The things we remember from our misspent youth! Driving from Germany to the nude beaches on the Adriatic coast in what today is Croatia, we took country roads through Slovenia. I vividly remember colorful beehives standing in fields on hillsides. I remember trading with 8 or 9 year old boys, honey for cigarettes (which they immediately lit up) and berries, both sides immensely pleased with the deal. Getting to know honey, I remember Slovenia. Okay, let's talk about PAINTED BEEHIVE PANELS IN SLOVENIA
The emergence and application of painted front panels of the ‘kranji’ beehives (Carniolian behives) in the alpine region of Slovenia is linked with the ascent of bee-keeping as one of the most profitable economic activities in 19th century. Outside the mentioned territory, thousands of painted beehives were spread to European countries by trading with live bees.
Painted beehive panels are a specialty of Slovene folklore. Even though the oldest panel is dated 1758, most of them were created between 1820's and 1880's, and tradition was practiced till the beginning of WW II. They can be found on the so-called "lying beehives" which were then stacked one onto another and roofed to form a bee-house. An average board of this kind was 20 to 30 cm wide and 10 to 20 cm high. The lower side had a narrow rectangular opening often referred to as "the gullet", through which bees entered the hive. The painting of frontages was done for the protection of the apiarist as well as for the bees as it indicated the financial standing of the apiarist and helped the apiarist to remember, with the help of their images, what was happening with each individual beehive. It was also believed that beehive panels were painted, so the bees could recognize their hive.
Farmers soon grew tired of monotonously colored panels and decided to decorate their apiaries with various images. Reasons for the start of this tradition are similar to those for painting the furniture and buildings, other practical reasons, superstition and piety expressed by some of the motifs. But before a panel got its place in the beehive and later in the apiary, it had to be painted with oil paints. First, the board was painted over to form a background color, on which the motif was painted, again with the oil paints and using a paintbrush. There were two ways of painting: freehand and using a stencil. In the panels painted up until the end of 19th century, the colors are unusually well-preserved, for the painters had used durable earth pigments, mixed with local linseed oil. The paint on the younger panels, painted with industrial paints, is unfortunately much more weathered.
So who are these people that saw artistic challenge in those little wooden boards? To this day, 42 names of the painters are pretty well documented. But beside them, an undefined number of painters was also engaged in beehive-painting. They can be divided into three stylistic groups, according to their artistic skill. The first group consists of painters who were schooled in late Baroque workshops. Painters from this group earned their living mostly by painting images for rural churches; their painted panels stand out in skill with which they were created. The second group is formed by semi-qualified rural painters who also used to paint on glass, the facades of farmhouses, on crosses and religious paintings on wood, and on furniture used in rural areas. These paintings are of lesser quality compared to the works of the first group, which can be accounted to the fact that the painters drew with colors, rather than painted. Beehive panel paintings produced by the third group were works of self-taught occasional painters, who tried to copy the painters of the first two groups. These painters were probably bee-keepers themselves, who used to paint their own beehive panels.
The most interesting part of this artistic phenomenon is the content. A vast majority of the content is of religious nature. Scenes from the Old and New Testament are predominant. Their most distinctive feature may perhaps be the pleasant naivety of these images - God, for example, is drawn as a bald, weak old man with long beard and a triangle above his head; scenes from the Paradise, where exotic animals are depicted as variations of animals known to the painters - elephants drawn as giant mice, lions drawn as dogs with beards, etc. Some of the Biblical parables were explained in a string of sequential pictures that could today be classified as comics. The contents of these "beehive panel-comics" were the Stations of the Cross, The Parable of the Prodigal Son, The Seven Sacraments, but also tales of a farmer tricking the devil. Other quite frequent images are those of the Catholic Saints, who were considered some kind of intercessors between people and God, to whom people could pray to and beg for his kindness at different occasions. Among those most often depicted is Mary as the universal protector, who is painted on the oldest known beehive panel (1758); the patron saint of firefighters, Saint Florian; and Jobe, who was hailed as the protector of apiarists in Slovenian lands.
The panels carrying secular motifs are even more interesting than the ones with religious scenes. If the former were copied mostly from other art branches, this cannot be said for the latter. With secular motifs, painted beehive panels took a step away from patterns, taken from different classical arts and religious motifs, and became an original artwork, in which folk artists could express their troubles and sorrows, and other things that either made them laugh or cry - the same ideas that numerous comic artists of today love so much.
The secular group of motifs is made up of fantastic scenes such as animals playing human roles, making fun of craftsmen and human errors and a group of motifs that draw on the real world: military, pub and hunting scenes, apiculture and historical themes. Some panels bear scenes of historical events, like the fights of Austrians against the Turks and the Italians, the arrival and the departure of Napoleon's army, but also images of Albanians and Arabs that used to fill newspapers. Some of these panels are documentary and illustrate battles that were fought in these lands, but also battles that took place far away. Some of the panels could even be characterized as a critique of society, criticizing high war taxes and conscription, imposed by all the authorities that had come and gone in this territory. One of the scenes includes a Slovene farmer rocking a Frenchman in a cradle; another scene depicts an office, in which a stylishly dressed gentleman is filling his pockets with money. Perhaps the greatest worth of this phenomenon as national heritage is the fact that it had spontaneously expressed opinions that have been documented in great cultural monuments in other nations. Lacking other sources, the painted beehive panels are an important document of feelings and ideas of a tiny nation just being born. In contrast to the so-called high culture, that was just coming to life in the 19th century Slovenia and preferred European art currents to domestic peculiarities, painted beehive panels that were often too coarse for a refined taste of the bourgeoisie, offer a more accurate insight into their time.