Sunday, October 10, 2010

Frescoes For The Chapel

People have been painting on their walls at least since the time of cave dwelling. Why there aren't more examples of the ancient paintings is probably at least in part because people like to redecorate to stay current with the times! That and the fact that paint on old walls is vulnerable to the ravages of time. Sunlight, damp, and simple wear and tear erode the painted surface. Given that there are so many reasons that the paintings disappear, it is remarkable that we have any exmples at all of Medieval wall painting still in existence! The vast majority of these are from the oldest churches where it was the primary method of decoration, in use since the Roman times. Below is an example from the 9th century Church of Saint Germain, Auxerre. You will note that the style of representing the human figure is somewhat primitive. The figures are stiff and "flat" and full body front even when the faces are turned to the side.
Here below is another example, the "Miracle of Saint Giles" from the Church of Saint Aignan-Sur-Cher from the late twelfth century. Again, the forms are relatively primitive in their portrayal, even though the clothes are much more detailed with their stylized folds and drapes.

Below is another beautiful example. It is a fragment of Saint Faith from the Rectory of the Priory of Horsham in England. This is dated in the mid thirteenth century, around 1260 AD. The figures here retain the full frontal view, with much delicate but stylized decoration.

Here we have a fragment from the murals of Saint Stephen's Chapel, formerly in Westminster Palace in England. This is Tales from Job and is dated from the mid fourteenth century, around 1350 - 60. Here we can clearly see some artistic development in the rendering of the figure of Job. While the "ground" is still flat and abstract, the face is beautifully modeled with shadowing and fine details, revealing a natural emotional expression of unyielding faith.

So we know from these few examples that there was an ancient tradition of decorating the walls with painted figures. And we see even more evidence when we carefully examine the books of the Medieval period and find a wealth of illuminations of Artists shown performing their art! (It is one of the traditional images.... the artist painting himself in the act of painting!)

Here below we have an example of St. Luke being portrayed as an artist in the act of painting.
Some people will notice the similarity of his drawing with the one I have selected to paint on one of the walls of the Castle Chapel. (Shown further below) And others will take note of the artists implements.... including paint dishes that look like seashells! This illumination is from the middle of the fourteenth century. You might even note the similarities of face with that of Job above!

Here below is another illumination showing a mural painter at work on the ceiling of a church. This not only shows the method of painting in such lofty places, but tells the tale of the rescue of the painter by the Virgin he had just painted, when the scaffolding is knocked down by the devil (who he had painted to look ugly)! Do remember to poke the pictures to enlarge them.... and sorry this is a little out of focus!

And because it is SUCH a tradition for artists to paint themselves in the act of painting..... many years ago when I lived at my former home I had a fabulous studio with 14 foot high ceilings and I had to build my own scafolding to be able to paint the ceiling. So that year, I painted a miniature of myself painting the studio ceiling in the Christmas card that I paint every year. You can see that card below.

And here is a picture of that painted studio, taken shortly before I moved, with yours truly by the tree. That was a great studio!

So WHEN am I going to get to showing the Chapel paintings? Well, just one more detail to explain first. You remember that the Castle was fortified on the remains of an earlier Abbey. That church was quite ancient. I am going to assume that it was painted with the stories of the Bible for decoration. But I also have to assume that the STYLE of those paintings was relatively primitive because they were supposedly painted BEFORE the Abbey was abandonned! One of the most difficult things for an artist to do is to paint in a style that is more "primitive" than they are used to. I have tried to tailor my style to the earlier examples. I think I have only sort of managed it! To begin with, I selected three subjects to paint, one for each wall of the Chapel. That would be the Madonna and Child above the altar, The Crucifixion on the right wall, and Moses on the Mount on the left.
I chose an illumination from the mid thirteenth century as my model for the Madonna and Child. This is it below. I really tried to copy it fairly closely, especially the graceful gestures of the figures.

Here below you can see the drawing transferred to the wall and outlined in ink.

Here it is with much of the painting begun.

Here you can see it with the carved stone and painted arches surrounding it.

Here below is a view with the painting finished. As well as a glimpse of the two other paintings.

Here you can see the illumination I have chosen as my model for the Crucifixion. This was painted in the eleventh century.
You may recall the image Saint Luke was drawing that I mentioned above?

Below is the beginning stages of my version. Now, technically, these are NOT actually frescoes! Those would have to be painted onto wet plaster. Many of the paintings, especially in the northern countries, were murals painted on finished walls with a type of primitive oil paint. I am assuming that my Chapel walls were murals rather than true frescoes.

Here you can see that image completed. I couldn't resist adding more color than was in the original.

Now, images of the Crucifixion and the Madonna and Child are plentiful. But when it came to the portrayal of Moses on the Mount, I found only two examples in my books, and only one of them was early enough that it could serve as an example stylistically. This is from the Illuminated Naples Bible, from about 1350.

Alas, for my version, I did not copy it very well at all.
I added a whole lot of visual drama and color.

You can see it here below.

And a slightly further back view. I console myself that it will not matter that I changed the style of the painting so much, because it will be barely visible when the whole Chapel is finished!

Another view of the completed Madonna and Child, showing how the painting will blend with the ceiling painting.... which comes next......

Frescoes or Murals or.....



  1. It ususally comes as a surprise to modern people to find out that earlier civilisations loved colour, in textiles, on statues, walls, everywhere! And the brighter the better.
    I love your frescoes!! :) I've always had a soft spot for orthodox Byzantine icons, with their gold and pearls, also for the more restrained Russian ones.

    St Faith is beautiful, as is your studio tree - elven elegance in both, a delight to the spirit.


  2. Oh WOW! You are a woman of many talents! The frescoes remind me about the icons too! And love the studio's paintings!

  3. Thank you Glenda! The Byzantine and Russian traditional art is not too different from much of the Early Medieval art.... the Church was only recently separated back then. But the Eastern art was much richer in detail and materials.... the West was the land of barbarians!
    I am painting my Chapel in the full rich colors as if it was newly painted.... sometimes I think I should "age" it a bit when I am done.... we shall see!

  4. Thank you Ewa! I have always loved the Icons and the traditional art of Russia.... so I am sure the influence is there in my Chapel!

  5. I was here yesterday to read your full post and I had so many things to write but had to rush off for something!! Arghhhhh now trying to remember. Here goes:

    1stly, NICE TO MEET YOU, Betsy :):) That picture of yours made me feel like I am saying hi for real :). Thank you for sharing the photo. You really look "elven elegant" as Glenda puts it :):). Like a real character of a person :)

    2ndly, I really love the depiction of a painter in the act of painting. I think your postcard is fabulous! Really!

    3rdly, love that tree in your studio

    4thly, I see you have done the crazy again! Painting the walls of the dollhouse :) like walls :). But they have turned out wonderfully!!!

    Lastly, congratz on a wonderfully created chapel. It is BEAUTIFUL!

  6. i love your tree!!! and the murals look wonderful in the chapel. i can't wait to see it all finished, i think it will look lovely with candle light...

  7. ESTAS Haciendo documentado sin Muy Trabajo. Estós Pasos enseñas Que Hoy estan Muy acertados.
    Me encanta.
    Besos Clara

  8. Hey Sans! I'm so glad you like all my pictures... I wasn't quite sure I should include my studio ones, but the artist portraying herself theme is such a strong one, I had to use it! I am one of those artists who paints my real life, so I need to be in the picture a lot!
    As for the tree..... yet another one of my tree of life trees.... I was planning to fill it with a flock of local birds but never got that part done! And yes, most of the people who know me would agree that I am a bit elven and definitely a character! :) I am complimented!
    And you will be happy to know that I have more walls of my Chapel that I plan to paint for real! I was painting those first walls back in July during the hottest part of the year, and even though the "ceiling" of the Chapel was removed so the painting was easier, I was working under a HOT lamp in order to see what I was painting in that small space! I might complain, but I actually LOVE to paint these rooms and I might have to invent more murals to paint somewhere else when I'm done with these!
    Thank you for your words of appreciation!

  9. Hi Christine! Thank you for your comments! I am hoping to figure out a way to light the Chapel with "fiickering" candlelight. I really want that hushed, magnificent reverent feeling for the Chapel. Still a long ways to go!
    I'm glad you like my tree.... now belongs to someone else, but such is the way of art... I am painting more trees in my new house too!

  10. Hi Clara! I am going to figure out how to add the translator to my blog so I can understand your comments better! I am so glad you visit and leave comments! In my vanity, I am assuming that you like what you see and are saying so! Thank you for your words of appreciation!

  11. Betsy, this is the most wonderful blog of all. As usual, the historic background is fascinating; your writing style is quite elegant, too. And the paintings! Wow. I think you, too, must have been some kind of religious in past lives. Lots of love,

  12. Aw, Gee, Mom, Thank you! I will try to not assume you are just a prejudiced Mom! I love seeing your comments here! As you know, I love the painting part and the history part.... and being wordy comes easily too! Love to you too!