The Slovenia Times

A Slovene Folk Tradition



In a way the beehive panels are a product of their time - apiculture blossomed as agrarian reforms took place. The changes didn't only create new branches of industry and new forms of culture; they also started a slow disintegration of large feudal property, thus enabling some farmers to get rich. One of the means they could use to reach this end was beekeeping. Even though the oldest panel is dated 1758, most were created between 1820 and 1880, and the tradition was practised until the beginning of WWII. The illustrations can be found on the so-called "lying beehives" which were stacked up and roofed to form a bee-house. An average panel 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. Beehive panels were painted so that the bees could recognise their hive. Farmers soon grew tired of the monotonously coloured panels and decided to decorate their apiaries with different images. The reasons for the start of this tradition were similar to the reasons that people began painting furniture and buildings. However, superstition, piety and various other reasons are also expressed in some of the motifs. Since beekeeping represented a respected and profitable branch of agriculture, the beehive panels also expressed the owner's wealth and prestige. Motifs of Folk Imagination The most interesting part of this artistic phenomenon is the content. The vast majority of the content is of a religious nature. Scenes from the Old and New Testament predominate. Their most distinctive feature may perhaps be the pleasant innocence of these images - God, for example, drawn as a bald, weak old man with a long beard and a triangle above his head; also scenes from 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 panels depict biblical scenes, such as the stations of the cross, the parable of the prodigal son, or the seven sacraments, in the form of a story; others present amusing interpretations of biblical characters. Such are the frequent motifs of a farmer trying to trick the devil. The panels displaying secular motifs are even more interesting than the ones with religious scenes. If the latter were copied mostly from other branches of art, this cannot be said of the former. With secular motifs, painted beehive panels took a step away from classical art and religious themes, becoming an original art form in which folk artists could express their troubles, sorrows, and other things that made them laugh or cry. Some panels show scenes of historical events, like the battles of the Austrians against the Turks and the Italians, the arrival and departure of Napoleon's army, and also images of Albanians and Arabs that used to fill the newspapers. Some of these panels are documentary and illustrate battles fought in these lands and battles that took place far away. Some of the panels could even be characterised as a critique of society, criticising the high war taxes and conscription imposed by the different authorities who have come and gone here. 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 value of this national heritage is the fact that it recorded spontaneously expressed opinions that were documented in great cultural monuments in other nations. The most amazing features of some of the designs are the directness and unconcealed sarcasm, especially in the scenes with women as the main characters. One of the most distinctive illustrations is of women being milled. In this scene women are being transformed from old women into young, beautiful brides by passing through a mill. The mill itself also went through a transformation; in time, wooden mills were replaced by steam engines. Other similar images include the devil sharpening a woman's tongue, a scene of a farmer who harnessed a woman - instead of an animal - to a carriage, a motif of a young lad fishing for young girls using his trousers as bait, and women fighting on cockerels. The majority of the preserved painted beehive panels are kept in the Radovljica Apicultural Museum and in the Slovene Ethnographic Museum in Ljubljana. Even though their place is now in museums and on the shelfs of souvenir shops, they are still as vivid and sarcastic as they always were.


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