A few days ago, I decided on a whim to visit the Austrian Volkskunde Museum in Vienna. (The English translation of their website calls the museum: “The Austrian Museum of Folk Life and Folk Art”). The museum hosts a magnificent collection of furniture, tools, paintings, maps, models, sculptures and every other conceivable form of art, all created by Austrian peasants, farmers, and craftspeople, mostly from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries. The collection is designed to give a glimpse into the lives (both material and psychological) of the pre-industrial societies that created these works of art and design. Go check it out if you can.

One particular work caught my eye, a painting from an unknown artist created around 1800 (according to the museum placard) somewhere in Tyrol, a region in the west of Austria. Since I couldn’t find any placards or threatening iconography expressly forbidding me from taking a picture, I did:

Museum

Klerus:
Ich mit meiner Lehr',
Viel Leut zu Gott bekehr'.

Adel:
Ich mit meiner Macht,
Viel Land und Leut an mich gebracht.

Bauer:
Ha Ha!
wan Gott und ich nichts thät',
Ihr beide nichts zu essen hätt'.
Clergy:
I, with my religious theory,
Have brought to God the world’s weary.

Nobility:
I have earned, with might and power,
The farmer's field and verdant bower.

Peasantry:
Ha Ha!
If God and I no fields did sow,
No food that's 'pon your table'd grow.

Special thanks to Zeke Honegger for working on this translation with me. He's writing a blog post about the translation process which I'll include here after it's published.

The painting depicts four figures. At the top, nestled in the clouds: God, recognizable from the white beard, scepter and globe, not to mention his angelically billowing robe-fabric and heavenly background lighting. From left to right: a member of the clergy, recognizable from the cross-adorned scepter and other ornate vestments; a member of the nobility, carrying a sword, wearing a cape, and adorned with a crown; and finally, a peasant (although a seemingly well-to-do one), wearing a brown overcoat and holding what appears to me to be a 18–19th century version of a scythe.

The painting turns out to be a genre painting depicting God and the “three estates of the realm,” the three broad social groupings into which one was born under central European feudalism. This social determinism is even more poignant in the German word for the concept: “Geburtsstände” (lit. “birth-classes”).

While doing some cursory research online, I came across another version of the same painting, remarkably similar, but from almost a century later, 1880, and attributed to an artist in Innsbruck named Balthasar Waltl. This version of the painting has a title listed along with it: “Gott und die drei Geburtsstände - Klerus, Adel und Bauern” (“God and the three estates — Clergy, Nobility, and Peasantry”).

Auction

All the essential symbolic features of the image are the same, just painted in a slightly different style, with the exception of the addition of a book in the hand of the clergyman. Aside from this, the most notable differences I can discern are in some of the colors in the clothing of the clergyman and the peasant, which I would love to be able to explain, but unfortunately can’t. If someone reading this knows anything about why these colors might have changed from version to version, please drop me a line.

Here are both images side by side, for comparison:

Combined

Klerus:
Ich mit meiner Lehr',
Viel Leut zu Gott bekehr'.

Adel:
Ich mit meiner Macht,
Viel Land und Leut an mich gebracht.

Bauer:
Ha Ha!
wan Gott und ich nichts thät',
Ihr beide nichts zu essen hätt'.
Klerus:
Ich mit meiner Lehr',
Viel Leut' zu Gott bekehr

Adel:
Ich mit meiner Macht,
Viel Land u. Leut' an mich gebracht.

Bauer:
Ha! Ha!
Wann Gott und ich nichts tät',
Ihr Beide nichts zu essen hätt.

Now, to the text. While the content and meaning of the text remains the same in each version of the painting, the newer one (on the right above) features some spelling and punctuation changes, presumably incorporated by the artist to reflect changes to the writing conventions which took place during the 19th century. By comparing the texts from these two versions of the painting, one from the beginning of the 19th century, and one from the end, we can track some of these changes to writing convention, at least as they happened in mountainous, western Austria.

The most noticeable changes are those which concern the spelling: specifically, I’m talking about the dropping of the ‘h’ (dehnungs-h) after ‘t’, seen here in tät' instead of thät' and the change from wan to wann (but notably not yet wenn, a distinction which emerged in the 19th century but apparently hadn’t been adopted everywhere.)

The later author also made a series of changes to the punctuation and capitalization which are notable.

While Leut (shortened form of Leute (‘people’)) appears unapologetically without an apostrophe in the earlier version of the painting (both in the text of the clergyman and of the noble), the later version of the painting acknowledges this common shortening by including an apostrophe. Because this schwa-final apocope was (and is) so common and wide-spread in the Bavarian Upper High German dialect spoken in Austria, it’s possible that the earlier author either wasn’t aware that Leut was a shortening of Leute because of its presumable high frequency of use, or just didn’t think it important to notate because of its line-central position (i.e. because it doesn’t matter for the rhyme-scheme, in contrast to Lehr' and bekehr', both of which are notated as shortenings).

Interestingly, the later version of the painting neglects to note the word bekehr as a shortening of bekehrt at the end of the clergyman’s text, although this is noted in the earlier painting. Because, however, the sentence-final punctuation is also inexplicably omitted from this version of the painting, I have to conclude that the artists just ran out of space and omitted both markings for this reason. There’s no reason (as far as I can tell) to suspect that in the 80 or so years between the creation of these two paintings a change in convention occurred which would account for this lack of notation.

Something which did occur in the century between the creation of these two paintings, however, was that the double capitalization of Ihr Beiden (‘you both’) enjoyed a brief increase in popularity, as seen in the following Google Ngram data:

ngram

Although the lowercase form Ihr beiden had overtaken the double capitalization form which appears in the later image by the date of its creation (1880), it’s not implausible to assume that the author of this version of the painting had learned this double capitalization during their primary education while younger and continued to use it despite its fallen popularity. (The question of whether to capitalize this word still plagues some German speakers today, as evidenced by many questions on forums such as Yahoo! Answers and Gutefrage.net).

As for the double use of exclamation points at the beginning of the peasant’s text in the later version of the image, I have no idea. Maybe it was a stylistic choice akin to the changed colors on the figures’ clothing.

There is certainly much more to be explored in these two versions of this painting and in their accompanying texts. If anybody notices something I didn’t mention, has a better explanation for some of the changes, or knows anything more specific about the author or date of the earlier painting, I would love to hear from you! You can reach me at jbierfeldt[at]gmail.com. Thanks again to Zeke for helping out with the English translation. You can check out more of his work and poetry on his blog.