10 months ago


André Lecomte du Noüy

André Lecomte du Noüy and the frescoes of the Curtea de Argeş Monastery | 73 restoration of a monument in Romania. It is beyond the scope of this paper to reopen a discussion of the qualities or deficiencies of that restoration. Let us instead reemphasise 3 that the documents issued throughout the complex restoration process thanks to the French architect’s team are very important. Regrettably, the decision to efface the old painting at Curtea de Argeş and replace it with a new one was brutal, and it was wrongly attributed to André Lecomte du Nouÿ. Consulting the official and technical documents of the restoration 4 we can ascertain that the architect did everything in his power to save any piece of information about the original painting, as the iconographic plans of the monumental compound testify more than anything else. As already shown elsewhere, 5 those documents “witnessed” the old mural decoration of the church and thus have enabled a first reconstitution of the iconographic program of the Curtea de Argeş Monastery, while their full potential for further illustration is yet to be tapped into. Lecomte du Noüy’s consideration for the old painting of the church also becomes apparent in his final decision to replicate the original scenes in the new mural decoration project for the monument. As shown in the confessions of random tourists recorded by the press of that time, 6 the team of restorers made full-scale copies of all of the church painting. On an inspection of the monument in 1881, a companion of V. A. Urechia’s captures just such a scene, and this is how the visitor describes the conditions in which the restorers were saving Dobromir’s old frescoes: “In the right hemicycle, up on the scaffolding, a draftsman was copying a fresco at flickering candlelight.” 7 Criticisms regarding the French restorer’s work were widespread at the time, matched by some site observers who voiced hostility about the obvious effort of the restoration workers; according to them the painters produced “distorted copies” 8 which had nothing to do with the originals. Had we not been lucky enough to get hold of one of those copies, we may have had to regard the comments of the French architect’s contemporaries as justified. As it happens, that one copy replicates one of the very few fragments of frescoes removed from Curtea de Argeş and kept at the National Museum of Art of Romania - a coincidence which allows us to assess objectively the copy as a valuable artefact and document. It is the representation of St. Lupus placed on the northern side of the nave, 9 in the iconographic suite of the church, in the proximity of St. Demetrius. Comparing the drawing made by the team of restorers to the original fresco fragment allows us to notice the genuine eagerness of Lecomte de Noüy’s painters to thoroughly record every single chromatic and compositional quality in Dobromir’s frescoes. The existence of the copy proves once more that the French restorer’s procedure met high scientific standards, despite the acid comments of young Romanian architects who, at the time, held him directly responsible for the destruction of Dobromir’s frescoes. Lecomte du Noüy’s supporters, though, maintain that the decision to remove the Curtea de Argeş Monastery Fig. 7: St. Lupus, fresco panel fragment from the Episcopal Church in Curtea de Argeş, [the master painter Dobromir], pre-1526. Fig. 8: St. Lupus, gouache and gold on thin paper, c. 1881-1884. Fig. 9: Fresco panel fragment from the Episcopal Church in Curtea de Argeş, [the master painter Dobromir], pre-1526. All three images are credited to the Collection of the National Museum of Art of Romania. original painting cannot be imputed to him: “faced with the plan given to him by the Ministry [...], should he not be, on the contrary, commended for having done his duty by picking up with the utmost care the precious remnants of that saintly iconography after he had taken precautions to replicate them? Should we not congratulate ourselves for seeing them hosted in the rooms of the museum in Bucharest?” 10 Admired by a significant part of the Romanian experts of that time while contested by others, André Lecomte du Noüy is still the man who managed to restore the Argeş Monastery to its bygone beauty and glory. His personal attachment to the monuments and cultural soul of Argeş county eventually made him “lay his cross” 11 in the light beside the window of the Monastery’s old infirmary-church. Thus, his commitment to the restoration of Neagoe Basarab’s church must be understood as an authentic calling, as he himself confessed: “This restoration work, I faithfully hope, will build up my repute before severe criticism; besides that, however, it is all the more demanding to me as I will be allowed to inscribe my restorer name on the monument which is so linked with a whole nation’s glorious memories.” 12 * * * Attempts to define the stylistic qualities of the Curtea de Argeş Monastery painting have fluctuated over time between attributing that work either to the local schools active in Serbia, northern Greece and Crete at that time, or to itinerant post-Byzantine workshops influenced by Western painting, 13 each of which has been hypothetically associated with the Argeş-based monument. Careful analysis of the frescoes fragments preserved from Curtea de Argeş allows for the identification of an iconographic detail that can attest to the artistic itinerary of the master painters who worked on the Argeş site 500 years ago. The information comes from the only fragment that, out of the 35 remaining from the Curtea de Argeş Episcopal Church, lost the identification tag of the character painted when it was removed, so that the literature of the past 100 years has referred to it as “the Unknown Saint.” It is a warrior saint frontally painted, carrying in his right hand a lance whose upper head cannot be seen because the fresco fragment is missing. His left hand, unnaturally bent because of the narrow space allocated to the painting, rests on the hilt of a sword hidden behind the character. Represented, by and large, in the same type of military gear as the other warrior saints pictured at Curtea de Argeş and exhibiting no particular feature that might help us identify him, the unknown saint stands out through the delicacy and slight melancholy of his face. His portrait is to some extent comparable to those of the other saints, beardless and very young, pictured at Argeş - St. Procopius, St. Nestor, St. Agapius and St. Lupus - but having distinctive physiognomies. The “Unknown Saint” from Argeş is a young man with fine thin nose, high bare forehead whose middle-parted hair and long curls behind the ears make him stand out. A very similar portrait 14 stands on the northern wall of the main church’s nave at Stavronikita Monastery on Mount Athos, made in 1545-1546 15 by painter Theophanes the Cretan and his son, Simeon. There, too, decay wrought by time on the painting prevents us from learning the saint’s name. Chatzidakis suggests, obviously and tentatively, his identification as St. Procopius. Numerous similarities, such as the one mentioned above, between Theophanes’s Stavronikita painting and Dobromir’s at Curtea de Argeş entitle us to believe that, if St. Procopius

74 | Emanuela Cernea Fig. 10, 11, and 12: St. Procopius, St. Agapius, and St. Nestor - details, fresco panel fragments from the Episcopal Church in Curtea de Argeş, [the master painter Dobromir], pre-1526. All three images are credited to the Collection of the National Museum of Art of Romania. had been pictured at Stavronikita, he would have looked like the one painted in Argeş. Given the rigorous conservation of saints’ physiognomies 16 postulated by any Byzantine painting manual, we find the portrait of the unknown Saint at Argeş mirrored in a series of mid-15 th century icons attributed mostly to the Cretan painter Angelos Akotantos. There is one such icon in Patmos, 17 another one in the collection of St. Catherine Monastery in Crete, 18 two others on the same island at Valsamonero Monastery, 19 and a last one in a private collection in Athens, 20 all of which show with minimal variations in the saint’s clothes and weapons the same character as the one painted by Dobromir and his team at Curtea de Argeş. The inscriptions of all those icons identify the figure portrayed as St. Phanourios, 21 celebrated on 27 August by the Orthodox Church. Having found possible iconographic models and having traced the migration of the saint’s image in the time when master Dobromir carried out his work, we feel entitled to ascribe the name Phanourios to the only saint with unknown identity in the Curtea de Argeş painting. The cult of St. Phanourios had a rather unusual course in the post-Byzantine world. Two distinct traditions can be traced regarding his veneration in Greece: the iconographic and hagiologic one, at its apex in 15 th -century Crete and centred around the saint’s warrior image and features; and the folk one, which emerged in Athens and the big Greek cities at the beginning of the 20 th century, and focused the cult on φανουρόπιτα (‘fanouropita’, the bread made in memory of St. Phanourios’s mother). 23 It is generally accepted that Phanourios is not a saint based on a historical person; 24 rather, his life was invented by hagiographers based on the partial and erroneous reading of the inscription of an icon discovered in the 14 th century in the ruins of a church on the island of Rhodes. 25 Thanks to the miraculous intercession of the saint painted on that icon, three young Cretan priests that had lost their way en route to the bishop who was to ordain them were found and freed from Muslim hands. Following their rescue and return home, Crete became, starting from the 15 th century, the generating centre of the cult of St. Phanourios in the whole of Greece and further on in the Eastern Orthodox world. Fig. 13: St. Procopius (?), Stavronikita - Athos, 1525-1546, Theophanes the Cretan. Source: Chatzidakis 1986, fig. 163. Fig. 14: St. Procopius, fresco panel fragment from the Episcopal Church in Curtea de Argeş, [the master painter Dobromir], pre-1526. Credits: Collection of the National Museum of Art of Romania.

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