In Slovenia, beekeeping is called the poetry of agriculture. Devotion to the Slovenian Carniolan honey bee (Apis mellifera carnica Pollmann) has inspired another type of artistry as well: the tradition of painting the wooden panels with which the beehives are constructed. This folk art is unique to Slovenia and can be traced back to the middle of the 18th century. Driving through the Slovenian countryside, these open-air galleries are a common sight. The wooden boxes that the beehives are housed in are known in the trade as apiaries, and called kranjichi in Slovenian.
I had the chance to get an up-close-and-personal look at an extensive gallery of these painted panels, lovingly collected and cared for beekeepers Vida and Joze Koželj. The Koželjs created a museum dedicated to the painted panels in their home in the town of Smarje Sap, not far from Slovenia’s capital of Ljubljana. Vida’s family has worked with bees for over 200 years.
As I buzzed from one painted panel to the next, my guide Mateja Kregar Gliha translated Vida’s enthusiastic commentary. I learned that despite the long history of bee keeping in Vida’s family, the activity was never their primary business. Bee pollination and breeding were a sideline that supplemented their meager existence as farmers.
I asked what had inspired the Koželjs to create the museum and Vida said the beekeeping tradition is in their hearts. She explained that her husband is a hunter, and the vocation often took them across Slovenia. In their travels, they saw a lot of beekeeping tools that were in a forgotten corner of a barn or under a hayrack and the painted panels they came across were in worse and worse condition. They realized that the folk art was slowly vanishing.
That recognition was painful for them and they embarked on a mission to preserve this piece of Slovenia’s history. The Koželjs started to encourage people to sell their tools, newspapers, documents to them. Their friends knew about their passion and told them about items they saw, often passing along the owner’s telephone number, and Vida or Joze would call the owner and bargain about the price. Some objects were also bought on Ljubljana’s Antiquity Market, which is held every Sunday all year around.
Through Mateja, Vida gave me a primer on the history of the painted panels.
“In the beginning, the panels were painted by unknown itinerant painters, ” she said. “Since these travelling artists were very poor, they could not pay for their accommodations and so painted farmers’ panels in exchange for bed and board. Later on, some painters became well-known–-the most popular family was named Šubic. There are also a lot of panels painted by laymen—those panels are recognizable because the figures are funny: the head is too big or the arms too long.”
Many of the panels in the Koželjs’ collection are quite old–this one depicting Jesus dates to 1754.
“Slovenian farmers believed in God and were always very religious,” Vida said. “God played the central role in their lives and Jesus, as his son, is the light of our lives. He shows us what is possible and what the main point of our lives here is-–the path to our Father.”
“A lot of panels tell us stories from the Bible,” Mateja pointed out. “At that time people could not read and write so that was the only way the spread the Word of God easily. Today there is sometimes no time to read, so we can just have a look at the panel and see what God would like to tell us.”
I asked Vida about a panel dated 1889, showing a man pouring water on a building. She explained that a lot of farms and also bee hives were burnt down by accident. People prayed to St Florian to protect them against fire in this world and from the fire in hell.
Moving on to the next panel, Vida described its meaning to me, saying “Locals used to tell stories that a dragon lived in an underground world and needed to eat one virgin a year. People were desperate. One day a young shepherd boy came and he killed the dragon. This is also understood to symbolize the arrival of Christianity, with St. George slaying paganism.”
I asked Vida about an image dated 1888 featuring a man approaching a fiddler with food and drink. She explained to me that custom requires every entertainer must be rewarded. If you have no money to pay for the pleasure provided, home-made goods from the farm are also always welcome!
Next Vida showed me an old riff on the obsession with youth.
“Here is presented an old satire story,” she said with a sly grin. “Every man wanted to have a young wife. This shows the fantasy that you can bring your old wife to the rejuvenation mill and after the rejuvenation process in the mill done by water you get a nice pretty young lady.”
Vida explained the next panel to me.
“There was never much food, you had to be very careful with the amounts that you had,” she said. “On this bee hive panel we can see the lady of the house persecuting the devil right out of the kitchen to preserve the family’s minimal provisions.”
Vida said that many of the themes on the panels in the museum were ones that appear over and over again. She pointed out one that was particularly popular: Two unmarried women fighting over a man’s trousers and the chance to get married. The one who wins is able to get herself a husband.
Vida said the humor displayed on many of the panels was based on the idea of the “world gone topsy turvey.” She explained this panel by saying “In December we always make a lot of pork sausages, blood sausages and hams. This shows a butcher who came to the farm to start the work, but since the men who help him were inexperienced, the pig ran away and started to chase them.”
“Hunting was once very important in Slovenian lives–two-thirds of the country is covered by woods full of wildlife,” Vida continued. “Hunters would meet at local pubs and tell rich stories, exaggerating greatly and making themselves out as great heroes.At their funerals animals are making jokes out of them. As our proverb says, ‘he laughs best who laughs last.’ ”
Vida showed me another panel in the same vein, saying “Hunters always made a lot of jokes or told unreal stories. While they were telling stories they drank a lot of wine and became tired. While they were sleeping, animals shaved their moustache or beard and made jokes out of them.
“Its clear our ancestors had to work very hard in everyday life, but from the scenes on the panels we can see they have not lost their sense of humour and an ability to always look on the bright side of life,” observed Mateja.
When I asked which panel was Vida’s personal favorite, she showed me one depicting a man running away from a tree. She called the panel “Apitherapy” and said its story could be read from right to left.
“It was well-known that bee stings were an effective treatment for rheumatism,” Vida said. “This young man claimed to have problems with rheumatism and was not able to work so he was sent to the tree with bees. While he was under the tree he tripped and fell. The bees were disturbed, woke up and started to attack him. Full of bee stings, he never thought about rheumatism again.”
I was intrigued by another panel, one that seemed unusual in that it depicted words rather than images:
O človek uporabi dragoceni čas, zbiraj zaklade za večnost
Mateja gave me a translation of the phrase:
O man, use your precious time, collect treasures for eternity!
The panel seemed to sum up the collective wisdom of the Slovenian bee keeping tradition: Have faith and keep a sense of humor!