Maria in Solio
The Historical Origin of St. Mary's Image
in the Church of Gospa Sveta or Maria Saal, the ancient Cathedral of Carantania

by Dr. Jožko Šavli

The ancient cathedral of Carantania (Slovenia) called Gospa Sveta (in Slovenian) or Maria Saal (in German) is to be found on a low hill north of Klagenfurt/Celovec, today's chief-town of Carinthia, (a federal province of Austria). The Slovenian Apostle St. Modestus founded the cathedral in 753. He was the appointed Chorepiscopus (meaning, Provincial Bishop or Provinzial-Bischof in German), who together with his Irish monks from Salzburg was commissioned to Christianize the Slovenian people († 767). The Bishopric of Salzburg was at that time part of Bavaria under Frankish supremacy, and therefore subjected to the Frankish Church.

In those days, however, the adoration of St. Mary was scarcely spread in the Frankish Kingdom and in Western Europe. Therefore we have to ask ourselves, what was the reason to dedicate the cathedral of Carantania to St. Mary? The only logical answer is, that a small group of Christians survived the Roman period and remained preserved all these years. They pertained to the Metropolitan Church of Aquileia, which was not subordinated to the Western Church in Rome but to the Eastern Church in Byzantium. There, since the 5th century the veneration of St. Mary was already in full swing, whereas in the West it began to spread not earlier then in the 12th century.

The great fresco in the apse (apsis) of the cathedral of Aquileia, which was consecrated in 1031 by Patriarch Poppo, who descended from a Carantanian noble family of the Counts of Treben (Treffen) near Villach/Belak (Carinthia). In the middle of the fresco there is to be found St. Mary on the throne. On the left and on the right part are to be found the Aquileian saints and the chief persons of Carantania and of the Empire (see below).


The left part of the fresco, which represent St. Tatianus, St. Hilarius and St. Marcus, who were the founders of the Aquileian Church. Between the first two saints appears Patriarch Poppo, who is giving to St. Mary the new cathedral. Close to the latter saint we see Duke Adalbero (Eppenstein), the beginner of the Dynasty of Carantania.

The right part of the fresco represents St. Hermagoras, St. Fortunatus and St. Eufemia. In front of the first saint appears Prince Henry (III), his father Emperor Conrad II is to be found after the second saint, and his mother Empress Giselle is at the end. (Empress Giselle and Beatrix, Adalbero's consort, were sisters).

Thus it is certain, that a small group of Christians in Carantania, pertaining to Aquileia, already venerated St. Mary before St. Modestus and his missionaries arrived there. Authentic evidence features St. Mary as the well-known St. Mary on the Throne (Maria in Solio), which has resemblance with the images in the churches of Aquileia, that originated in Byzantium.

The adoration of St. Mary was canonized at the Church Council in Ephesus, in 431 AD. Thereafter she was defined as the Mother of Christ and they gave her several titles like Blessed Virgin, Our Lady and many others, and she was glorified as our Intercessor by her son Jesus Christ. The Eastern Church praised her name mostly with the Greek epithet Panhagia (the Most Holy).

St. Mary appeared in several shapes in the following centuries, some of which were characteristic for the Eastern and others for the Western Church. Among them, the earliest one was St. Mary on the Throne, and it was this type of feature that was adopted in Carantania through its ancient connection with Aquileia. In Slovenian it is called Marija na prestolu (Mary on the Throne). By all probability, upon their arrival the Irish missionaries with St. Modestus at their head found such image of Mary as a heritage of Aquilea. Under no circumstances could it have been introduced from the West, where its veneration did not exist in those days.

   The cover of the silver cylindric capsula for relics (5th century) kept in the cathedral treasure of Grado near Aquileia.
   The image presents St. Mary on the throne with the Child (Kyriotissa).
   She wears imperial clothes, holding the cross strewn with gems.
   The image is encircled by a laurel wreath, the symbol of victory.

In our search for the source of this particular style of Mary's image, we come across a little box belonging to the church treasure of Grado, a town on an isle in the proximity of Aquileia. It concerns a round reliquary from the 5th century AD, the lid of which depicts an impressed St. Mary dressed in imperial cloths sitting on a throne and holding the Child on her knees. In the right hand she is holding the cross strewn with jewels. The image is encircled with a laurel wreath, the symbol of victory. She appears as a true Kyriotissa, as the Queen of heaven and earth was called in Greek language.

This image type of St. Mary is very similar to the well-known Byzantine image Panhagia Nikopoia (the Most Holy Victory bringing), that is kept in the quarters of Blachernae in Byzantium. Her image was tremendously venerated and glorified by the Byzantine people, who cheered to her from joy and saluted her with hymns when she was carried out in procession. She was the protectress of the Byzantine Empire, the Emperors and their generals did not march into war without rendering homage to the "Victory bringing" Mary.

From this majestic image of St. Mary developed other similar shapes, among them the Russian Snamenie (Epiphania) and in the West the well-known Sedes Sapientiae (The Seat of Wisdom), in Italian short, Maestà.

   The Bishop's Chapel in the cathedral of Gurk/Krka showing St. Mary on Salomon's throne and Mary's virtues after the message of Archangel Gabriel.
   The virtues represent the female figures: (on the right) chastety (Züchtigkeit), virginity (Jungfräulichkeit) and obedience (Gehorsam), (on the left) solitude (Eisamkeit), intelligence (Klugheit) and humility (Demut).
   The lions under the figures represent twelve apostles.

Since 945, after the death of the last chorepiscopus (or provincial bishop) of Carantania's ancient Cathedral  Maria in Solio, the Archbishop of Salzburg did not appoint any other bishops. However, from the legacy of St. Emma, a Carantanian Countess, we learn that another See was founded on the out-of-the-way site of Krka/Gurk, where a great cathedral was built ca. 1200. And in 1263 in the bishop's chapel a beautiful fresco of St. Mary was unveiled, which has been preserved until today.

   St. Mary and Child in the middle of the fresco in the Bishop's Chapel.
   Close to the throne we see the allegorical figures which represent charity (Liebe) and purity (Reinheit).
   Above Mary's head we see seven doves (Tauben) which signify seven gifts (Gaben) of the Holy Spirit.
   Two lions on the right and on the left are two heroids of Christ: Archangel Gabriel and John the Baptist (Johannes der Täufer).

In the West this type of style is known as "Sedes Sapientiae"  and gave future generations various inspirations to create numerous frescos of St. Mary.  One of these compositions is the fresco in Krka/Gurk, which represents Mary on Salomon's Throne. A new title was born based on ancient art and was adopted throughout the Western world. It became the summit of the Romance arts, and contains the following message: The splendour of Salomon's throne was well known in the universe, nevertheless, it was shined upon by the supernatural splendour and brightness of the throne, which God shaped for Mary, the immaculate virgin, in honour of his only begotten son. (So herrlich auch der Thron Salomons war, so wurde er doch überstrahlt von dem überirdischen Glanz jenes Thrones, den Gott seines eingeborenene Sohnes wegen in Maria, der "Unbefleckt Empfangenen", gebildet hat.)

It is certain that St. Mary was the protectress of Carantania, the Slovenian Medieval State, and in this connection is also her Slovenian title Gospa Sveta (literally Saint Lady) characteristic for the Carantanian cathedral. The German name Maria Saal derives from the Latin name "Maria in Solio".  The way Slovenians address her by using the appellation "Gospa" (Lady) must be understood in its historical meaning, i.e., as a mistress or, better said, as a lady ruler. Thus, St. Mary, as a celestial and terrestial Queen, was the protectress of Slovenian people.

In the Gothic era other types of Mary images were widespread in Slovenian lands. The most famous among them is the well-known relief of "St. Mary with protective cover" (Schutzmantelmadonna), which is found in the pilgrimage church of Crna gora or Ptujska gora (Maria Neustift) near Ptuj, Styria. The noble family of Ptuj (Pettau) and their relatives the Counts of Celje (Cilli), founded the church ca. 1400. The relief origins from ca. 1430.

Throughout the whole Slovenian territory many small churches are to be found on the hills. It was still before WW1, when the writer A. Hoppe paid attention of this occurrence in his work "Des Österreichs Wallfahrtsorte" (The Pilgrimages of Austria, Vienna 1913) saying: "Wherever nature offered a beautiful altitude, the pious Slovenian erected there a church..." Further, he also states that only Slovenian people possess a none ending inclination to build their churches on elevations... It must be added here that the majority of those churches are all dedicated to St. Mary.