Imperial Austria: Treasures of Art, Arms and Armor from the State of Styria

Styria, the Bulwark State

    The Styrian panther. Photo: Luigi Di Giovine, © Casa Editrice Bonechi
    This heraldic figure is the symbol of Styria. Its body is that of a panther, but with shaggy hindlegs and multiple tails. It has the head of a horse, the mane of a lion, and the horns of a bull. Flames blaze out of its body openings.

Styria is a large, verdant, agricultural state located in southeastern Austria, where the plains of western Hungary begin to give way to the Alps. Styria's rolling hills are pierced by river valleys that have been passageways for centuries of travellers. Like the Danube which flows through Vienna in northern Austria, Styria's Mur and Raab rivers are fingers that penetrate the mountains. To go from eastern to western Europe, travellers, traders and conquerors alike passed through this land.

With no natural land barriers to protect its eastern border, Styria has been invaded by a succession of foreign aggressors. Between the 15th and 17th centuries, Styria faced its greatest threat when the Ottoman Turks launched repeated attacks. Styrians saw the attacks not only as battles for survival, but also as a struggle to preserve its culture and religion. Here East met West, and Islam confronted Christianity. If the Ottomans penetrated Austria, they could open the door to western Europe.

    Panel from the Miraculous Altar of Mariazell, Danube School, 1512; Joanneum Graz, Alte Galerie. Photo: Matthias Wimler
    Mariazell, the site of a Romanesque statue of the Virgin credited with many miracles, is the most important place of pilgrimage in Austria. This panel illustrates King Ludwig I of Hungary, inspired by the Virgin of Mariazell, defeating Bulgarian troops. Although the battle took place in 1377, the artist clad the figures and horses in late 15th and early 16th century armor.

Styria's continuing struggle became a dominant theme in its culture at the very time when Europe was entering its Renaissance and Baroque periods, two of the most gifted and creative artistic phases in Europe's history.

Because it had no natural protection against the invasions, Styria took its defensive role as an Austrian border state very seriously. As early as the 13th century, Styrians began to build a series of castles and fortresses that dotted its eastern border and formed part of a larger network of defensive fortifications stretching from the Baltic to the Adriatic seas.

    The castles of Thalberg (top) and Riegersburg (bottom), from Topographia Ducatus Stiriae, by Georg Matthäus Vischer, 1681; Joanneum Graz, Abteilung für Kungstgewerbe. Photos: Bild und Tonarchiv Graz
    Styria's eastern border was extensively fortified. Some defenses were located on steep cliffs; others depended upon bastion defenses. Twelfth-century Thalberg is the oldest fortification.

High, steep, rocky outcroppings that loom over Styrian river valleys were important for Styria's survival. They served as lookouts, shelters, redoubts, storehouses, and armories during periods of invasion. Graz, which relied on a walled Italian bastion system for defense and was established on the Mur River beneath a steep rocky lookout, became the seat of government, the principal repository for Styrian armaments, and the site of the Landeszeughaus.

Styria also had one other natural resource that was crucial to its survival: iron ore, which was mined at the Styrian Alpine peak Erzberg. Styria is known for its fine ironwork and the smiths who worked it are key to both the state's survival and the important dialogue between art, arms, and armor that informs Styria's history.

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Date created: November 16, 1995Last updated: July 13, 2001