Most of what we know about Attila The Hun is shrouded in mystery. The Hun’s themselves left no written record of his colourful life and the very little evidence we do have of him, from Roman and Christian chroniclers, is often tainted identifying him as a barbarian, history’s bogeyman or worst still God’s scourge. He may have been all this and more, but there is no denying that for some twenty years he was shrewd enough to win over the loyalty of ten of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands of followers, striking fear across the Roman Empire, from his headquarters in the grasslands of Hungary. But as quickly as his Hunnic Empire grew, it would all spectacularly collapse soon after his sudden death.
It is from my understanding of history from this period that, shortly after the death of Attila and the short-lived rule of his sons, the Huns imploded and seamlessly integrated with the Magyars. It therefore doesn’t come as a surprise to read that some Hungarians still today lay claims to be descendants from Attila’s Huns. Interestingly, Attila has also been afforded the respect of a great ruler repeatedly throughout Hungary’s history, that has not always been shared by others, especially those in western Europe.
That said, for the purposes of this historical paintings series, I have always been intrigued by the famed Hungarian painter, Mór Than, and his portrayal of Attila. It’s a far cry of the usual picture painted of Attila as a ruthless barbarian.
In Mor Than’s realistic, pre-impressionist masterpiece, The Feast of Attila (1870), the great Hun is shown overseeing his opulent court. He sits on his throne in an authoritative state, as sole ruler of the Hunnic empire, while at the same time seemingly lavishing responsibility on his son for the future. Curiously, the painter Mór Than includes in the foreground on the right, the Roman diplomat, scholar and writer, Priscus, the only person to have met Attila and written a detail account of his life. It arguably goes to show how well-educated people like Priscus and several others depicted in the painting were proud to serve him. Of course, Mór Than’s historical painting is only an interpretation and arguably his own romanticized view of Attila. Certainly, one has to wonder though, how far is it really from the truth?