Unseen for 300 years, the church frescoes that were whitewashed
By John Lichfield in Paris
Published: 15 March 2007
An immense treasure trove of medieval wall paintings, concealed by whitewash for 300 years, has been found in a small church in south-eastern France.
Experts believe that up to 600 square metres of the upper walls of the nave of the church in Vif, near Grenoble, are decorated with frescoes painted in the last part of the 14th century.
Only small sections of the paintings have been uncovered so far, but restorers and art historians are convinced that the whitewash - or greywash - at the Saint-Jean-Baptiste church conceals one of the largest, most complete and best-preserved medieval murals in Europe. "From the jigsaw pieces we have uncovered, we believe that this must be a continuous work covering two walls," said Séverine Haberer, who led the exploratory restoration work. "What we have found so far is richly coloured and unusually well-preserved. It is a very exciting discovery."
Claude Bertrand, the vice-president of the Isère département (county) responsible for cultural affairs, said: "We have stumbled on an incredible treasure... We now hope to have the church classified as a historic monument." Once the church is declared a national monument, it will qualify for state funding for the €1m (£680,000) it says it needs to restore the full mural.
From the techniques used in the paintings and the style of the figures, historians believe that the murals were painted in the late 14th century, when the church was the chapel of a Benedictine priory.
"We know from church records that the paintings were still there during the [Catholic-Protestant] wars of religion in the 17th century," said Mme Haberer. "There is a record that the bishop of Grenoble complained that the church at Vif was looking dirty and scruffy. The murals must first have been covered up by a lime wash at that time."
"The taste of the period was for churches that were more austere, perhaps influenced by Protestantism. Medieval painting of this kind had come to be regarded as infantile; no longer the right way to worship God."
In many other churches, such murals were partly chipped away before they were painted over. At Vif, the badigeon -or whitewash - was pasted directly over the paintings, covering them but also preserving them.
The mayor of Vif, Brigitte Périllié, commissioned exploratory work by Mme Haberer's team in January. "I knew that medieval murals existed in other churches in the region. So I thought, why not also at Vif?" Mme Perillie said.
"I certainly expected nothing on this scale. There is obviously a potential windfall for the town in terms of tourism. We are not a rich town and we welcome that. But for the time being, until the restoration is completed, there is not a great deal to see and we urge people to be patient."
The frescoes may originally have extended to a third wall, which has since been demolished and replaced. The paintings, confined to the upper parts of the nave, show images of flowers, saints, the resurrection of the dead and a dragon spitting fire. The saints' faces that have already been uncovered turn adoringly towards the "missing" wall.
The meaning of the frieze remains unclear, but art historians believe that it may trace the origins of the Benedictine order, from the early Christian period to the 14th century.
Experts have suspended judgement on the identity of the painters. "The murals appear to be Italian in style," said Mme Haberer, "but they may have been the work of French painters from the Avignon school, which was heavily influenced by Italy."