2020 - 09 - 17

Painting of the walls of the presbytery of the Bernardine Church - from Gothic to Classicism

Under the bilateral treaty on the cooperation in the field of cultural heritage, that was signed between Lithuania and Poland, currently, works of conservation and restoration of the unique frescoes of the prestibery of the Church of St. Francis and St. Bernard in Vilnius and of the polichromy are carried out. After the restoration, the prestibery, also known as the apse, which is the semi-circular part of the church located behind the main grand altar, where monks once prayed, will be adapted to public needs. The restoration works are financed by the POLONIKA National Institute of Polish Cultural Heritage Abroad. The works are performed by Polish restorer company “Croaton“ and UAB “Vilniaus restauratoriai“.
Since the fragments of the wall decor are from different periods, they are overlapping in some places, in the specialists’ opinion, it is impossible to maximally rectify any one of them and exhibit on this wall. In addition, in historical terms, we would lose the development of the church decoration. The decision was made to exhibit all the existing stages of the wall painting. During the restoration of the northern wall, drawings from several different centuries and of different styles, allowing to imagine how the wall decor changed, were uncovered. Four stages of decorating survived in fragmented manner to the present day. From Gothic painting to Classicism.
According to historical data, collapse of the vaults of the first Bernardine Church, which was built in 1490, resulted from the deeply subsided foundation. The church was dismantled, only the sacristy and the presbytery remained intact (they are now the oldest parts of the church). The vaults of the new church were built in 1511–1515. Judging from the stylistic diversity of the fragments that survived to the present day, the decoration of the interior of the presbytery continued until the 19th century.
Composition with the St. Archangels Michael and Raphael
Dr. Rūta Janonienė, the Chief Researcher of Vilnius Academy of Arts, has told about the wall painting of the prestibery as follows: “After the composition dating back to the second half of the 16th century was unveiled during the restoration of the wall painting of the prestibery, it was found to depict the St. Archangels Michael and Raphael. To date, the purpose of the composition has not been precisely determined (it can be an epitaph, a reredos of the altarpiece, or simply a painting that was made using a wall painting technique). In any case, both in terms of stylistics and iconography, the work is rare. It is a composition that has features of Renaissance and framed with an ornate frame. The cult of St. Archangel Michael and St. Archangel Raphael was significant in the Bernardine environment. This is evidenced by the facts that at the end of the 16th century
the St. Michael the Archangel Bernardine Sisters Church was founded, and at the beginning of the 17th century – the St. Michael's Chapel in the Bernardine Church itself. At the beginning of the 17th century, the cult of St. Raphael (which is identified as the Guardian Angel) was propagated in the Bernardine Church in Kaunas, where the Guardian Angel Brotherhood operated”.
According to the art historian and theoretician, the wall painting composition with the figures of St. Michael and St. Raphael in the prestibery of the Bernardine Church in Vilnius is highly valuable both in historic and artistic terms. It survived to the present day in sufficiently poor condition. Moreover, the lower part of the composition has not survived to the present day. However, in the part that has survived, it was possible to reconstruct the drawing of the figures based on the unveiled fragments and analogues of the painting. “Partial reconstruction of the drawing in restoring this composition is possible and justified in order to ensure a better understanding of the composition as a whole and the image being restored”, - said R. Janonienė.
This drawing depicts St. Archangel Raphael holding Tobias by the hand (the storyline from the Holy Bible), while St. Michael is depicted with a raised sword. Only the text accompanying this composition has not survived to the present day.
Four stages of painting are exhibited
Before the restoration, the entire surface of the northern wall of the presbytery was severely damaged over time, plaster as well as the surfaces of paint and of painting fragments were cracked and detached in some places. Out of 300 square meters, wall painting covers 110 square meters. The restorers had to do a thorough work.
Examinations with infrared rays were also carried out, especially in places where it was difficult to read the faintly visible Gothic paintings. A painted coat of arms could be seen on the column separating the presbytery from the rest of the church. The examination with infrared rays revealed the coat of arms of Paweł Holszański. It was fully restored.
After the Board of Restorers decided to exhibit all four stages of painting, since they all are valuable, first of all, the backgrounds of the painting fragments were made up according to the colour samples that have survived to the present day: fragments of Gothic painting - against a background of warm and very light grey ocher, the Renaissance altar - against a light grey background, fragments of the Mannerism period - against a darker grey-brownish ocher background, the pilasters in Classicist style - against a cold grey, light background.
As Sakalas Matuiza, the Head of UAB “Vilniaus restauratoriai”, said, works of conservation and restoration of the northern wall of the prestibery have already been finished. Works of the first stage were completed on the southern wall (plaster was reinforced and drawings were unveiled). The second stage of the works, when the painting of this wall will be retouched and the drawings will be restored, is scheduled for the next year. The restorers will also work on the vaults. The vault restoration works are also planned.
The restored composition with the Saint Archangels Michael and Raphael that dates to the 16th century. Photo by Rasa Kutkaitė  
2020 - 09 - 17

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