Mystical Light

New Secrets of Ancient Frescos
The frescos of Archicathedral Marian Church in Minsk have become one of the most prominent artistic discoveries of the last few years. The frescos are being retrieved from under many layers of paint and plaster. Belarusian restorers have managed to reveal all the frescos of the Felician chapel, the place where the ancient paintings were preserved better that elsewhere in the church.

— The chapel is truly unique, art historian Olga Bazhenova tells me. — It is so special not only because of the frescos, but also because of the genuine interiors. The real monument is always an integrated collection of things that gives a clear picture of how people lived and what they felt, it is a sort of historical ensemble…

The frescos have been restored for many years now, and the central nave has almost been completed. The scaffold may only be seen in the chapel, in the right part of it, the toughest segment of the church.

— We have eight artistic layers here, all of them preserved to different degrees, and somewhere we have 16! the research manager of the restoration, Arkady Shpunt, tells me. — Over 160 square meters of genuine painting. So we had to deal with all those layers: just imagine, eight layers 160 square meters each. And you have to cut through them all with a thin scalpel, millimeter by millimeter. This is equal to several football fields that you have to clean with a knife. There is a more serious problem: we open various layers — rococo and classicism, but how do we combine them? Where is the balance between history and art? The easiest way is to leave openings representing various epochs so that the viewers see a bit of everything. But there will be no integrity. We want the chapel to have its original image and retain the historical layers in order for people to read it like a book. Besides history we need to have some artistic, aesthetic imprints on the viewer. This is transparent and tender painting — the best of rococo. How can we combine it with the grey and earthly classicism? If the restorer managed to resolve this problem, we will get a real art object, if not, this will not be art.

Until recently the very existence of frescos under the thick layers of paint and plaster was the main sensation, along with the mastery of the restorers that managed to win the ancient treasure back from eternity. Art historians have started studying the frescos recently, and immediately new findings followed. First of all, scientists now doubt the authorship of the painter Antoshevsky whom all history books call the main layout artist of the church. They do not want to make any statements yet, as everything is good in its season.

One thing is true for sure: after the discovery of these frescos the significance of Belarusian art has increased immensely, says Olga Bazhenova. — This is the 18th century we are talking about, the birthday of the national art school. Earlier, they only mentioned Italian and German names, but it seems locals were involved in this project. This style may be called “Vilnya Baroque”, as there are plenty of similar art objects in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania. But Minsk paintings are much freer and more original. They seem to be speaking of eternal values and essential everyday things. This is a sort of ciphered message, it is like the Belarusian sarmatian portrait. The traditional psychological layers that are characteristic of the West-European school are less significant than the direct message of the painting. Lighting in those ancient pictures is almost mystical, as light comes from crosses and crucifixes rather than from windows and openings in walls. These paintings are lit from the inside, and it is not fortuitous for church painting, which prides itself on detailed expression.

By the end of the year, or to be more precise, by Catholic Christmas, the main part of the restoration work will have been over and scaffolds will have been dismantled. It will take much more time for experts to agree what really happened here several centuries ago and make new discoveries. One can be certain that Minsk downtown will have its own historic art objects. It will be something genuinely Belarusian. The city’s roots have proved to go deeper in history. Isn’t it the main sensation of the Archicathedral Marian Church?

by Natalya Naumenko
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