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Preliminary non-invasive study of Carolingian pigments in the churches of St. John at Müstair and St. Benedict at Malles

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Abstract

The monastery church of Müstair (Val Müstair, Switzerland) and the church of St. Benedict in Malles (Obervinschgau, Italy) contain painting cycles dating to the late eighth/early ninth century which are considered among the best preserved in Europe. Located inside a region of strategic importance at least since Roman times, during the medieval era both areas formed part of the diocese of Chur and were politically and culturally closely linked; the present border, in fact, developed in the course of the early modern period.

The two painting cycles have been studied with a non-invasive approach using spectral multiband imaging, UV-visible diffuse reflectance spectrophotometry with fiber optics (FORS) and X-ray fluorescence spectrometry (XRF). The combined application of these techniques gave important insights into the painting techniques used in the two cycles. Clear similarities in the palette of pigments appeared; the colour palette included mainly materials typically used in medieval mural paintings, such as red and yellow ochres, carbon black, Bianco di San Giovanni and green earth, but lead pigments, such as red lead and massicot, which are less suited for use on plaster surfaces, were used as well. Of particular interest is the use of Egyptian blue and ultramarine blue that makes these paintings among the first in which the precious lapis lazuli pigment had been used in Europe. The occurrence of Egyptian blue and ultramarine blue puts the paintings closer to the ancient Roman than to the Romanesque tradition. A surprising result was the identification of As, which might indicate the use of orpiment for the creation of the wall paintings.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    46°37′47.460″N 10°26′56.340″E (WGS 84 lat/lon). Source: Bundesamt für Landestopografie swisstopo (map.geo.admin.ch).

  2. 2.

    46°41′25.150″N 10°32′22.280″E (WGS 84 lat/lon). Source: Autonomous Province of Bolzano/Bozen (gis2.provinz.bz.it).

  3. 3.

    “Malles” thereafter

  4. 4.

    “Val Venosta” thereafter

  5. 5.

    Currently stored by the Municipality of Malles

  6. 6.

    Currently stored by the Municipality of Malles

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Acknowledgements

Our thanks go to the former and the present director of the Department of Heritage Conservation of the Province of Bolzan, South Tyrol, Waltraud Kofler-Engl and Karin Dalla Torre, for having authorized and supported the study at St. Benedict in Malles. We also have to thank the municipality of Malles and its mayor Ulrich Veith, who has granted logistic support and given us access to the church of St. Benedict. Alberto Felici and Marta Caroselli (Scuola Professionale della Svizzera Italiana at Lugano) have provided valuable ideas and suggestions for the interpretation of the analytical results. Finally, the authors would like to thank Prof. Saverio Lomartire (Università degli Studi del Piemonte Orientale) for fruitful discussion. We also acknowledge the two anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions contributed to improve the quality of the original manuscript.

Author information

All authors contributed to the conception and design of this study. P. Cassitti and L. Villa composed the historical framework and the archaeological and artistic sections; R. Emmenegger, S. Wörz, L. Villa and P. Cassitti are responsible for the sections concerning restoration and provided technical documentation; G. Cavallo, A.T. Keller, R. Lenz and M. Aceto carried out in situ measurements. All authors discussed the results of the diagnostic campaign. The first draft of the manuscript was written by P. Cassitti, and all authors commented on preliminary versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Correspondence to M. Aceto.

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Electronic supplementary material

Fig. S1
figure7

Raetia Curiensis, political situation and main routes of travel in the late eighth century. Source: Bureau Sennhauser, Zurzach, with modifications. (PNG 1370 kb)

Fig. S5
figure8

Plan of the church of St. Benedict in Malles (left) and vertical section, towards the east (right). Red, eighth century walls. Blue, thirteenth-century stabilization walls and bell tower. Green, twentieth-century repairs. Source: Luca Villa. (PNG 1586 kb)

Fig. S7
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Church of St. Benedict in Malles, eastern wall. A, northern niche. B. central niche. C, southern niche. D, painting of lay benefactor. E, painting of clerical benefactor. Photo: L. Villa. (PNG 11680 kb)

Fig. S8
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Church of St. Benedict in Malles, northern wall. Photo: M. Wolf. (PNG 3153 kb)

Fig. S9
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Monastery church of St. John in Müstair, northern apse, scene nr. 104. Multispectral images. From top to bottom, visible light, IR-luminescence, false-colour IR-luminescence superimposed on visible light photograph. The images show that Egyptian blue was used in areas of the face and of the architecture where green shading would be expected. The location of measurements 38, 39, 41, 42 and 45 has been marked in the top image. Photo: Annette T. Keller, artIMAGING. (PNG 23091 kb)

Fig. S10
figure12

Church of St. Benedict in Malles, eastern wall, central niche. Multispectral images. From left to right, visible light, IR-luminescence, false-colour IR-luminescence superimposed on visible light photograph. IR-luminescence exposure calibration changed to highlight the luminescence. The images show that Egyptian blue was used in areas of the face and of the architecture where green shading would be expected. The location of measurement nr. 79 is indicated in the central image. Photo: Annette T. Keller, artIMAGING. (PNG 4672 kb)

Fig. S11
figure13

Monastery church of St. John in Müstair, northern apse, scene nr. 104, with location of measurements nr. 30, 32, 33, 34. VIS luminescence induced by UV light. Photo: Annette T. Keller, artIMAGING. (PNG 9521 kb)

Fig. S12
figure14

Monastery church of St. John in Müstair, semi-dome of the central apse, scene nr. 88, head of Christ. Left, before the beginning of restoration work, VIS luminescence induced by UV light. Right, during restoration work, in visible diffused illumination after removal of additions from 1947 to 1951. Calibration card from chsopensource.org. The locations of measurement 137 have been marked in the right image. Photo: Annette T. Keller, artIMAGING. (PNG 22057 kb)

Fig. S13
figure15

Church of St. John in Müstair, church attic, eastern wall, central scene 85 with ascension of Christ. Location of the measurements mentioned in the text. Ultramarine blue was detected at nr. 166, 168 and 180. Photo: R. Emmenegger. (PNG 6796 kb)

Fig. S14
figure16

Church of St. Benedict in Malles, eastern wall. UV fluorescence in central niche (left) and in the depiction of the clerical benefactor (right). Strong white-blue fluorescence in the area of the halo of Christ and the square halo of the benefactor. In both areas, the presence of As was detected by handheld XRF. With location of measurements 72, 74–75, 94–95. Photo: Annette T. Keller, artIMAGING. (PNG 8272 kb)

Fig. S15
figure17

Church of St. Benedict in Malles, eastern wall, central niche, blue background. Left, detail in visible diffuse light with remnants of limewash on top of paint layer with ultramarine blue. The location of the area depicted in detail is shown in the right image. Photo: Annette T. Keller, artIMAGING. (PNG 4057 kb)

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Fig. S2

The monastery church of Müstair, Canton of Grisons, Switzerland. Source: Foundation Pro Monastery of St. John. (JPG 1123 kb)

Fig. S3

The church of St. Benedict in Malles, South Tyrol, Italy. Source: Foundation Pro Monastery of St. John. (JPG 3531 kb)

Fig. S4

Plan of the Carolingian monastic complex of St. John at Müstair. Source: Bureau Sennhauser, Zurzach, with modifications. (JPG 773 kb)

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Fig. S6

Monastery church of St. John in Müstair. Northern wall with Carolingian cycle of wall paintings. Source: Foundation pro Monastery of St. John (JPG 3824 kb)

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Cavallo, G., Aceto, M., Emmenegger, R. et al. Preliminary non-invasive study of Carolingian pigments in the churches of St. John at Müstair and St. Benedict at Malles. Archaeol Anthropol Sci 12, 73 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12520-020-01024-2

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Keywords

  • Pigments
  • Mural paintings
  • Spectral multiband imaging
  • FORS
  • XRF
  • Carolingian
  • Lombard