Really, REALLY Bad Art Restoration

If you thought that infamous art “restoration” in Spain was bad, wait until you see this one.  This time, the victim is not a small church in active use, where one wonders why no one noticed what the woman was up to for so long, but rather a large, semi-abandoned church in Russia, or rather a part of Russia which was once part of Germany.  If there is to be a prize for horrible conservation this year, surely this is to be the undisputed winner.

People often forget that Germany, like Italy, Spain, etc., didn’t always exist in the form we know it today.  In fact one can argue that “Germany” didn’t even exist until 1871, when most of the German states united into a single confederation.  As a result of subsequent wars, treaties, invasions, and so forth, some parts of Central and Eastern Europe that were once considered “Germany”, now belong to other states.

One example of this is the Baltic port city of Kalingrad, formerly known as Königsberg, which today is part of Russia.  I won’t go into all of the historical back-and-forth of who owned it and when, but suffice to say that since its founding in the Middle Ages, it was part of Germanic territory for a long time, and boasted a substantial German population.  Most of that population was forcibly removed by the Soviets after World War II, and the city was repopulated with Russians.

Following the collapse of communism and the explosive growth of the Russian Orthodox church over the past twenty years, we have seen a great deal of church restoration and new construction to meet the needs of Russian Christians.  This is of course great news for Christianity.  Unfortunately, some avoidable cultural losses are being suffered by the local populations as a result.

A report yesterday in The Art Newspaper indicates that the 14th-century church of St. Catherine of Alexandria, near Kalingrad, has now lost almost all of its medieval frescoes.  Originally a Catholic church built by the local German population, after the Reformation the building was taken over by the Protestants, who whitewashed over all of the frescoes.  The frescoes were subsequently re-discovered in the last century and revealed, but they were severely damaged during bombing in World War II.  When the Soviets took over, the church was converted into a museum and storage depo, which obviously didn’t help with what was left.

In 2010, the building was given to the Russian Orthodox church, to meet their growing need for more worship spaces.  Unfortunately, according to art experts, the remaining frescoes in St. Catherine’s are now all but gone.  They have been covered over with some cement-like covering which, unlike the whitewash slathered on centuries earlier by the Protestants, cannot be removed.  With just 2-3% of the wall art remaining, conservation is possible, but the rest is lost to history.

In the case of St. Catherine’s, we are dealing with a slightly different situation to that in Spain.  Whereas the suffering Christ in the latter church was relatively new and could be easily restored, here the paintings were so far gone as to be little more than fragments.  Thus, the wall paintings here, beautiful though they once were, never had a chance of returning to that relatively pristine state they enjoyed before the ravages of World War II.

That being said, those who understand culture and history appreciate that these things come with certain requirements.  It’s certainly understandable why the local Orthodox diocese, when it took over the building, would want to work on making it a place where religious services could be held again.  Unfortunately, they seem to have forgotten that preservation of objects from the past, while not essential to the practice of Christianity, is something that should be attempted whenever possible.

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century) Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

Church of St. Catherine of Alexandria (XIV Century)
Rodniki (Arnau), Russia

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Surprise! Richard III Was Catholic

Hearings before a panel of three judges continued today at the High Court in London, over what to do with the remains of King Richard III.  The re-discovery of his tomb has set off a fury of argument in the UK about where the king ought to be re-buried, which has led to the current court case.  Yet much of the legal wrangling underway over where to put him seems ridiculous, because it overlooks the fact that Richard was a Catholic.

One of England’s most important and famous historical figures, further immortalized by Shakespeare, Richard III was the last of the direct line of the Plantagenet family dynasty to rule England.  He was killed in 1485 during the Battle of Bosworth Field, by troops led by his cousin Henry Tudor.  Henry subsequently took the throne as King Henry VII, and established the Tudor dynasty.

Richard III was buried rather quietly in the church of the Franciscan friary located in the city of Leicester, rather than with pomp and ceremony with other English kings in Westminster Abbey; Henry VII himself paid for a carved alabaster tomb for the man whom he had dethroned.  Following the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Henry’s son Henry VIII during the Reformation, both the Franciscan church and friary were destroyed, and Richard’s tomb was lost to history for over 400 years.  Until recently, a parking lot stood over the site of his grave, but in 2012 excavations on the site led to the re-discovery of his remains.

Historians still debate whether Richard III was the villain portrayed by Shakespeare, or whether he was the victim of calumnies spread by his opponents that passed into the popular consciousness.  Yet wherever the truth lies, one question can be answered clearly and unequivocally: Richard was born, lived, and died a Catholic.  He endowed Catholic institutions, received the Catholic sacraments, and worshiped in the Catholic faith of his fathers.  Being a Catholic who was buried in a Catholic church in the charge of a Catholic religious order, we can reasonably assume that Richard also received a Catholic burial.

Nevertheless, court arguments currently underway are apparently in a different realm of thought altogether.  One group wants Richard III to be buried in York Minster; another group thinks that he should be buried at Leicester Cathedral; a third group is arguing that he should be interred in Westminster Abbey.  While all of these medieval buildings were originally Catholic of course, today none of them are.  And unfortunately the Catholic bishop of the Diocese of Nottingham, where Richard’s remains were rediscovered, has simply left the debate entirely to others.

To re-bury Richard III in a Protestant church using some sort of cobbled-together, ecumenical banner-waving exercise, or mock-approximation of what a 15th century Catholic service for the dead *might* have looked like, would be ridiculous.  It would be like disinterring the Protestant Woodrow Wilson from his tomb at the Protestant National Cathedral here in Washington, and re-burying him in the Catholic Basilica of the Immaculate Conception on the other side of town.  Unfortunately however, it appears fairly certain that whatever the High Court decides, Richard III’s remains are going to have to go through something like this.  It is a pity that he is being treated more as a political football and potential source of tourist revenue, rather than as an opportunity to show respect for the deceased.

Facial reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like based on his remains

Facial reconstruction of what Richard III may have looked like based on his remains

A Message from Mrs. Kennedy

Fifty years ago yesterday, First Lady Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy went on camera for the first time following the assassination and funeral of her husband, President John F. Kennedy, to thank the nation for the outpouring of support she and her children received.  This brief film was shown around the country in movie theatres as a newsreel, and exists in two different versions – one showing Mrs. Kennedy seated with Robert and Edward Kennedy, and the other of her shown from the side.  Both are worth watching, since the effect on the viewer, or at least on this viewer, changes based on the angle, the lighting, and the closeness of the camera lens.

Now the Kennedy Library in Massachusetts has announced that more of those very condolence messages which Mrs. Kennedy received will be made available to scholars and researchers.  Some items in the collection are quite remarkable indeed. For example, there is a letter from the mother of one of the four little girls killed in the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama only a few months before.

Whatever one thinks of the Kennedys, politically or otherwise, anyone who has experienced a great loss in their life can appreciate how these pieces of paper – cards, notes, letters, photographs – are simultaneously both hurtful and helpful.  They hurt, obviously, because the reader is reminded of their loss, and can be reminded of it again and again, should they choose to hold on to the documents.  Yet at the same time they can help, because they also remind the sufferer that they are not alone, whatever it is they may be going through.  It is then when humanity and decency are so important, in those moments when the widow or orphan is feeling they have nothing to hold on to as they attempt to go on with their lives.

Although JFK’s assassination was over 50 years ago, the images and words which Americans associate with that event continue to have an impact on the national consciousness. This message by Mrs. Kennedy was only about a minute long, and yet when one considers what had happened less than two months earlier – and the fact that she was only 34 years old at the time – her grace was truly remarkable.  It reinforced the public’s perception of her bravery as a young widow in overwhelming circumstances.  Yet it also showed that she really did appreciate the prayers and encouragement she received, and that she felt a duty to acknowledge that kindness publicly. It is quite a piece of history.

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences

Mrs. Kennedy thanks the American people for their condolences