Conservation Heritage Russian Federation

Gothic church's frescoes destroyed during restoration

Only around 3% can be saved, say heritage campaigners

Just three patches of fresco remain in St Catherine’s, following restoration work carried out after the church was handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church by local legislators in 2010

German heritage advocates have accused the Russian Orthodox Church of causing irreversible damage to the 14th-century Brick Gothic church of St Catherine at Arnau near Kaliningrad, especially to its frescoes.

“The… iconography of the painting[s] in St Catherine’s Church in Arnau from the 14th century had not yet been thoroughly researched [and they] are irretrievably lost,” wrote Nicole Riedl, an expert in Medieval wall paintings at Hawk University of Applied Sciences and Arts in Hildesheim, Germany in her report, after she visited the church in July with a group of activists from the German-based Kuratorium Arnau.

Walter Rix, a German academic who led the trip and is one of the founders of Kuratorium Arnau, which was created in 1992 by German historians, theologians and art experts to save the church and its frescoes, described St Catherine’s in a 2010 report to the Nordic World Heritage Foundation as the second oldest “within the total of the historic realm of the Order of Teutonic Knights”.

Interest in the region’s Germanic links has grown among local residents; three men were jailed for activity related to separatist activism for raising a German flag over the Kaliningrad headquarters of the FSB, Russia’s security service, a week before the annexation of Crimea on 18 March.

Just three patches of fresco remain in St Catherine’s, following restoration work carried out after the church was handed over to the Russian Orthodox Church by local legislators in 2010. Several former Lutheran and Catholic churches—some of which, including St Catherine’s, were being used as museums—were given to the Russian church, which had complained that it did not have enough buildings to serve Orthodox believers in the region. Patriarch Kirill I of the Russian Orthodox Church was Metropolitan of Kaliningrad before being enthroned in 2009.

Kaliningrad was known as Konigsberg until it was seized by the Soviet Army in 1945 and renamed. The village of Arnau, about eight kilometres from Kaliningrad, was rechristened Rodniki and was used as a granary by a Soviet collective farm.

The frescoes were created when St Catherine’s was a Catholic church. It became a Lutheran church after the Reformation and the frescoes were whitewashed for centuries, then uncovered in the early 20th century.

Riedl wrote that, from a conservation point of view, the Russian church’s actions in restoring the Arnau church have violated both the Charter of Venice (the international code of professional standards for preservation and restoration) as well as Russian culture laws. “A piece of pan-European history has been destroyed,” she says.

In an email to The Art Newspaper, she said that “I think there are just 2%-3%” of the original frescoes left now. The surviving sections are “quite all right” and can be saved with modern conservation techniques. “If the Russian Orthodox Church will conserve them, it is possible,” Riedl says. “But the Russian Orthodox Church has deliberately destroyed most of them.”

Walter Rix told The Art Newspaper that while Russian church officials did grant access to St Catherine’s in July, the visitors “were shocked to discover that the remnants of the frescoes (approximately 40% of the original) had now been covered by a rough coating, with the exception of three sections.”

What had initially been a friendly meeting, he said, became tenser after Riedl and another expert, Jutta Kalff, “started to list the mistakes the ROC [Russian Orthodox Church] had made”. Nonetheless, he stressed that church officials did allow the delegation back into the building. “Looking back, it appears to me that the two sides had a totally different understanding of restoration—perhaps a clash of cultures,” Rix says.

Following the German delegation’s visit, the news website reported that the Kaliningrad Diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church was cutting off relations with Kuratorium Arnau.

“After such statements, we have decided to stop working with them,” Mikhail Cherenkov, who runs the diocese monuments maintenance division, told the news site. “We tried to put up [with] this for a long time, and not to respond to their words, but after their last statements, we don’t need the help of the German side, all the more since there was none to begin with. After the building was transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church, all they did was dispute the transfer. Since then they have only come to our region and made statements that were used against us.”

Rix says his organisation has spent over €320,000 in “concrete investments” on the Arnau church to date and that he has not yet received official word about the breaking off of relations.

Correction: Due to an editing error, the illustration that originally ran with this article incorrectly included a fresco from a 12th-century Spanish church, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. We apologise for the error.

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28 Aug 14
15:22 CET


Why we can't see any actual photo from the church and it's frescoes. i'm afraid, that the matter could be more political as professional matter - there were (are) some Polish restorers involved as well

26 Aug 14
22:24 CET


I would note that the chapel illustrated on the right in this article is a 12th-century Catalonian chapel at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and except as an example of a painting that has been preserved--though ironically not in its original location--does not seem to connect to the subject of the article.

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