Medieval Wall Painting News 4/2014

I realise that this edition of the Medieval Wall Painting News is a bit behind schedule, but anyway, here are the stories about medieval murals which made it to the news in the last quarter of 2014:

  • On the very last day of the year, Zsombor Jékely reported on the completion of one of the largest restoration projects in Slovakia, i.e. that of the wall paintings in the church of Turňa nad Bodvou. Dating to c. 1420, these paintings are of rather high quality and constitute an important addition to the corpus of murals in the International Gothic style. For more information and more images see Zsombor’s post on his Medieval Hungary blog.
  • Another important restoration campaign was recently completed in France, more precisely in the Chapelle Saint Martial in the Papal Palace, Avignon. Executed in 1344-1346 by Matteo Giovanetti for pope Clement VI., this is one of the most important cycle of wall paintings of its time in France, if not in all of Europe. Fittingly, there is an entire website (in French) dedicated to the chapel and its restoration.1
  • Speaking of restorations, in November the internet also brought us this fascinating piece (in Italian) about the latest findings on the technique employed by Giotto in his famous Arena Chapel frescoes – or, as that report suggests, perhaps not-quite-frescoes-after-all. This was published on a new-ish website called RestaurArti dedicated to the latest news on Italian art (of all periods) with its focus on matters of restoration and safeguarding the country’s architectural and artistic heritage. If you read Italian, you should definitely have a look!
  • Incidentally, already in October, RestaurArti also reported on newly discovered wall paintings in the Cappella del Presepe in Matera Cathedral. Judging by the photos provided, these murals seem to date from the 14th century, and they are justly praised as an extraordinary discovery.
  • Another new discovery was reported from Lausanne, Switzerland: A fragment of early 14th-century wall painting was uncovered in what was once a domestic space in a nobleman’s town-house. As is typical for secular decorations of that time, it consists of a fictive drapery in the dado zone and an ornamental pattern covering the main part of the wall. For more information (in French) and a photo of the fragment see here.
  • Another fine set of frescoes from the first half of the 15th century was recently uncovered in the Church of Santa Maria do Castelo in Abrantes, Portugal.2 Although far from extensive, these paintings are of great importance nonetheless, at least in a local context – after all, the survival rate of pre-1450 murals in Portugal is close to zero, so this really is a rather exciting find. For more information (in Portuguese) and a couple of images see here or here.
  • The last piece in the “new discoveries” section comes from Spain, more precisely from the church of Sant Pere in Ripoll where 40 painted dragons were uncovered on the ribs of the church’s Gothic vaulting. The paintings themselves are dated 1561, so strictly speaking they are not medieval. However, I decided to include them here nonetheless, since I believe they form a great example of how a medieval space was re-interpreted and re-appropriated in the early modern period. Pictures and some more information (in Spanish) can be found here.
  • To conclude, the final news item in today’s post comes from a rather unexpected source, the Daily Mail: Titled – in that inimitable matter of fact style the Mail is famous for – How I saw off satanists and rescued one of England’s finest churches…, it is the admittedly fascinating story of the restoration of St. Mary in Houghton on the Hill, Norfolk, which brought to light some of England’s earliest surviving wall paintings, believed to date back to the late 11th century. To be sure, the discovery and restoration of the murals is not itself a recent event (having taken place in the 1990s), but the Daily Mail piece is, so I figured it ought to be included here as a slightly unusual case of “medieval wall paintings in the news”. As much as I hate to admit it, it’s worth a read…

 

 

  1. I must confess that the restoration was actually already completed in early 2014, but I’d somehow missed it back then. Considering the frescoes’ great importance, however, I feel compelled to still report on them now, even though this is, strictly speaking, old news. []
  2. It has to be mentioned, though, that some of the reports published online give a different date of execution and speak of “late 15th-century frescoes”. Based on the images I’ve seen, however, I definitely agree with the pre-1450 dating. []

Medieval Wall Painting News 3/2014

  • I’m afraid this instalment of the Medieval Wall Painting News begins with rather bad news: An important set of 14th-century wall paintings in the church of St. Catherine at Arnau near the Russian town of Kaliningrad (formerly Könisgberg) were essentially destroyed during a recent “restoration” campaign organised by the Russian Orthodox Church. For full details of this contentious matter see the report provided by the Art Newspaper on August 26.
  • Fortunately, elsewhere restorers take a different approach and actually do their job of preserving artistic heritage. Thus, in France, wall paintings from the Romanesque and the Gothic period in the church of Sainte Anne at Nohant-Vic were expertly restored during the summer months. There is a short article and video (in French) about the restoration here. The video is particularly interesting because it not only shows the church and its murals but also close-ups of the restorers at work, providing insights into the technical aspects of wall painting restoration.

The War of Cats and Mice, wall painting, c. 1165, St. John’s Chapel, Pürgg (Austria)

  • Meanwhile, back home in Austria, another phase in the long-term restoration of St. John’s Chapel in Pürgg was completed this summer. The chapel contains one of the country’s most important cycles of Romanesque wall paintings, executed sometime after 1160 and famous for its depiction of the War of Cats and Mice. The current restoration campaign, carried out in several stages, began in 2011 and is expected to be completed in 2017. An illustrated overview of this year’s work (in German) is provided on the website of the Bundesdenkmalamt, Austria’s Federal Monuments Office.
  • Also in summer, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya in Barcelona shared a photo of one of the Romanesque murals in its collections in course of restoration. The painting in question shows the Virgin Mary and the Apostles and dates to c. 1165 (which makes it roughly contemporary to the murals in Pürrg). It once adorned the apse of Sant Romà in Les Bons (Andorra) but was detached and brought to Barcelona in the early 20th century. In the church of Sant Romà itself, the medieval mural was replaced with an exact modern copy – which brings me neatly to the next item on the list…
  • One of the most important sets of Romanesque murals preserved in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya comes from the church of Sant Climent in Taüll. Painted around 1123, they were detached and brought to Barcelona in the early 20th century just like the mural from Les Bons (and many more from country churches all over Catalonia). Now, an initiative called Taüll 1123 has brought the paintings back to their original location in Sant Climent – well, at least virtually, through the technique of video mapping. Visitors of the church can now see the murals projected onto the very walls they once adorned and experience the space as it would have looked like in the 12th century. The effect, it seems, is quite spectacular, and the installation of this project in late 2013 has already led to an increase of 40% in visitor numbers. Moreover, this summer the project was awarded first prize in the category “audio-visual” of the prestigious Premi Laus by the Catalan Association of Graphic Designers and as a consequence received quite a bit of media coverage. For more details (in Catalan) on the project and the award see here and here, or go directly to the Taüll 1123 website.
  • Good news also arrive from Italy: After three years of restoration, the crypt of Otranto Cathedral has been reopened to the public. Dating to the 11th century, the crypt features frescoes ranging from the Middle Ages to the 16th century. For a short report (in Italian) and some photos of the newly restored crypt see here.
  • In similar, but perhaps even better news: The Aula Gotica [Gothic Hall] at Santi Quattro Coronati in Rome has finally been made accessible to the public. This hall was built as part of a cardinal’s residence in the 13th century and received an extensive painted decoration including depictions of the Zodiac, the Four Seasons, the Labours of the Months, the Ages of Man, the Liberal Arts, Saints, Virtues and Vices. When these frescoes were discovered under layers of whitewash and overpaint in 1995, it was one of those discoveries that forced scholars to completely reconsider everything they thought they knew about a) painting in 13th-century Rome, and b) 13th-century palace decoration. In short, it was one of the most important discoveries of the last two decades. However, once the meticulous restoration of the frescoes was completed in 2007, the hall remained closed to the public because the building complex is now part of a female monastery – and the nuns’ strict rules of enclosure wouldn’t allow any visitors inside. Now, thanks to the not inconsiderable investment of 150.000 euros, a new way of access to the Aula Gotica has been created, finally making it possible for visitors to arrive at the hall without disturbing the nuns’ monastic seclusion. Mind you, the hall is still only open two days a month, but that’s definitely better than nothing, isn’t it? For more details see here (in French, but with some great images) or here.

Medieval Wall Painting News 2/2014

  • Perhaps the most spectacular news this quarter comes from Egypt, where four different layers of (Christian) religious wall paintings ranging from the 8th to the 12th centuries were uncovered under 18th-century plaster in the church of the Deir Al-Surian Monastery. This appears to be a highly important discovery for a number of reasons, e.g. for including some unusual iconographic compositions, for the use of encaustic technique or for including graffiti in Coptic, Syriac, Greek and Arabic. For the full fascinating story read this extensive piece in Al-Ahram Weekly.
  • Exciting new discoveries are also reported from France, where restoration works in the church of Notre-Dame in Chemillé-Melay (Maine-et-Loire) have brought to light murals of the 12th century, most importantly a battle scene in the transept and the Baptism of Christ surrounded by the Four Evangelist in the crossing. As works continue, the conservators hope to uncover even more paintings in the chancel where a first survey has already revealed promising traces of figurative scenes. For a more detailed report (in French) see here.

An apostle’s head, detail from the recently uncovered wall paintings in Kameňany/Kövi (see below). Photo borrowed from Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog, used under Creative Commons License BY-NC-SA 3.0

  • In the Slovakian village of Kameňany (or Kövi in Hungarian – remember, Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary until the First World War) important wall paintings dating to c. 1400 have been uncovered in the Parish Church. There’s a series of apostles in the apse, there are female martyrs as well as the Wise and Foolish Virgins in the jambs of the triumphal arch, while in the nave one now finds a Virgin and Child with St. Anne and a fragmented Last Judgement (the latter, to be precise, now in the attic above the Baroque vault). For more details, photos and an assessment of the discovery’s importance see this excellent (as usual) piece on Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog.
  • Speaking of Hungary: The Future for Religious Heritage (FRH) network recently reported on a fundraising campaign initiated last year by the congregation at Abaújvár, Hungary, to help finance the uncovering and restoration of the medieval murals in their Parish Church. Presumably dating to the early 14th century, these paintings include scenes from the Lives of Jesus and of several saints. See here for the post on the FRH-website or here for more information on the campaign and some photos of the paintings in question.
  • Unfortunately, though not unexpectedly, the wall paintings in Abaújvár are not the only ones in dire need of conservation: In Italy, news portal h24notizie recently featured a piece (in Italian) on the Trecento frescoes in the chapel of San Silviano in Terracina (Lazio), depicting figures of saints and, probably, the Virgin Mary. In this case, the local authorities had already promised to provide the necessary funds for a restoration a full ten years ago, in June 2004, but despite an appeal launched in March 2010 by an initiative called Terracina Rialzati, so far nothing has been done.
  • In happier news, in Toledo, Spain, the restoration of late Romanesque wall paintings of the 13th century in the church of Cristo de Luz has recently been completed. For more information (in Spanish) and for photos of the paintings (Christ Pantocrator in the apse and several saints along the walls) see here or here.
  • As the German Press Agency (dpa) reports, the restoration of the wall paintings in the chapel of St. Liborius in Creuzburg (Thuringia) was recently completed and, after seven years of work, the chapel is now open to the public again. Presumably painted in the first years of the 16th century (the chapel itself was completed in 1499), the murals show scenes from the Passion of Christ and from the Life of St. Elisabeth of Thuringia. For images of the restored paintings and more information on the chapel (in German) see here.
  • Also in Germany, an extensive restoration campaign is underway in the church of St. Martin in Linz am Rhein to save the church’s rich heritage of wall paintings of the 13th to 15th centuries. This is a particularly challenging undertaking since the murals look back on a long but not always happy history of conservation and over-painting going back to the 19th century. For a more detailed account (in German) and some pictures see here.
  • Meanwhile, back in Austria, a large-scale restoration campaign – started in 2013 and scheduled to be completed in 2016 – is underway at Bruck Castle in Lienz, the late medieval residence of count Leonhard von Görz. In April and May of this year, conservators took a first survey of the wall paintings in the castle chapel, executed in the late-15th century by Simon von Taisten. Restoration work on the paintings is expected to resume in autumn. For some pictures of the murals and of the conservators at work see this short news piece (in German) on the website of the city of Lienz.

Medieval Wall Painting News 1/2014

So, as announced yesterday, here is the first instalment of my Medieval Wall Painting News, covering reports from January to March 2014. Ok, technically speaking, the first item on the list is actually last year’s news, but it has continued to make the rounds all over the internet well into 2014, and in any case I believe it is important enough to be included here:

  • In St Cadoc’s church, Llancarfan, Wales, a restoration campaign started in 2007 has revealed an important set of late 15th-century wall paintings showing St. George Slaying the Dragon, the Seven Deadly Sins and Death and the Gallant. The paintings are remarkable both for their interesting moralizing iconography and for their state of preservation: While many medieval wall paintings in Britain have suffered from ill-considered restoration attempts of the 19th and, especially, the mid-20th century, the murals that have now come to light in Llancarfan have been spared such interventions.
    For a more detailed account see this entry on Ellie Pridgeon’s medievalwallpaintings blog (including a link to a short video on the discovery by the BBC) or go directly to the project website. As updates about the restoration have continued to arrive throughout the first half of 2014, there have been many more reports on a number of websites, online papers and social media, but I’ll just link to this recent piece by James A. Cameron which has the big advantage of being written by someone who has actually seen the paintings himself.

Detail of St. George, St Cadoc’s, Llancarfan (image by James A. Cameron)

  • In Italy, local newspaper La Tribuna di Treviso reports (in Italian) on newly uncovered frescoes in the church of the Madonna dei Broli in Farra di Soligo (Veneto). Dating to the late 13th or early 14th century, they are now considered to be the earliest wall paintings to survive in the diocese of Vittorio Veneto. They show the Resurrection of Christ and several saints, one of whom may be St. Francis in conversation with the wolf of Gubbio. For more photos of the church see this page (which also suggests that a first phase of restoration already took place in 2012).
  • Moving on to Germany, in Leipzig late 15th/early 16th-century murals from the cloister of the city’s former Dominican monastery have been made accessible to the public in the foyer of a university building, the so-called Neue Augusteum. The paintings had been saved when the cloister was demolished in the 19th century, but they had been in storage ever since. Having been restored in 2005-2009, they have now been returned to their original location – the Neue Augusteum was built on the site of the Dominican monastery – where they can be viewed during the university’s regular opening hours. They depict scenes from the Bible, a Life of St. Catherine and a Genealogical Tree of the Dominican order. For more information (in German) and some glimpses of the paintings see here or here.
  • Similarly good news arrive from Hungary where after 13 years of restoration works the palace chapel of Esztergom is finally open to visitors once more (for visitor information see here). While the chapel is already remarkable for its 12th-century architecture, to top things off it also has some of the finest 14th-century Italianate wall paintings in all of Central Europe. For more details see this post on Zsombor Jékely’s Medieval Hungary blog.
  • Finally, a rather spectacular discovery has been made in Cyprus where researchers from the University of California were surprised to find a layer of asbestos in the 12th-century wall paintings in the monastery of Enkleistra of St. Neophytos. While the use of asbestos since ancient times is well-documented, this is the first known instance of its use in wall painting or, in a wider sense, construction work, making this a highly important find not only for the history of art but also for the history of science and technology. It is not yet entirely clear why asbestos was applied in the murals at St. Neophytos at all, but the research team suggested it may have been added to give more shine to certain areas of the paintings.
    Needless to say, this piece of news was also widely reported on, but as so often perhaps the best summary is provided by The History Blog. Or you could of course just go and read the research team’s original paper which is available on academia.edu.

Medieval Wall Painting News – An Introduction

One of the fascinating things about studying medieval wall paintings is that there are always new discoveries. And by this I don’t mean just the usual advancement of knowledge brought about by new research and new approaches, but the simple fact that on a regular basis “new”, i.e. hitherto unknown medieval murals are discovered under layers of plaster and whitewash added by later generations. Admittedly, most of these discoveries are far from spectacular but in the last few decades alone there were several which significantly changed our understanding of the art produced in a certain place and time.

A detail from the so-called Gozzoburg in Krems, Austria, showing a piece of yet to be recovered 13th-century wall painting

Even in the last few months a number of new finds has made the news, although most of them have only been reported on by local news outlets. Thanks to the dissemination power of social media, though, many of these stories from all over Europe have found their way into my twitter timeline, so I figured I’d do a collective post with links to all the individual reports. Then I thought again and decided it would be a good idea to make this a regular feature on my blog. So, starting tomorrow I will post a quarterly overview of Medieval Wall Painting News every three months. (Seeing as we’re already at the end of the second quarter of 2014, I will actually start the series with two posts, one covering January to March, the second covering April to June.) These posts will include brief summaries of as well as links to news stories about recent discoveries but also about recently started, recently completed or ongoing restoration campaigns, thus documenting what’s going on in the field of medieval wall paintings.1 I have also created a new page here, accessible via the header bar, where I will collect all posts in this category.

In terms of geography, my Medieval Wall Painting News will cover all of Europe and what one might call the Mediterranean (e.g. Northern Africa and the Middle East) in the period commonly known as the Middle Ages, defined here as roughly 500 – 1500 AD. Although I was tempted by the recent discovery of a pre-Columbian mural in Peru to include other regions as well, both my limited time resources and my limited knowledge of e.g. Asian or American art have ultimately led me to decide against it. That said, if I come across something really extraordinary, I’m more than likely to make an exception, but the point is I won’t be actively monitoring the field of extra-European art.

Even within Europe and the Mediterranean, of course, there are probably plenty of relevant news items that will escape my attention, so let me end this introduction with an appeal: If you become aware of new discoveries and/or current restorations of medieval wall paintings in your area, I’d be highly grateful if you could pass on the news to me either via mail (c.n.opitz[at]gmail.com) or via twitter (@c_n_opitz).

  1. Some of the linked sites will, I’m afraid, be in languages other than English. Where this is the case, I will include an indication of the language used in parentheses. []