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The great restorations in Navarre (4). The pitting of the painted churches


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Diario de Navarra

Pedro Luis Echeverría Goñi

University of the Basque Country

Diario de Navarra, in collaboration with the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art of the University of Navarra, deals monthly, with specialists from various universities and institutions, with aspects related to restorations and interventions in large groups of our cultural heritage.

Today we see the interior of many of the medieval and Renaissance churches and small rural temples of Navarra in black and white, having been stripped in the second half of the twentieth century of their mortar and paint, that is, the skin of the architecture. These buildings were only considered finished when their walls and vaults were plastered and painted, work that would be renewed periodically according to the dictates of fashion until the introduction of the taste for petrophilia in the middle of the last century. Exceptional are those that have preserved their original pictorial decoration, such as the presbytery of Nagore (c. 1500), or the Renaissance ones of the Shrine of Our Lady of Fair Love of Arquijas in Zúñiga or the sacristy of Aldaba, while it has not been difficult to draw up a list of a hundred churches that were painted in that period, including among them the internship totality of the Romanesque and Gothic ones.

Brushwork and mural painting in the 16th century

These coatings, although they have not enjoyed the consideration of the courtly Gothic mural painting, were very popular and massive in the 16th century, since they not only upholstered the Gothic-Renaissance buildings, but also modernized the old medieval temples. Since the end of the 15th century, they called "pinceladura" the finishing of factories with plastering, coloring and imitation of feigned rigging with the brush, while with painting they referred to the representation of simulated figures, stories and altarpieces. These "pinzeladores" specialized in covering specific areas with imitations of ashlar cuttings in the facings and brick in the plementos, edging the ribs with ornamental borders in red field; the panels of the formeros and the oven vaults were the areas reserved for cushioning and coffers. It should be noted that the entablatures were usually painted, that is to say, the most Renaissance elements that gave the building a sense of order, with their friezes covered with inscriptions, grotesques and scrolls.

The Gothic architecture was completed with simulated Renaissance masonry, a cheaper procedure , whose purpose was to ennoble and unify irregular ashlar, masonry or brick masonry, level surfaces and different materials, modulate spaces and recreate an old-fashioned art. It is also justified for reasons of health, waterproofing and illumination of dark interiors. By "skinning" many churches in the second half of the twentieth century of that epidermis, they were deprived of their Renaissance mask, enhancing the medieval aspect of their factories. In buildings that have not been chopped, this art still remains hidden behind altarpieces, pavilions, marbling, whitewashing and later quartering, as in Olejua, Mendilibarri, Elorz, Grez, Itsaso or Zia. In those temples that have not been intervened, a whole pictorial stratigraphy can be traced from the time of their construction until the beginning of the 20th century, in the successive renovations that have been recorded in the factory books.

In 1998 David Charles Wright Carr coined the term petrophilia, to designate an aesthetic trend of our time that overvalues bare stone over other materials, architecture over other arts and medieval factories over modern ones. It consists of the elimination of lime and sand mortars, plaster and all the pictorial layers to "take out the stone". This operation entails other damage to the building, such as cement grouting, a foreign material in works made of lime and stone, which causes the proliferation of salts. In addition, this pitting is associated with the dismantling, dispersion and disappearance of movable elements. This debatable fashion of our time has also been imposed in civil architecture, both cultured and domestic, and is still applied in hermitages.

The theoretical foundation of the petrophilia of the twentieth century is found in the mid-nineteenth century in plenary session of the Executive Council Romanticism in the texts of J. Ruskin. Thus the English critic tells us in the Seven Lamps of Architecture that the only colors of architecture should be those of natural stone, rejecting the "structural deceptions" of "painting surfaces to represent a material that is not what is actually there". The French architect Viollet-Le-Duc, whose criteria inspired the restorations of José Yarnoz and his son José María Yarnoz Orcoyen, postulated "restoration in style," the primacy of Gothic, the elimination of "inferior" elements and painting to emphasize the structure and not disguise it. In addition, Rationalist principles such as "sincerity of materials" and deornamentation were inappropriately extrapolated to the restoration of historic monuments.

Petrophilia in Navarre and the fashion of "taking out the stone" (1940-1990)

Although it has antecedents since the end of the 19th century, it began with the foundation of the Institución Príncipe de Viana, the architect of the rescue, restoration, and maintenance of the emblematic monuments of the old kingdom, although, due to the prevailing taste, it included the chopping of the coverings. This was done in the 1940s in Ororbia, Eunate, or Santa María de Sangüesa, and in the 1950s in the Crucifix and Santiago de Puente la Reina, Eusa, Olleta or Induráin, and was also applied to the monasteries of Leire, La Oliva, Irache and Iranzu. Its increase in the decade of the sixties was also due to a reductionist interpretation of the Second Vatican Council, in the constitution on the Sacred Liturgy of 1963, shielding its supporters in some of its guidelines such as the search for a "noble beauty" rather than the "mere sumptuousness", the prominence of the altar facing the people or the reduction of images. Between 1962 and 1964, the walls of the church of Aoiz were chipped, uncovering the ashlar, and it was pointed out in the review of DN that it had been "dressed in stone" for the first time. Behind the main altarpiece there is still a simulated quartering and a registration. Other temples that were stripped between 1964 and 1968 were those of Bera, Añezcar, Santiago de Sangüesa, Ibiricu or Lekunberri.

The first international document to draw attention to the importance of plastering, plastering and painted finishes was the Charter of the Restoration of Rome, drawn up by the historian Cesare Brandi in 1972. It specifies that cleaning should never "reach the bare surface of the materials of the work itself" and vetoes the use of abrasive methods such as sandblasting. In Navarre, not only were these criteria ignored, but the 1970s was an unfortunate decade in which a multitude of temples were chopped up, starting with the monastic church of Tulebras, where in 1970 the walls, vaults and shell were stripped of their plaster "in keeping with the austere Cistercian tradition", without realizing that the star-shaped roofs had been added in the 16th century and painted in 1563. The restoration of 1995 would restore the quarterings and the spectacular fleurons. Other "skinning" were those of Larrión (1971). Igúzquiza, Santa María de Tafalla (1975, painted later in 1990), Jaurrieta (1977), San Pedro de Echano and Labiano (1978) or Azuelo (1979), where the sacristy was also removed and the main altarpiece was dismantled.

The last decade that records the massive chopping of churches is that of the 1980s, which paradoxically coincides with the publication of the first volume of the Monumental Catalog of Navarra on the Merindad de Tudela (1980) and the Spanish Historical Heritage Law (1985). The restoration of the church of San Nicolás de Pamplona (1982-1986), also included the chopping of its walls, having survived, along with fragments of Gothic paintings, some Renaissance grotesques on a red field in the ribs of the main chapel. The pickaxe stripped churches like Oderitz, Larraya, Larragueta, Najurieta, Oscáriz or San Miguel de Cizur Menor and in Endériz (1985), it was interrupted when discovering a painted altarpiece after dismantling the main altarpiece. In the monumental temple of Villatuerta the stone was removed in 1986, applying sandblasting and cement mortar; when two altarpieces were removed, paintings from the XVI century with paired saints were found. In 1990 those of San Miguel de Estella and Turrillas were dated.

Restitution and seriation of pretended rigging (1994-2021)

Only after the restoration of the cathedral of Pamplona in 1993-1994 and the verification that it was completely painted, the polychromy of the stone churches in Navarre was interrupted. A new stage began that A. Vuillemard-Jenn describes as the new polychromy of the end of the 20th and 21st centuries. The French researcher points out that refund a work to its original state is a fluctuating concept, because if before it consisted of leaving the stone exposed, today it is identified with repainting it. Following the model of the seo, vaults painted in blue with stars, red end walls and plastered walls are generalized, as in Valtierra or Oteiza, and white strokes in Irache, Isaba, Cintruénigo or Mendigorría. The finding of the brushwork of the church of Arellano, work of Diego de Cegama in 1580, and its imitative reintegration by B. Sagasti in 1995-1998 was a turning point for its complete repertoire of Renaissance rigging, entablature and mock altarpiece. In that of Zuasti (2002) the original decoration of the headwall was maintained with illusory cubes and rhombuses that dilate the space, similar to those of Marcilla, while in the nave simple quarterings were reproduced.

In 2003, Icomos, the international organization for cultural heritage, issued principles on the conservation and restoration of mural paintings, admitting the possibility of restitution of serial motifs as long as authentic fragments are preserved, well photographed and carried out by professionals using traditional materials and techniques. In the same year, a plan for mural painting and coverings was initiated in the Registration and Movable Property Section, which includes wall analyses, opening of windows and compilation of photographic documentation. In the church of San Saturnino de Artajona (2007), after an elaborated study of coatings by Sagarte, the Gothic and Renaissance quarterings have been restored. In that of Esquiroz (2009), the masonry and coffered ceilings have been repainted, preserving behind the main altarpiece a feigned altarpiece and the mid-16th century quartering. The most respectful restoration with these coatings is found in the crypt of San Salvador de Gallipienzo, painted in 1572 (J. L. Franchez, 2014)). In the church of Vesolla (L. Gil, 2014-2015), where the brush had transformed a Romanesque apse into a semi-dome with Renaissance coffered ceilings, its lacunae have been reintegrated and the serial break-up of the walls has been redone. A successful didactic evocation has been the replacement by transfer in 2018 in the head of Artaiz, not only of the Gothic paintings, but also of the Renaissance coffers.