Conservators seek to unravel mysteries behind 18th century Poznań frescoes
Partially rediscovered four years ago, more frescoes have been revealed during a renovation undertaken in Poznań to restore the wall paintings that once decorated the former building of the Jesuit College.
Believed to have been first painted in the 1730s not long after the Jesuit College was built, the frescoes are thought to have adorned the refectory in which the resident monks would have once dined.
However, the Jesuit Order was dissolved in 1773 and it is thought that the decorations were painted over soon after. Thereafter, the chamber was designated for secular purposes, and it was here that city councillors would sit and meet to mull the fate and fortunes of the city.
Aptly known as the Session Hall, it formed a key part of a spectacular building that has often been cited as one of the best surviving examples of the Baroque style to exist in latter day Poland.
Notable for its salmon pink and wedding white exteriors, the huge building would play a critical role in the city’s history with its sprawling network of chambers and halls witnessing and welcoming all manner of dignitaries: Duke Antoni Radziwił, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Poznań lived here between 1815 and 1830, and it was in his salon that Chopin once played in 1828.
Napoleon Bonaparte, too, walked these corridors of powers when he took temporary residence at the former Jesuit College in the autumn of 1806.
The historical importance of the college, though, took on an added value in 2018 when conservation works in the Session Hall led to the discovery of various frescoes depicting saintly figures, cardinals and assorted biblical scenes.
These affirmed previous suspicions that such glories awaited. Representing the Municipal Conservator of Monuments, Iwona Błaszczyk says: “As early as 1998, traces of 18th century Baroque paintings were found decorating the vault… but the financial resources were lacking to do anything about these.”
Even so, discoveries made in 2018 proved merely a teaser for what lay ahead and represented just 20 percent of the frescoes.
Now, finally, the rest have been revealed and have given historians and researchers much pause for thought.
Heading the conservation work, Dr Eliza Buszko said: “Before initiating the works, we only knew that there was more under the layers of paint. Everyone thought, however, that there would be one large stage in the central part of the vault; it turned out that we had three separate stages. This was a surprise.”
Establishing what these depict remains very much a work in progress, added Buszko: “we have identified the largest scene as a biblical reference to the fourth chapter of the Lamentation of Jeremiah, one of the books of the Old Testament, but whilst we know the smaller scenes are also religious representations, we can’t be sure yet what they show.
“We have prepared photographic documentation, and this will now be submitted to an art historian for further analysis.”
Supplementing these epic scenes are separate depictions of twelve saints and eleven cardinals.
“We have been able to identify the images of the saints, but the inscriptions under the cardinal portraits were damaged, so whilst we have been able to ascribe names to some, others remain unidentified.”
One has proved a particular source of mystery. “We can tell it’s a very important figure,” says Buszko. “There’s a red background, and eagles one of which holds a crown in its beak. Unfortunately, the fresco is badly damaged. Even so, a fragment of the caption has been preserved and we can also see the hair, eyes and low forehead of the person – with this in mind, we’re hopeful that we can identify him in the future.”
Perhaps though the biggest surprise of all has been the discovery that the chamber might once have been divided into two distinct parts.
“Conservators encountered a large cavity that suggests that the room was once divided into two different sections,” says Buszko.
Beginning in January of this year, the restoration is being carried out by a Krakow-based team of experts. Costing PLN 1.9 million, work is set to continue for approximately one more year and will also include tests to determine what else might lie under the layers of paint.