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Ivan Bentchev

The restoration of the wall-paintings in the Church of St. Nikita at Čučer/Macedonia in 1483–1484

* Ivan Bentchev. The restoration of the wall-paintings in the Church of St. Nikita at Čučer/Macedonia in 1483–1484 // 8th Triennial Meeting : preprints / ICOM committee for conservation = Comite de l'ICOM pour la conservation, Sydney, Australia, 6–11 September, 1987. Los Angeles : The Getty Conservation Institute, 1987. — P. 533–537.

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The following treatise examines a restoration, in the modern sense of the word, carried out at the end of the 15th c. of mediaeval wall-paintings in Macedonia.

        The complete decoration of the Church of St. Nikita at Čučer near the Macedonian city of Skopje (fresco on plaster) has been identified by signatures as the work of the important Byzantine painters Michael and Eutychios who were responsible for many frescoes which have survived in Serbia and Macedonia. Miljković-Pepek1 considers 1313/15 as the date “ante quem non” of the original paintings. In his view, it was only after the decoration of the church at Staro Nagoričino that these paintings were undertaken, i.e., after 1318. Horst Hallensleben2 does not quote a precise date for the creation of the original paintings but designates them as the preliminary stage for the painting at Nagoričino (1316/17) and associates them with the “Master of the Passion” who was active there.

1 Petar Miljković-Pepek, Deloto na zografite Michajlo i Eutychie — L'oeuvre des peintres Michel et Eutych, Skopje (1967), p. 53.

2 Horst Hallensleben, Die Malerschule des Konigs Milutin, in: Die Monumentalmalerei in Serbien and Makedonien, III, Osteuropastudien, Reihe II, 3–5, Gießen (1963), p. 53.

        Additions and entire figures and scene of a later date can now be detected in the frescoes of the church, even by a layman. From an inscription over the South Portal in the Slavonic language (Fig. 2), we know that this restoration was performed in 1483/84. The inscription and the date were first published by G. Millet3. Svetozar Radojcić4 concurred with Millet in his opinion and postulated that the restoration work followed damage caused by the Turks in the late 14th c. or during the first half of the 15th с. Н. Hallensleben presumed that a collapse of the vaulting necessitated this work. I believe that the paintings had been damaged by the earthquake of 14735.

3 Gabriel Millet, L'ecole greque dans 1'architecture byzantine, Paris (1916), p. 12; W. Sas-Zaloziecky, Die byzantinische Kunst in den Balkanlander, München (1955), p. 125; Vladimir R. Petković, Pregled crkvenich spomenika kroz povesnicu srpskoq naroda, Beograd (1950), p. 212.

4 Svetozar Radojcić, Jedna slikarska skola iz druge polowe XV weka, Zbornik za likowne umetnosti, I, Nowi Sad (1965), pp. 64–104.

5 D. Perlović, R. Marinković, Iz nase knizevnosti feudalnog doba, Beograd (1975), p. 92.

        Radojcić correctly concludes that the painters who in 1483/1484 restored the frescoes at St. Nikita's in a manner which appears astonishingly modern—as will be noted below it is entirely a question of additions on new plaster and only in one case has a figure been painted out (No. 95)—were responsible for the paintings in the following churches: Treskavac monastery (1483), the church of St. Nikola Bolnički at Ochrid (1480/90), the church of St. Nicholas of the Nun Eupraxia in Kastoria6 (1486) and the church at Poganovo (1499). The characteristic works of these painters in the churches mentioned—a list of their paintings in the Greeks area has been compiled by A. Xyngopoulos7—display clear elements of the Milutin School (1st half of 14th c.) which, according to H. Hallensleben8, can only be explained by the paintings they had completed prior to this date at St. Nikita's (i.e., 1483/1484). These painters not only piously restored the damaged frescoes of their predecessors, they also carefully studied the old style so that the additions could be accurately matched in style and colour, precisely in p. 533
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the manner of modern restorers when confronted with the task of retouching a damaged painting without painting over the original. Impressed by the skill of the old masters, these restorers subsequently adopted the old style in many cases and copied them in new works. However, I believe that the restorers of St. Nikita's were also responsible for painting over the wall-paintings in the chapel of St. Nicholas in the church at Kuceviste (1501, according to the inscription). The original first layer, partially uncovered by Yugoslav restorers in our time, reveals the identical pattern of the grain effect of the base zone as in the church at Decani (1335–1350). The restoration work at St. Nikita's—application of new plaster to the damaged area and its repair al fresco as illustrated by the example of Kuceviste—cannot be explained at all by the painting technique. The painters of c. 1500 were able to paint al fresco and al secco.

6 Pelekanides, Kastoria, I. Thessalonike (1953), fig. 179–188.

7 A. Xyngopulos, Exediasma istorias, Athen (1957), pp. 61–93.

8 H. Hallensleben, op. cit., p. 30.

        The work of restoration of 1483/84 at St. Nikita's has attracted the attention of a number of researchers. The most intensive work on this subject has been carried out by Miljković-Pepek and Hallensleben. The following investigation and compilation, which retains the scheme of Miljković-Pepek9 and his listing of the pictures, permits an accurate distinction to be made between the original paintings and the additions of 1483/84 (Fig. 1).

9 P. Miljković-Pepek, op. cit., fig. VII, VIII.

Cupola and tambour

        1. C. Pantokrator: 19–20th c.; Miljković-Pepek: 19th c.; Hallensleben: 20th c. Miljković-Pepek is of the opinion that it was originally the Heavenly Liturgy which was painted here since the space between the Apostles would be large enough for this and the Medallion Christi which is from the original (or second) restoration is already there.

        1a. MS of 19–20th c.

        1b. Heavenly Liturgy: 19–20th c., iconographically similar to the same scene in Nerezi dating from 20th c.

        2. The Prophet Isaiah.

        3. The Prophet Jeremiah.

        5. The Prophet Elijah.

        7. The Prophet Samuel: 20th c.

        8. The Prophet Avdias (Obadiah).

        9. The Prophet Ezekiel.

        It seems that these five prophets, of a total of eight in St. Nikola's, have been restored, partly in the 19–20th c., partly earlier. p. 534
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        15. St. Mark the Evangelist

        Additions in the 15th c. from the feet upwards, also the architectural decoration on the right.

Principal feasts

        18. Proclamation: The Archangel Gabriel in the left part has been added almost entirely on new plaster in the 15th c. The right part (Mary) belongs to the original decoration.

        21. The Baptism of Christ: only the lower right corner of the scene has been added. At the edge of this new area, there is a crack which runs from the shoulder of the angel on the right, across the left arm of Christ and downwards to the left to the personification of the Jordan. The addition accounts for almost a quarter of the entire scene.

        22. Glorification: The scene has suffered considerable damage. Only the left side (Moses, hilly landscape on the left, St. Peter and the apostle in the centre).

        24. Entry into Jerusalem: 15th c. The right half of the scene survives, showing a group of Jews.

        25. Crucifixion: 15th c. painting on new plaster.

        28. Ascension: 15th c. painting on new plaster.

        29. Pentecost scene: 15th c. painting on new plaster.

        For scenes N 22, 23, 24, 25, Miljković-Pepek states that these are “probably compositions which have been painted over or damaged”. “Probably Glorification, Resurrection of Lazarus, Entry into Jerusalem and Crucifixion”. In our opinion, the Crucifixion is an original scene which has not been restored. The Glorification is indeed damaged in the upper area but it is also part of the original painting. p. 535
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        Miljković-Pepek's opinion that the scene of Christ in limbo is painted on new plaster has not been confirmed by examination either. The scene is badly damaged but dates from the 14th c. The head and part of the apparel of Christ and two angels in heaven have survived.

Cycle of Christ

        65. Christ before Pontius Pilate: 15th c. on new plaster.

        66. The Scorning of Christ: 15th c. on new plaster.

        67. Golgotha: 15th c. on new plaster.

        68. Death of Judas: 15th c. on new plaster.

Cycle of the Miracles of Christ

        83. The Driving-Out of the Demons: 15th c. on new plaster.

        85. The Healing of the Blind Shepherd: 15th c. on new plaster.

Lower zone of the Naos

        95. John the Baptist (Fig. 2): entirely on new plaster. Painting from the 15th c. This is the only place where a large area of existing painting has been plastered over and repainted. The new plaster starts 10 cm away from the left corner of the wall and encloses the base and accompanying strip and the Slavonic inscription top right. Miljković-Pepek speaks only of “largely overpainted” which is not correct.

        96. Greek and Slavonic inscription on the renewal of the church10: (Fig. 2) “Use the thought of death for living. Through the revelation of the Father and through the continuation of life and through the perfection of the Holy Ghost. This Divine Church of the Holy Martyr Christi-Nikita was renovated in the course of 1483–1484”. p. 536
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10 Translation Prof. Dr. Erich Trapp, Bonn.

        97. St. Demetrios (Figs. 2, 4): only the head and the nimbus have been added on new plaster.

        101, 102. St. Panteleimon and St. Damianos: the lower parts of the apparel have been painted over.

        103. St. Athanasios of Athos: the lower part of the apparel has been painted over.

        104. St. Anthony: the lower part of the apparel has been painted over.

        105. St. Paul of Thebes: the lower part of the apparel and the lettering to the right of the head has been painted over.

        106. St. Anthony the Great: the lower part of the apparel has been painted over.

        107. Ornamental rectangle with floral motives above the West Portal. 15th c. Miljković-Pepek leaves open the question of date here. The floral motives are clearly identical with the later redecoration of the base zone of the pillars and, in part, of the walls (floral frieze above the simulated marble).

        108. St. Euthymius: head added, also the inscription and the lower part of the apparel.

        121. St. Peter the Apostle: addition on new plaster from the shoulders downwards (Figs. 2 and 3).

        122. The Archangel Michel: addition on new plaster from the shoulders downwards (Figs. 2 and 3).

        123. St. Nicholas: addition of the 15th c.

        125. St. Paul: addition of the 15th c. from the knees downwards.

        126. The Archangel Gabriel: addition of the 15th c.

        127. St. Menas: addition of the 15th c.

        127a. St. Kyrikos: addition of the 15th c.

        128. Saint in monk's habit: addition of the 15th c.

        128a. The Prophet Solomon: addition of the 15th c.

        129. Base zone with painted graining (Figs. 2, 3): 15th c. pillars left and right of the South Portal and left of the West Portal. South side of west wall and west side of south wall (the south-west corner). p. 537