This is the fourteenth post in a series on Boston’s Hidden Gems
On this Maundy Thursday, when Christians look into the dark night of the soul, my Hidden Gem of the day is the Catalonian Chapel at the Museum of Fine Arts. While not actually hidden, the chapel is located off the beaten track at the end of one of the European Art galleries. It’s not close to the famous masterpieces that typically draw visitors and is easily missed if you’re not looking for it. The Catalonian Chapel is a small, quiet room built especially for the fresco that dominates the space and which is particularly relevant for the Easter holiday.
“Christ in Majesty with Symbols of the Four Evangelists” is a twelfth-century Spanish Romanesque fresco that originally decorated the apse—the circular area behind the altar—of the church of Santa Maria de Mur, which is located in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains in Catalonia.
It’s a beautiful work with the seated image of a solemn Christ in a “mandorla,” a pointed aureole or full-body halo, featuring the large eyes and the right hand raised in benediction that are typical of the period. The left hand holds a book with a Latin inscription from John 14:6 that states the central tenet of the Christian faith: “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no man cometh into the Father but by me.”
The Christ in Majesty is surrounded by symbols of the four authors of the new Testament gospels. On the left are the angel of Matthew and the lion of Mark. On the right we see the eagle of John and the bull of Luke. The twelve Apostles stand on a separate level below the main figure and, below them, is another grouping of scenes from the Bible.
A fresco is a painting made directly on wet plaster and that means it is part of the actual wall of the building it decorates. That raises two questions:
- How did the fresco come to be here?
- How did they detach an entire curved wall in one piece?
The first question, the provenance, is well documented. The church of Santa Maria de Mur was consecrated in 1069 and the fresco was painted 100 years later. In 1919 the fresco was sold by the church’s rector to Lluis Plandiura, a Barcelona industrialist and art collector, who sold it to the Museum of Fine Arts in 1921 for $92,100.
While the Catholic Church in Spain had every right to sell any artwork they wished, the removal of the fresco was observed by a Barcelona artist named Joan Vallhonrat, who was traveling to Catalonia’s remote Romanesque churches to paint smaller reproductions of their frescoes. A fervent Catalan nationalist, he raised an alarm that began a campaign to stop the export of any other work of the Romanesque period (from mid-1000s to the early 1200s). At the time there were no laws prohibiting the export of art works from Spain and no legal restraints on shipping them out of the country.
The Romanesque period is important to Catalans because that’s when this region emerged as an independent power. Unfortunately, many of Catalonia’s 2,300 Romanesque churches, convents, monasteries and cathedrals containing period frescoes were (and are still) remote. That made them vulnerable to men who wanted to make a fortune by selling the frescoes to American museums. Santa Maria de Mur, like most of these rural churches, has thick stone walls that render it small, dark, and cold. Few of them are used for worship today.
Mr. Vallhonrat’s efforts did create a movement to keep Catalonia’s artistic patrimony in the country and led to the establishment of the National Museum of Catalan Art.
One can argue, as museum directors did then, that removing the frescoes would protect them from deterioration or vandalism. Proof of this danger can be seen in the deterioration at the bottom of @MFA’s fresco. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) might also have destroyed some of these great artworks. Ironically, the outcry over the removal of @MFA’s fresco might have increased its value because, as the museum’s assistant director was told, “it seems improbably that another like opportunity will ever occur again.”
Removing the Fresco
Separating the painted front of the wall from the rest of the church was not an easy task, however, and it took four years to complete. First Italian craftsmen stabilized the face of the fresco by painting on a gluey sizing and the applying layers of cotton muslin. They smoothed the muslin with a paste to form a hardened crust. Moving to the back, they carefully chiseled a thin layer of plaster to separate the fresco from the wall. They then applied lime, hot water and—I am not making this up—thin slices of Parmesan Cheese to harden the back and removed the fresco in pieces.
Today “Christ in Majesty with Symbols of the Four Evangelists” shines in its purpose-built chapel. It is seen every day by people who view it as an outstanding example of Romanesque art rather than what it was painted to be: a worship aid, a prayer and meditation focus, an religious educational piece, and a visual metaphor of the Christian faith. It was painted for believers but at least some of them must be among its viewers today.
Note: My favorite part of the fresco decorates the small window on the left. Here two men (only one is visible without crossing the guard rope) are either dancing or pulling down a pleated blue shade. They seem so much more joyful than the Cain and Abel around the windows on the right.
Directions and Information
The Museum of Fine Arts is open to the public most days and has an admission fee. Information can be found at: http://www.mfa.org/visit. To find the Catalonian Chapel, go in the main door and up the grand staircase. Walk through the Koch Gallery (formerly the Tapestry Hall) and stay to the left of the Fenway Rotunda. Turn left into Gallery 254 all the way to the end. Walk through the small door into the chapel.