Krlickova, Judita “Unique medieval fresco found at Nitra Cathedral in Slovakia”

One of the most significant places of Slovakian history connected to the beginnings of the Christianity in Slovakia, is the cathedral complex in Nitra. The bishopric of Nitra was established by Pope John VIII already in 880. After the Hungarian conquest of the Great Moravia, Nitra became the seat of administration and the bishopric was re-established again in 1113. The Nitra Cathedral consists of three churches: the oldest Romanesque church of St Emeram from the turn of the 11th and 12th century, and later added Upper and Lower Church. It is located on the hill above the Nitra town and is surrounded by the bishopric palace and other administrative buildings, with an impressive baroque entrance gate and remains of the old fortification walls. The whole cathedral complex was created in several stages. The gothic Upper church was built in 1333 – 1355 by bishop Mesko (the brother in law of the King Charles I from the Anjou house). Probably during this time the Lower Church was also created, by incorporating the walls of the oldest Romanesque building. However, the most profound baroque transformation of the whole cathedral was done in 1622- 1642 after it was plundered during the Betlen uprising. The complex is dedicated to St Emmeram and two local hermits St. Zoerard and Benedict.

Thanks to its history and architectural beauty the cathedral is a monument of a national significance and is aspiring to be included in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List. There are also many significant art monuments in the churches, such as the early baroque marble altar by Johann Pernegerr, the Florentine style early renaissance tabernacle, the 16th century bronze baptismal font and beautiful baroque frescos. Due to bad technical condition of the buildings the bishopric of Nitra, with the support of Slovakian Ministry of Culture, commenced a major conservation project. The works, which are part of the 1150 anniversary celebrations of the arrival of St Cyril and Methodius to the Great Moravia, have been going on since 2007 and are led by the restorer Vladimir Plekanec.

After the main altar had been dismantled for the conservation purposes restorers were surprised to see patches of painted surface poking out trough the layers of plaster on the east wall.

The first phase of works was done in the Upper Church. The main task was to secure and conserve the magnificent early 18th century baroque frescos in the nave and on the vault of the chancel by Austrian painter G. A. Galliarti. The fresco in the chancel depicts the Assumption of the Virgin, with Virgin Mary in the centre of the picture surrounded by the donor bishop L. A. Erdödy, St Imrich and Stefan and G. A. Galliarti.

Once the plaster had been taken off it became apparent that restorers were dealing with a fresco of the highest artistic and technical quality from the period around 1400.

The second, ongoing phase of the project concentrates on the Lower Church which incorporated the oldest Romanesque church. After the main altar had been dismantled for the conservation purposes restorers were surprised to see patches of painted surface poking out trough the layers of plaster on the east wall. Once the plaster had been taken off it became apparent that restorers were dealing with a fresco of the highest artistic and technical quality from the period around 1400. Along with frescos in Sazdice, Kamenany and Plesivec they represent the finest examples of the medieval wallpaintings with a direct inspiration in the Italian Art of the 2nd half of the 14th century. It is also worth mentioning, that similarly to the fresco in the Upper church it also depicts scenes from the Life of the Virgin. Its rather unusual composition brings together several scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary –The Last Prayer of the Virgin, with the Apostles and Christ, and the soul of the Virgin Mary and Descending Holy Spirit together with the Coronation of the Virgin. Both scenes are flanked by a group of Angles and are separated in the middle by the painted illusive architecture. This not only separates the scenes, but also makes a clear line between her life on earth and her celestial life after death. However, it is possible that further scenes might be still hidden under the baroque decoration in the nave. In order to preserve valuable baroque interior no further investigation is planned. A similar concept of several stories behind one image can be seen on the fresco of the Live Cross, dating to the 1380s’ in the parish church in Zehra, Slovakia. The clues in the compositional layout, style and iconography as well as recorded works carried out in the church by Augustinian Bishop Dominic in 1378, suggest that the fresco was painted after this date. As a previous researcher pointed out, works of such quality and scale were usually commissioned by the highest representatives of the church in the style favoured by the Royal Court. Even though the fresco was created during the reign of Sigmund Luxemburg when the traditional Italian orientation turned to taking inspiration from the Royal Courts of Western Europe, the Italian provenance is undeniable in particular in Prague. Along with other surviving examples, such as wallpaintings in the Augustinian church in Siklos (end of the 14th century), the fresco of Nitra proves that the strong ties to the Italian Art had not faded away but lived on despite the new Royal orientation.

The discovery of the fresco sprang a rather lively discussion. In spite of the various suggestions from the public to leave the fresco uncovered, the regional Board of Monuments have decided that the fresco will be cleaned, documented and re-covered in order to preserve the baroque interior of the church. However, the fresco will probably stay uncovered until the anniversary celebrations in July 2013 and the diocese is planning to organise an international conference that would address the fresco.

Judita Krlickova
MA in medieval wall-paintings in North East Slovakia, Commenius University in Bratislava, Slovakia