Frescoes: Time-Honored Practices

Revered in the Art World

Frescoes: Time-Honored Practices

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Michelangelo and Raphael would be pleased to see old-world techniques in creating and preserving frescoes are still practiced today. How satisfying to know modern-day artists respect the proven methods of long ago using simple ingredients from the earth for their chosen projects. 

Fresco: Italian affresco translates as “fresh” in English. It’s an ancient mural painting method dating back to 2000 BC during the Bronze Age when nobility commissioned artists to decorate their palaces, villas, and tombs in Crete, Italy, Egypt, and other countries dotting the Mediterranean Sea.  

The art-form continued to inspire religious orders and noble families such as the House of Medici during the Renaissance (14th to 17th centuries), a fervent period of cultural, artistic, political, and economic “rebirth” throughout Europe following the Middle Ages. Many of these magnificent paintings have been preserved and on display in Pompeii, at the Brancacci Chapel in the Chiesa di Santa Maria del Carmine in Florence, and on the Sistine Chapel ceiling and walls in the Vatican Palace in Rome. 

Each fresco takes months and sometimes years in preparing the selected surface, building a foundation of thin layers of freshly laid wet lime plaster (intonaco in Italian) to allow proper curing. A key ingredient in the process is applying horsehair in various layers into the plaster, adding strength and stability to the finished piece.  

Artists made their own paints — natural earth pigments collected and ground into a powder from clay, stone, soil, charcoal, and sand. They then added water and a binding agent (medium) such as egg yolks, casein (milk protein), plant or animal glues, or linseed or poppy oil. This process is called tempera, derived from the Italian dipingere a tempera — to paint, depict, to color — to bring something to the desired physical condition by blending or tempering. Latin distemperare: to mix thoroughly.     

Egg tempera: a permanent, fast-drying paint made from colored pigments mixed with egg yolk. Artists upheld egg tempera as the primary painting method until oil painting overtook it around 1500AD. 

Afterward, the paint merges with the wet plaster in small sections, which dry quickly. The mixture of pigment and lime creates a distinctive and subtle luminescence not found in other paintings. 

Many books feature beautiful photos and fascinating history on individual frescoes found worldwide. For those who also wonder about the intricate process of creating and repairing such masterpieces, The Art of Fresco Painting in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance is a treasure of a book. Written in 1846 by British historian, scientist, and linguist Mary Philadelphia Merrifield, it’s considered an essential reference book for fresco artists, historians, and museum and gallery curators. 

Art for the People 

Nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains in western North Carolina is the city of Asheville. Most people recognize the name because of the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest privately owned home open to the public, built by George Vanderbilt in 1895. 

Asheville is a vibrant community that celebrates great food, craft beers, and the arts. Folks are friendly and seem to go the extra mile in reaching out to the hungry and poor. 

Close to the hustle and bustle of downtown is a humble red brick building with a warm invitation to individuals of all walks of life to gather for good food, conversation, and acceptance. Haywood Street Congregation, a United Methodist mission congregation and faith-based non-profit organization, provides a ministry based on companionship and relationship — being in the moment with others. 

The core programs include weekly worship, a complimentary clothing closet, community garden, and twice-weekly family-style lunches known as the Downtown.  

Welcome Table: delicious home-cooked food served at round tables with cloth linens, fresh flowers, and lively conversation. The kitchen door has remained open during COVID-19, serving meals outside in tents. There’s also the Haywood Street Respite, which offers a safe place for adults experiencing homelessness to stay on a short-term basis after being discharged from the hospital. 

Church visitors might be surprised to see a life-sized mural gracing the wall behind the altar in the sanctuary. It is indeed a fresco, a magnificent work of art measuring 28.5 feet in width by 11 feet in height. A closer glance shows that instead of honoring nobility and religious figures, this mural features 30 local individuals — many living “on the margins” of society, experiencing hard times, often seared with the ramifications of homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. Also included are some church volunteers, a few staff, and a beloved dog and cat. 

Finished Haywood Street Fresco

A placard near the fresco speaks volumes about art in a simple house of worship: 

Affirming sacred worth, restoring human dignity,  

and sabotaging the shame of poverty,  

the Haywood Street Fresco announces,  

in plaster and pigment,  

that you matter. 

Orchestrating such a monumental project took many years of planning, preparation, private donations, and unbridled enthusiasm on the part of Rev. Brian Combs, fresco artist Christopher Holt, and many dedicated individuals believing that art is for all people. 

As each layer of plaster took shape with a team of artists perched on scaffolding, Chris also took time to interview and sketch each individual featured in the fresco, “It was an extraordinary experience that touched my heart deeply. I will be forever grateful for the honor of getting to hear their stories and share their likeness so others will know more about their journey.” 

In 2019, after the final brushstroke filled in a white dove in the sky, visitors had had the opportunity to view the work of art and hear an individual audio recording about each person in the fresco. If stopping by last August, they would have found Chris cracking dozens of eggs at the altar. 

He was happy to explain that a fresco needs months to completely dry. It’s then that the artist can finish the project by applying a thin coat of protection made from egg yolks, white wine, and distilled water. It’s crucial to delicately handle each egg, separating the albumen (egg white) from the yolk. After mixing the wine, water, and eggs, Chris climbed the scaffolding, meticulously applying the liquid to every section of the fresco. 

Who first thought of using eggs as a binder in paint, and how did they come up with the recipe of egg yolks, wine, and water as a final coat to preserve each work of art? Chris and other fresco artists are more than happy in following time-honored practices. The great masters of long ago knew the mighty egg was an important ingredient in the art world and at the breakfast table. 

For more information:    

Facebook:  Haywood Street Fresco 

Originally published in the April/May 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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