruszkin and Lomnic murals, which has been extremely strongly articulated by Slovak research, cannot be substantiated beyond a reasonable doubt based on the details shown in the photo. We can wait for confirmation in the case by unearthing possible additional sources. Until then, however, we can do no more than accept the kinship assumed by previous research between the two relics. The Ruszkin fragment’s place in art history can be marked touching on the mural in Kakaslomnice, next to the frescoes in Szepeshely and Szepesdaróc, and, further expanding the circle within Szepes, along the slightly later frescoes in Vitkóc and Pongrácfalva. But we must note also the painted decoration of the Roman Catholic church in Csécs, from Gömör county.

The painter of this mural was certainly able to draw from the style and knowledge of the master in Kakaslomnici, who was directly acquainted with the art of the Anjou court in Naples and was able to synthesize the influence of 13th century Italian and Austrian, or southern German mural pastosity. His client was certainly a person of inferior class than the Berzeviczy family, but, like the Kakaslomnice owners, he could be a gentry loyal to Carol I. Thus, this example also proves that the narrative sequence created in the royal court perfectly corresponded to the self-representation of the noble class, which contributed greatly to the rapid and broad spread of this image sequence.

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