Valuable Saint Ladislaus murals are to be restored in the Nagyajta Unitarian Church. The medieval, fortified church is undergoing extensive restoration thanks to a successful European Union tender, the transindex.ro news portal wrote in a recent piece. As part of the church’s renovation, back in 2019, some wall paintings were discovered: namely, the head of King Saint Ladislaus of Hungary (1046–1095), surrounded by a halo, and also the beautifully painted heads of a couple of horses. Tamás Szakács, a restorer from Sepsiszentgyörgy who found fragments from scenes of the Saint Ladislaus legend, further researched the paintings. Szakács has already finished the preservation of the mural remains, which date back to the late 14th century, and the renovation of the church is nearing completion. Nagyajta (Aita Mare) is a village in Szeklerland’s Kovászna County, in the so-called Erdővidék region, located 50 kilometers northwest of the city of Sepsiszentgyörgy (Sfântu Gheorghe).
The murals in Nagyajta’s Unitarian Church had been covered with tarpaper in the past, during an earlier renovation. The layer of paper was nailed to the walls and then plastered over. Although the nails partially destroyed the medieval wall paintings, all in all, this procedure helped in preserving it, the restorer told Transindex. He added that older reconstructions and renovations of the church, however, had damaged the mural ensemble. Unfortunately, the lower parts of the paintings were completely destroyed in the past, when the plaster was replaced, as they were also removed with the plaster layer.
From the episodes of the legend of Saint Ladislaus, a rather voluminous piece was preserved in Nagyajta, which depicts battle scenes in the upper section of the mural, the restorer explained. He added that after the restoration process, the murals will be easily understood and enjoyed.
“The first step is always the preservation of the wall paintings. This is the most essential part of our work, when we try to save and fix every single detail. Usually, bubbling occurs in the plaster layers, which are detached from the substrate, and have to be stabilized by grout injection. Once fixed, a cleaning process begins to remove all foreign substances: whitewash, plaster and dust,” said the specialist. Following these procedures, during the restoration phase, surface imperfections are filled, and if necessary, the colors are substituted.
In some cases, the paint layers are damaged, but the substrate is still there; but there are cases, when the substrate is missing too, so restorers must imitate the composition of the original substrate, creating a mixture of lime and sand. When this is finished, they restore the paintings in a distinctive manner. “We usually substitute the painting with dots or lines so that even a layman can distinguish between what is original and what the restorer has added,” Szakács said. In the restorer’s opinion, the painter of these late 14th century murals was a skilled artist, as the fragments are unique and ornate in both their technique and execution. “The artist used several forms of decoration. He created an elaborate painting; for example, he used a stucco technique to create the halo of the saints,” the specialist said.
The research, conservation and restoration of medieval murals is in full swing in Transylvania. With several active projects, at times, new discoveries are made too, said Mihály Jánó, an art historian and expert on the Saint Ladislaus murals in Szeklerland and Transylvania.
The walls of medieval churches were usually decorated with murals; within the territory of the medieval Kingdom of Hungary, the mural depiction of the legend of King Saint Ladislaus was a special representation; these murals are in fact a visual narrative of the battle of Kerlés in 1068, where King Ladislaus defeated a flock of Pechenegs, Oghuz Turks and Cumans which invaded the kingdom, the art historian detailed. (Editor’s note: Saint Ladislaus is commonly mentioned as “The Knight King”, as he was known for his exceptional strength and valor). The legend of Saint Ladislaus was depicted throughout the Hungarian Kingdom over a period of about a century and a half from the end of the 13th to the beginning of the 15th century. The legend of Saint Ladislaus became an almost canonically painted story. As the central part of the kingdom was occupied in the 16th century by the Turks, many medieval churches were destroyed during the 150-year occupation period. That explains why most of the Saint Ladislaus murals were found in Szeklerland and in the churches of the Felvidék region (in today’s Slovakia).
The cult of Saint Ladislaus goes back to the 12th century and was strongly shaped by the Church. Chronicles, prayers and sermons were written and told about the Knight King, as he was the one to finish the work of King Saint Stephen: He consolidated and even expanded the Hungarian state. Moreover, after decades of turmoil, he ensured there was peace in the country and also strongly supported the Church, the art historian said.
The composition of the Saint Ladislaus mural in Nagyajta is quite varied, added the specialist. “The face of Saint Ladislaus is almost similar to the depiction of the king found in the church of Oklánd (in Hargita county), but there is still more work to be done to make any statement with certainty,” the art historian said.
Title image: The fortified medieval church of Nagyajta. The mural fragments of the Saint Ladislaus legend date back to the 14th century