14th-century replica of Giotto’s “Navicella” to be restored

The sanctuary of the former Evangelical church of Kiszsolna (Jelna, Senndorf) has been salvaged from its state of decay, informed the representatives of the László Teleki Foundation in a Facebook communiqué. The village of Kiszsolna, located eight kilometers from Beszterce (Bistriţa, Bistritz), was once inhabited mostly by Saxons. The church, built in Gothic style, has been falling into ruins since the 1970s, as by that time there were no more Saxons left in the village.

The László Teleki Foundation of Hungary is committed to the research and salvage of Hungarian culture, that is, its heritage and monuments; to analyze the social situation in Central and Eastern Europe; and to focus on the situation of the ethnic, linguistic and religious minorities living in the states of the Carpathian Basin.

As part of the Flóris Romer Plan, the Hungarian Government allocated HUF 5 million for the conservation and renovation of the Kiszsolna church in 2016 and HUF 800,000 for the restoration of the valuable fresco in its sanctuary. Furthermore, the president of the Beszterce-Naszód (Bistriţa-Năsăud) County Council, Emil Radu Moldovan, declared back in 2016 that the county administration will provide the other half of the financing needed.

The wall painting in the Kiszsolna church’s sanctuary is considered to be one of the few copies of Giotto’s famous Navicella mosaic, which was almost entirely destroyed in the 17th century.

The restoration has been managed by the László Teleki Foundation. The church’s nave unfortunately is already in ruins, with partially collapsed walls and a destroyed roof, so the rehabilitation effort was focused on the sanctuary. The structure of the apses was heavily deteriorated as well, but the Transylvanian architectural firm entrusted by the László Teleki Foundation worked out a restoration plan, and the supporting structures have now been consolidated. As the organization recounted, one of the most important steps was the underpinning of the sanctuary’s vault; the intervention happened just in time, as it was close to collapse. After the reconstruction of the roof, the upper side of the vault was repaired as well; the disintegrated stones were replaced, while the bigger cracks in the wall were fixed via injection and by the incorporation of stainless steel. The structural rehabilitation will be followed by the restoration of the stonemasonry and the wall paintings, the László Teleki Foundation said.

As to the valuable 14th-century fresco, art historians discovered it in 2016 because moisture in the walls had started to cause the layers of paint on the sanctuary walls to peel off. The fresco that came to light is a true, detailed copy of the Navicella mosaic attributed to Giotto di Bondone (1267-1337), the remarkable Florentine painter of the Trecento.

Giotto created the Navicella (“Little ship”) mosaic for the San Pietro basilica in Rome between 1305-1313. The mosaic depicts Christ walking on water, as described in the gospel of St. Matthew — the only one of the four gospel accounts where Saint Peter is summoned to join Him. The mosaic was nearly destroyed during the construction of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica in the 17th century.

In the century that followed Giotto’s time, there were three artworks considered to be copies of the scene depicted in the Navicella mosaic: One of these is in Florence, one is in the nearby Pistoia, and a third one is in Strasbourg. The most thorough replica of Giotto’s creation was considered to be the Florentine one; but the newly discovered fresco in the Transylvanian Saxon church in Kiszsolna is considered an equally good copy of Giotto’s work.

The Evangelical church of Kiszsolna was built in the 14th century and refurbished in the 18th, when the walls of the sanctuary were made taller, the nave was vaulted and the facades were reshaped. The decay of this historical monument is due to demographic changes in the region. According to historical records, back in 1941, 367 Saxons (of Evangelical denomination) lived in the village, making up 62 percent of the village’s total population. In 1944, as the German army retreated, most of the Saxons from Nösnerland (the German term for the region of Bistritz) fled to Austria and Germany. In 1953, there were then only 66 people belonging to the Evangelical church, with this number dropping further in subsequent decades.

Title image: The church’s nave and sanctuary were close to collapse, but the engineers managed to reinforce the structure.

Source: Teleki László Alapítvány/Facebook


Author: Éva Zay