Cherubs by Italian Renaissance master found at Visegrád Castle

A pair of marble cherubs sculpted by Italian Early Renaissance master Benedetto da Maiano has been discovered on the grounds of Visegrád Castle, north of Budapest, Hungary. The cherub heads and wings were found during the excavation of the church of the Franciscan monastery that stood next to the royal palace in the castle complex.

The cherubs were part of a 15th century altar made of white marble. While the heads have suffered some damage, they are largely intact and display the characteristic features of Benedetto da Maiano’s deft hand in the detailing of the hair, feathers and faces. Fragments of drapery from angel statues were also found. The pieces are almost exact copies of sculptural elements on altars by Benedetto da Maiano in Naples, Florence and San Gimignano.

Born in Maiano, Tuscany, in 1442, Benedetto learned wood and marble carving first from his uncle Giuliano, and later from Antonio Rossellino. He soon eclipsed both in skill and fame. He started out working in perspective intarsia (using different colors of wood inlay to create complex architectural scenes, figures, foliage and geometric patterns with 3D depth), creating the insanely gorgeous studiolo of Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, and his reputation spread far and wide.

Biographer Giorgio Vasari recounts that Benedetto da Maiano received commissions from the crowned heads of Europe, including King Matthias Corvinus of Hungary for whom he made a pair of inlaid coffers. King Matthias invited Benedetto to Buda in person to deliver the coffers, but when he presented them before the king and his court full of nobles, he found to his horror that the sea water from the voyage had softened the glue of the inlay and all his work literally fell to pieces before his aghast eyes. He was able to patch it back together to the king’s satisfaction, but he was so humiliated by the fragile wood’s failure, from them on, he switched to marble sculpture.

Benedetto was commissioned to make matching marble relief portraits of the king and his second wife Beatrice of Aragon at the time of their wedding in 1476. The portraits are recognized by art historians today as important transitional pieces marking the artist’s shift from intarsia to statuary. Vasari says he made other sculptures in clay and marble for King Matthias Corvinus before he left Hungary and returned to Florence.

First built in the 13th century, Visegrád Castle became an official royal residence in the 14th century and was further enlarged and refurbished in the 15th century. Matthias almost entirely redid the interior of the palace, and he also refounded the Franciscan monastery (started but never completely by Sigismund, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Hungary, around 1400). Mattias finished construction of the monastery and commissioned a grand high altar of white marble in Italian Renaissance style. A document in Florence from 1493 records that Benedetto had received a commission from Matthias for a marble tabernacle for a church sacristy, but the work was interrupted when the king died in 1490. This order suggests Matthias was actively engaging Benedetto da Maiano in work for the church.

Visegrád and the Franciscan monastery suffered heavily in the armed conflicts of the 1540s. In 1540, the Lower Castle was besieged by Ferdinand I, Holy Roman Emperor, in a succession conflict that would precipitate a much larger invasion by Ottoman Emperor Suleiman the Magnificent ostensibly on behalf of the infant who had just inherited the throne of Hungary. Ferdinand’s siege damaged the monastery, and archaeologists found fragments of the altar with pieces of the windows, the window frames and lead rifle bullets, flattened from impact.

The castle was besieged again by the Ottoman Empire in 1544 and suffered heavy damage. Even after Turkish forces were ousted in 1685, the castle was never again used as a royal palace and by the 18th century was completely buried. Today the castle is open to visitors even as it undergoes a new program of excavation and restoration with the ultimate goal of returning the castle and palace complex to its glory days under Matthias Corvinus.

The unearthed artifact is of great significance as it confirms King Matthias’s vision of Hungary as a cultural and artistic hub in 15th-century Europe, where he commissioned works from leading Italian artists. “The chances of finding Renaissance works of art of similar quality and in good condition, but hitherto unknown, are now very slim,” Gergely Buzás concluded. The ongoing excavations hold promise for further significant discoveries, shedding light on Hungary’s rich medieval history.