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.