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Fresco. Just what is it?
Art in visiting Vatican exhibit predates Renaissance


The fresco, "Christians being persecuted for Their Faith," circa 1280-1300, was found in Sant' Agnese fuori le Muri (St. Agnes outside the Walls Church).
Photos by Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation
A total of 125,788 reservations have been made as of April 5 for "Medieval Frescoes from the Vatican Museums Collection," an exhibit opening a three-month engagement June 4 at the Museum of Texas Tech.

Following this Lubbock exhibition, the 31 never-before-exhibited frescoes will return to Rome and will not be exhibited again until 2025, according to the Rev. Malcolm Neyland, president and executive director of the Vatican Exhibit 2002 Foundation.

Perhaps the most obvious question generated by the flurry of interest in the exhibit is, simply, what is a fresco?

Brian Steele, professor of art history at Texas Tech, described fresco as a "pretty ancient art form," explaining, "The Minoans were using true fresco technique around 1500 B.C. Fresco was used continuously in Italy in the Middle Ages ... It had a strong revival in the 1200s, and the technique was pretty well established by 1300.

photo: news
  The prophet Amos was one of three Old Testament figures discovered in San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison Church) in Rome.  
"Simple fresco is just like painting on dry plaster. But that tends to peel off; it's relatively fragile.

"These works in the exhibit from the Vatican are buon fresco, meaning true fresco. Fresco means fresh; these paintings were done on wet and damp plaster. The artists (who are not known) use the same ground-up mineral pigments used for tempera painting, but they are allied in a lime water solution on damp plaster.

"As the plaster dries, there is a chemical reaction and the pigment is bonded onto the top surface of the plaster. The good thing is it is very durable. The drawback is you can plaster only a small part each day. By 1300, artists would make drawings on under-layers of plaster, but the process was very complicated and involved a lot of trial and error.

"You see, the colors change as the plaster dries. So the artist had to gauge where colors would go and, when the next section is added, what colors would be needed to match.

photo: news
  "Monks Confronting Evil" depicts a group of monks and a dragon, which represented evil, in this fresco found at San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas in Prison Church) in Rome, and is believed to have been painted about 1300.  
"During the Renaissance, in the 1400s and 1500s, fresco was considered the noblest form of painting, in part because it was so difficult."

Vatican experts date the frescoes in this exhibit from 1120 A.D. to 1310 A.D. The 31 frescoes were rescued from the ancient walls of two churches in Rome — the Church of Sant'Agnese fuori le Mura (St. Agnes Outside the Walls Church) and San Nicola in Carcere (St. Nicholas en Carcere Church).

The frescoes depict the stories of saints — such paintings were used to aid illiterate worshippers — and portraits of some of the Old Testament prophets.

"This probably pushes the Renaissance back 200 to 300 years," Neyland said. "Because art historians didn't know this type of painting existed ... not for another two or three centuries."

photo: news
  No additional information is available for "Holy Princess," a detached fresco found in Sant'Agnese fuori le Muri (St. Agnes outside the Walls Church).  
He added that much of what people knew about early prophets and saints was learned via the telling of stories, with artistic images and portraits illustrating morality tales.

"The images of these ancient plaster fragments reflect knowledge of saints and prophets," said Neyland, "and represent a historical record of Christendom. What appeals to me is putting them into the philosophy, literature and history of the time. During this time, there was a lot of peace and tranquility compared to the centuries that followed."

Steele said, "Many of these frescoes are indeed telling stories, although some depict saints just standing there. Some are involved with a true narrative, and some of the pieces depict animals and birds, which are more interesting in terms of symbolism.

"I think the more interesting frescoes are the narrative ones, which mark a fairly significant point in development in Italian painting. This generation just before the year 1300 tried working with imported Byzantine styles, with more emphasis on light and shadow. They prepared the way for (di Bondone) Giotto; they paved the way for the Renaissance."

Steele repeatedly stressed the use of light and shadow, and light over form, which makes figures appear more solid and "even some of the architecture is quite nice."

Some faces are repeated, he said, and others are more expressive. "There is a real dialogue of gazes and gestures, sort of a pantomime that helps get the story across," says the academician. "As for the figures themselves, the artists paint faces more than full figures."


The exhibit has ended
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