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A Wall Painting of a Saint's Face in the Church of Mt. Berenice

By Roni Ben-Arieh

Excavators unearthed an unusual find during the excavation of the church at the summit of Mt. Berenice: a small fragment of a fresco bearing the beautifully painted face of a Christian saint. The broken stone on which the fresco fragment has been preserved was found in the central apse of the church, alongside the marble slab that once lay under the altar. The location of the stone and the orderly manner in which it was laid, with the face on the fresco looking down, clearly indicate that it was placed there deliberately. The apparent importance and holiness of the stone saved it from oblivion, and it was deposited beneath the altar of the church and above the "anchor stone," the relic of the church. The potsherds found beneath the marble slab indicate that the fresco was deposited there after the Byzantine period.

Apart from the fragment unearthed beneath the altar, a variety of other fresco fragments were found in the church. Some were preserved on walls and columns, while others were found among the debris that covered the floor. With the exception of the saint's face, all the surviving frescoes were decorated with geometric or stylized floral motifs. This raises the question of whether the saint's face was an integral part of the decor of the church, or whether it had been brought here from some other church in the country or abroad, and laid under the altar as a "relic." The other obvious question concerns the identity of the saint: who was he?

In the absence of identifying symbols, the identity of the saint depicted on the fresco remains a mystery. In addition, the technical differences between this fragment and the other fragments found on the site indicate that the figure of the saint was brought here from somewhere else. This fact, in turn, raises other questions. Who was the artist? When did he/she create the fresco? Was he/she a local artist (Syria-Palestine), a native of one of the neighboring provinces (Cyprus, Greece, Yugoslavia), or a citizen of the capital of Constantinople? And to what school of art can the work be ascribed? In this article, I shall attempt to answer these questions by a discussion of the style of the painting and a comparison with other frescoes found elsewhere.

Description of the Fresco

The fresco is small: 8 cm (3.1 inches) long and 5 cm (2 inches) wide. The stone on which it lies, once part of a wall, is no more than 9 cm (3.5 inches) thick.

The face of the saint depicted in the fresco is oval and turns slightly to the left. The eyes have a soulful look, seemingly focused on some distant horizon. The face is framed and defined by a black line. Remnants of brown hair can be seen on the left temple, and two black curls remain above the forehead. The forehead itself is high and is underlined by two black lines representing the eyebrows. The eyes are deep set and shaded in green. Their almond shape is defined by black lines, with the round pupils emphasized by delicate brushstrokes of turquoise and white. The nose is defined by the brown line that descends from the right eyebrow and shaded on either side of the line in green and ochre. The prominent part of the nose is highlighted with white lines that form a "V" between the eyes. The cheeks are light in color, the left cheek emphasized by a circle of brown. Of the small mouth, only the upper lip has survived.

The Technique

The fresco of Mt. Berenice was painted in a manner typical of the medieval period combining two fresco techniques. The first stage employed the fresco buono technique, in which water-based pigments were applied to a damp plaster surface. In the second stage --the fresco secco technique--, pigments were applied to a dry surface using what was apparently a lime medium as the adhesive. The surface was prepared by the application of a smooth and dampened 7 mm (0.3 inch) foundation layer of plaster, composed of lime and fine sand. The artist applied paint in several layers. In the first he/she drew the lines of the face in red or ochre. The second layer consisted of areas of color which served as a basis for the painting: light (ochre) in the region of the forehead and the cheeks, dark (green) in the region of the eyes, nose and mouth. With the third layer, the artist gave definition to the facial features of the first layer with black and brown lines, and added color to create variety and emphasis. The fourth and final layer was applied once the plaster had dried, with white lines used to highlight the facial features.

The Style--A Comparative Study

The Mt. Berenice fresco belongs to the Byzantine milieu of the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE. Defining stylistic differences in figurative art of the period offers the possibility of dating the Mt. Berenice fresco. There are several common elements between the facial characteristics of the Mt. Berenice fresco and those of eleventh century frescoes found in regions of the Byzantine Empire such as Cyprus, Asia Minor, and the Balkans. Wall paintings of the period can be divided into several trends, among them the "linear/hieratic" and "painterly." The "painterly" style is represented by, among others, the frescoes of St. Sofia in Ohrid, Yugoslavia (dated 1037-56 CE; see Mouriki 1980-81:261, n. 2.), the frescoes of St. Nicholas of the Roof in Kakopetria, Cyprus (first half of the eleventh century