Mural fragment paintings from the Three Hierarchs Church

108689 / 108605 / 131464
Medieval Period
1641 - 1642
chalk based plaster, mineral pigments, gold leaf
“a fresco” mural painting.
H = 131,5 cm, L = 100 cm / H = 58,5cm, L = 41 cm / H = 56 cm, L = 47 cm

    Mural fragment paintings from the Three Hierarchs Church in Iasi

    Texts: dr. Romeo Gheorghiță Photo: George Nica

    108689 (Saint Eustace’s Martyrdom), 108605 (The portrait of a Saint with a halo), 131646 (The portrait of Vasile Lupu)

    The Three Holy Hierarchs Church in Iași

    The Three Hierarchs church, founded by prince Vasile Lupu, was built between 1637 and 1642, the latter being also the year when the interior painting was completed  Paul of Alep wrote that the church „astonishes the mind of the one who sees it,” and Evlia Celebi stated that „there is no way you could describe it with words or with quill.” The original painting of the church, finished between 1641 and 1642, was made in „gold and azure” by Russian icon painters Sidor Pospeev, Iakov Gavrilov, Deico Iacovliev and Pronka Nikitin (the most capable painters at the Tsar’s court). The Moldavians Nicolaie the Mason and Stefan the Mason helped them. 

    In the church are buried: Prince Vasile Lupu; Ioan, his son; Lady Tudosca, the ruler’s first wife; Ștefăniță Lupu, who was ruler of Moldavia between 1659 and 1661. 

    In a crypt inside the southern wall were inhumed the bones of Prince Dimitrie Cantemir (1710-1711), which were brought from Russia. The remains of Alexandru Ioan Cuza, brought from Ruginoasa, were placed in 1947 in another niche.

    At the end of the 19th century it was decided to restore this wonderful religious monument. The restoration works were entrusted to French architect André Lecomte du Noüy, who was helped by Romanian architect Nicolae Gavrilescu. The works began in 1882, with ample consolidation actions and continued with interventions on the walls - without endangering the exterior painting -, and on the roof. In general, the interior painting and decoration and the iconostastis were completely remade.

    The Mural Paintings. Iconographic description

    The National History Museum of Romania commenced, between 2011 and 2012, the conservation-restoration works of three mural painting fragments taken from the Three Hierarchs church. 

    Only a few fragments were preserved from the mural painting that was partially extracted during the restoration works conducted by architect Lecomte du Noüy at the end of the 19th century. Some of these are exhibited in the Gothic hall of the Metropolitan Cathedral in Iasi (turned into a museum), alongside with portraits of Vasile Lupu, his first wife Tudosca, his son, Ioan and his daughter Ruxandra.  It seems that from the original painting were also preserved twenty portraits of angels and saints drawn within medallions, with halos decorated with embossed floral elements and gilded with gold. Three of those fragments are at the National History Museum of Romania. The pictures that were extracted in the 19th century and that have been conserved fragmentarily until now show us that the old Byzantine fresco painting of the Three Hierarchs church had a delicate, harmonious and natural coloring. It was also remarkable through the accuracy and correctness of the drawing, the naturalness of the characters’ movements and the compositional diversity of the scenes. The three fragments preserved at the National History Museum of Romania, which are part of the series of pictures taken from the Three Hierarchs church, were the object of this research, analysis and preservation project.

    Iconographic description 

    Fragment no. 1: “Saint Eustace’s Martyrdom”. The largest painting of the three preserved at the National History Museum of Romania has a surface of 295.32 dm2 and depicts the martyrdom of Saint Eustace. The saint is depicted together with his family (the wife and his two children, Agapius and Theopistus) during his torture by being burnt alive in a buffalo-shaped copper vessel. All characters have a halo gilded with gold leaf. A landscape with mountains and few vegetation is painted on the background of the painting. In the upper area of the background a Greek inscription with two registers is preserved. 

    Fragment no. 2: Portrait - “Saint with halo in relief”. The second fragment of mural painting depicts the portrait of a saint from the Byzantine iconography, unidentified because the inscription is missing, having been lost together with the halo’s background. The saint was depicted with a beard, has a purple robe and a halo in relief, adorned with vegetal stylized motifs and gilded with gold leaf. The extracted fragment has a surface of 75.44 dm2.   

    Fragment no. 3: Portrait - “Prince Vasile Lupu”. The third piece is a voivode’s portrait – prince Vasile Lupu. The ruler is depicted with dark eyebrows, with beard and moustache. He is wearing a black cap with panache (a jewel similar to a brooch, which was used for fixing the aigrette on the cap). He is depicted in ceremonial attire, wearing a red coat with two rows of Brandenburgs and a black mantle. The mural painting has a surface of 61.28 dm2.

    Technical and methodological aspects regarding the conservation and restoration of the painting fragments extracted from Three Hierarchs Church in Iasi 

    The technique of making mural paintings

    The mural painting was realized on a layer of plaster used as support (specific for mural paintings) and was executed “a fresco” following an old Byzantine technique. The support layer of the painting was made of mortar composed of quicklime, a consistent addition of straws and a few tows. The intonaco layer (plaster which is still wet when it is painted) was applied in varying thicknesses, between 2 and 4 mm. On the back of the painting fragments, in the lime based plaster of the second support layer of the arriccio painting, which is between 10 and 20 mm thick, are preserved traces of bricks from the original wall.     

    The colors of the mural paintings were first applied on wet plaster. A preparatory drawing with ochre pigments and sometimes with precise incisions was used to transpose the image on the fresh support of the painting. For portraits and hands, the traditional chromatic alternation was used: the first layer of color was the “proplasm” (black mixed with ochre), followed by a discreet glycasm (proplasm mixed with white) and the flesh-colour  (a mixture of ochre, red and white), which was highlighted by adding more white. For the other subjects of the painting, the first layer was the local color of the background, highlighted by mixing the main color with white and dark brown or black contour lines. Mineral pigments were used, such as ochre, yellow, red ochre, brown ochre, cinnabar red, soil green, charcoal black, iron oxide black, and lime-based white. In some later interventions lead white and zinc white were used. Also, for the gilded areas gold leaf fixed on a mixed oily adhesive and red lead oxide were used. The backgrounds were painted with coal black. There is the possibility that certain colors were applied later, using a mixed technique, fresco-secco or even a secco repetitions, for example for the fragment depicting Vasile Lupu. In the scene “The Martyrdom of Saint Eustache”, the red color of the flames painted underneath the vessel in which the saint was being burnt was intensified with shades of red color applied a secco. The physicochemical investigations that were performed demonstrated the different origin of initial pigments and also of those used during the re-paintings of the mural painting, some of which were probably done after its extraction.

    Research on the conservation status of the mural paintings

    As in other cases, these mural paintings were affected throughout history by numerous causes of degradation, such as invasions and the fires that accompanied them or the successive earthquakes which, starting from the 18th century, regularly altered the church. All of these constantly determined restoration interventions on the entire monument, including the artistic components, such as the mural paintings. It should be emphasized that one of the worst damaging actions suffered by the “rescued” paintings begun with their extraction by architect Lecomte’s teams. 

    A detailed analysis of the state of conservation proved that other damaging interventions, which added to the inventory of  degradations, occurred after the painting was removed at the end of the 19th century and then transported on a mobile support: a secco interventions on the color layer, retouchings using semi transparent shades, that imitated the original colors on top of which they were added, renovations with unsuitable mortars, with various colors and compositions, puttying, sometimes on plaster or lime bases, partially affected the image of the original painting. Other damaging consisted of: the polishing interventions on “Saint Eustache’s Martyrdom” and on the “Saint with halo in relief”, whose halos were polished with a new metallic layer; the superficial lacunas in the polished layer and also in the one applied afterwards, the falling of the original polished layer, and also of the one applied afterwards, the peeling of the original color layer; deposits and unequal accumulations of impurities, adherent and semi-adherent deposits of dust and various black – grey powders, oil, wax from candles, the falling and dislocation of the painting’s support layer; cracks in the support layer of the painting, nets of cracks in the color layer and in the surface of the support layer. 

    Microbiological analyses realized macroscopically, microscopically, and stereomicroscopically at the surface showed a microbiological load/a passive biological attack.

    Conservation-restoration operations conducted during the methodological process 

    Considering the painting technique and the state of preservation of the extracted mural fragments, the following methodological plan was elaborated for the conservation-restoration operations:      

    - The transposing on a new layer took into consideration the inefficiency of the existent support system, the degradation level, its structural fragility that came with time, and also the inappropriate aesthetic appearance. Thanks to its design, the new support system eliminated the framed picture aspect that the paintings had received after being extracted. 

    - For areas in which parts of the support had fell, consolidation mixtures of CTS/PLM I, PLM M type and Primal AC33 acrylic emulsions, diluted in distilled water, were used. This method was applied by deep or superficial injections, depending on the state of degradation.

    - The consolidations (marginal puttying) of the support’s edges, of cracks, of the superficial or deep lacunas in the painting were made using a mixture of lime mortar, calcium carbonate powders and sand, which was prepared so as to be congruent with the composition and the aspect of the original support, characteristic of Byzantine-style mural painting.

    - The cleaning process of the deposits formed on the original material or of the repaintings was an important step in the adopted methodological strategy. For this purpose, decisions were taken with great caution, trying to approach these problems in gradual stages, by means of constant consultation with the physicochemical investigations laboratory.

    - The works on the color layer had as purpose their pre-consolidation and consolidation without changing the authentic design. The consolidation of the color layer was done carefully, paying a great attention not to accidentally and irreversibly remove the chromatic layers. 

    - The cleaning of the various soluble or insoluble salt deposits, of the repaintings, of the secco restorations, of the adhesive and non adhesive impurities was achieved by combining mechanical and physicochemical procedures, using various wet, dry or mixed methods. 

    - The final display took into account the decorative aspect of the Byzantine-style painting and tried to incorporate and recover the original images.

    Laboratory analyses have revealed the existence of a microbiological load and established an appropriate treatment with biocides with a quaternary ammonium salts base. A preemptive treatment with Desogen biocide has been applied for preventive and stopping the existent biodegrading phenomena. The treatment was executed by applying compresses (with weak concentrations of distilled water).

    The methodological process had an urgent conservation and recovery character, with the aim of protecting and historically and aesthetically enhance the existent fragments. The conservation-restoration process conducted on the extracted mural paintings fitted this methodological strategy. 

    This conservation-restoration project will contribute more to the understanding of the entire artistic and historical value of the whole painting ensemble of the Three Hierarchs church, which was irreversibly lost as a consequence of the 1882 and 1904 restorations. From this point of view, the restoration and conservation of the authentic elements which were preserved and their enhancement became imperative. It was thus possible to obtain for the extracted paintings an image as similar as possible to the original one. 

    Professional restorer/ university lecturer PhD. Romeo Gheorghita coordinated the conservation-restoration works of the extracted mural paintings. His collaborators were: expert restorer Sorina Gheorghita; students: Florina Sâmbotin, Alina Mirică, Florin Sârbu, Ana Chiricuţă, Anda Dinică, Laura Hangiu; physico-chemical, biological analyses: researcher-engineer Gheorghe Niculescu, engineer Migdonia Georgescu, biologist Oana Chachula.