Fresco of the Ayi Todari church (the Metropolis) of Serres (North Greece)
The fresco with a unique representation of Apostle Paul baptizing Hermes was conserved in the upper right part of the apse of Ayi Todari church (the Metropolis) of Serres: a complex architectural site going back to early Christian times. The fragment - flat, but on a concave wall -was of irregular form: max width 97 x max height 110 cm.
Nothing is known about the origin, author and vicissitudes of this painting. Staying on the chronicles, the first most important decoration of the church interior took place under the government of Basilius II, 1014-1018, with the collaboration of Constantinopolitan painters considered to be the authors of ithe mosaics in the bema. Another relevant renovation was committed by Theodoros Laskaris, 1225.
Fig. 1: The earliest photograph of the apse decoration of Ayi Todari church published by Perdrizet in 1903. Source: Monuments Piot, v.X/2 (1903) pp.123-144:127.
A photograph and a description of the remaining components of Ayi Todari mosaic apse decoration from 1903, by Perdrizet, attest that to this epoch the mosaic representations of some apostles on both parts of the altar were still preserved (Fig.1). They made part of the
Eucharistia (Communion of the Apostles), usually collocated on the main altar wall of the earlier Byzantine churches. The figure of apostle Paul (Fig. 3) has not been mentioned between these mosaic fragments. What remains from them to present day is a box with marble and mosaic tesserae hosted at the Metropolis of Serres, and the figure of Apostle Andrea (Fig. 2), showed at the "Byzance apres Byzance" exhibition 1964 in Athens, after several restorative integrations.
Fig. 2. The figure of St. Andrew, 176 x 101 cm, is the unique mosaic that survived from the "Communion of the Apostles", collocated in the main apse of the Ayi Todari church in Serres and burnt 1913. Great part of the original tesserae has been replaced with new ones during the last restoration without signing these integrations in order to can distinguish them. This nonprofessional restoration regrettably hinders much the possibility to study the stratigraphy, the composition of the mortars, and of the smalts adopted for the earliest variant of the mosaic decoration. Source: the web site of the Archaeological Museum in Thessalonfki visited in October 2012.
The scientific-technical investigation of the ancient painting preserved up to 2007 in the main apse of Ayi Todari church in Serres is an ongoing project. In view of the critical status of conservation and the necessity to transfer the painting on a mobile support, a preliminary documentation and condition survey including sample collection has been committed in a first
time by the Kavala Institute for the monuments to the mosaic restorer G. Cucco, Venice,. The sample analysis was entrusted to the Laboratory for Ancient Materials' Analysis (LAMA) of the Architectural Institute in Venice. The techniques applied to this were determined by the necessity to choose the most appropriate method for the detachment from the wall. The information needed regarded before all the type of painting techniques, the composition of the layers, the main chromatic components and the stratigraphy of the fresco (indicative for its conservation status) as well as the presence of eventual later interventions.
To the moment have been used VIS imaging and professional photography (of the entire work as well as macro details) and material analysis (mineral, petrographic, physical and chemical investigations integrated with spectral) - of selected samples. The samples have been subjected to:
- stereo microscopic analyses in VIS at different magnifications (from 10x to 40x);
- optical microscopy under polarized light (reflected and transited);
- optical micrography under UV light, wavelength 365 nm (magnifications from 80x to 500x)
- SEM-EDS analysis of selected samples with blue and red pigments.
The spectral investigations were performed on a mineral-petrographic microscope with UV lamp; on a diffractometer RX Philips mod. PW1849, and on an electronic microscope Philips mod. XL130.
Examinations in the IR range have been by principle excluded as hundreds of experiments have demonstrated that the data produced by IR imaging (using electronic video transformer or IR films) of paintings carried out on mortar rarely coincide with the issues of the chemical analyses and of the gradually elimination of over paintings/layers in the same areas.
Current outcomes of the condition survey confronted with the available archaeological and written sources let us conclude that the fresco dates from the period immediately following the capture of Serres, 1345, by Stefan Dushan, and his proclamation as "King of Serbians and Greeks". The technical anomalies as, for example, the red background, that should have been gilded originally, have to be explained with the necessity to integrate the lost parts of the mosaic decoration with painting.
At the beginning of the 20th century, probably during the last reconstruction of the Metropolis (1938-1959), a consolidation of the painting, extremely damaged by earth quakes, fires and military attacks, has been tried with an oily-wax-resinous substance visible under the stereo microscope that seriously compromised the possibility to consolidate it and maintain its integrity during the stacco.
Fig. 3: The representation of "Apostle Paul baptizing Hermes" as it was conserved in the upper right part of the apse wall of the Metropolis in Serres (North Greece). Photo: G. Cucco, 2006, before the detachment of the fresco.
The survey of the surface under microscope, integrated with the SEM analyses of selected samples and with some acoustic tests allowed defining the stratigraphic construction of the painting and the individualization of the areas with most pronounced detachment between wall, mortar bed and paint layer. They also helped to study the micromorphology of the plaster and to understand the causes of its deterioration.
The surface of the painting resulted very heterogeneous due to its extremely critical status of conservation: more than 80% of the paint layer was detached from the support, with extended losses. The legibility of the original was further damaged by deposits. In its lower part the blue color was reduced to black in consequence of mycological infestation.
After the detachment of the fresco 2007 the pieces have been reassembled on a support, however they can be transported.
The documentation had to be concluded in one month including the in situ inspection and the elaboration of the microscopic analyses on samples by LAMA-IUAV..
The nature of the object and the greatest risks that could be encountered by its detachment have been dominant for the selection of the investigative techniques during the first phase. The original collocation of the painting high on a wall, and the limited budget (800€ for the analyses carried out by LAMA-IUAV, Venice) did not allow a more complex approach before the detachment: such is planned for the samples' study.
Between the further objectives of the project is also the virtual reconstruction of the earlier phases of decoration of the Serres' Metropolis and of the techniques used as well as of the vicissitudes it underwent during the multiple attacks on the church and its reconstructions.
STOYANOVA, M. "Минерально-петрографические и физико-химические исследования росписей церкви святых Теодор Тирон и Стратилат в Серре (Северная Греция). Позолоченные фонды и кобальтовые смальты в настенной живописи XIV века." (Mineral, petrographic, physical and chemical investigations on the frescoes of Ayi Teodori church in Serres (North Greece). Gilded grounds and cobalt smalts in paintings from the XlVth century.", see (The Russian Art Institutes, Museums and laboratories main web-resource on Art Conservation and Restoration / Original author contributions / Restoration of monumental painting).
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