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.