St. Martin Church on Šilentabor

Restoration of medieval frescoes

The work on the restoration of the frescoes started in 2002 and progressed steadily for three years under the leadership of Marko Butina, Head of the department for restoration of wall paintings at the Restoration Centre of the Institute for Protection of Cultural Heritage of Slovenia.


Much has been accomplished since 2002. The work on the ceiling was completed. Restored were the frescoes on the wall from the nave to the main arch, that is, the frescoes of Mary's Assumption and the Martyrdom of St. Ahacius, scenes from life of Evangelists, as well as decorations on the presbytery ceiling ribs. There are more frescoes to be restored at the ground level, among them the image of St. Martin, the patron of the church, sharing his coat with a beggar.


The Church of St. Martin was probably built in the 11th or 12th century. Archaeologists discovered the wall of the original, characteristically Romanesque half-circular apsis and from it deduced the age of the church. The remnants of the church can now be seen under the floor of the presbytery. The frescoes were painted later, around 1450. They are the work of the master who painted the presbytery of the church of St. John in Bohinj.


In content and style they are similar to the frescoes of Avče in Kanal Valley, but have been identified as the work of the workshop managed by the master who painted the Bohinj presbytery. The state of the frescoes was best illustrated by Janez Hoefer in his book Mediaeval frescoes of Slovenia - Primorska: " There can't be any doubt that the presbytery of the subsidiary church of St. Martin on Šilentabor had once been painted in its entirety. What we see today is only a very modest remnant of the once rich imagery. The humidity of the walls and gradually increasing deposits of sinter did their work. The paint had mostly peeled off, only under the arc on the northern wall we can detect on the plaster the faint outlines of what is recognizably a remnant of Christ's prayer on the Mount of Olives."


The church was refurbished during the Baroque period, which was common to small Slovenian churches of the time. Fashion changed, so did the aesthetic conventions, architects did not value (as happens today) other work except their own, there was a new parish priest who wanted to change everything, the church was crumbling, the plasters falling off due to humidity, It was also the time of anti-reformation.... and so they redecorated many beautiful small painted churches. The art historians refer to the process as "baroquization"(Sl. barokizacija). When the church was very small and hidden far away from roads and towns, it was left untouched. That is why Hrastovlje was saved. The little church on Šilentabor did not escape modernisation and baroque embellishments.


A new choir was added and three new windows, two in the nave, one in the presbytery, they enlarged and reconstructed the main arch, extended the sacristy (and breached the northern wall to make a doorway for it), they changed the ceiling of the nave which must have been wooden and painted, gave the church a new large altar and cut off two ribs because they did not fit into the small presbytery. They whitewashed the church, hacked into the painted presbytery wall with axes, and covered it with plaster. Possibly they also rebuilt the church tower at this time. Before that it had been only a wall with two openings for bells. All these alterations had consequences on the paintwork, which was completely destroyed in places (where new windows were installed, door into presbytery, new stone arch) or was badly damaged (cut with axes and plastered over). Some frescoes simply broke off. In some places they were affected by humidity and sinter. Parts of frescoes were under the plaster or whitewash. In several places there were deep cracks on the walls that had to be repaired. In another area it was necessary to microinject a binding agent into the wall where the paintwork had separated from the surface, and had to be reattached.


The intervention of 2003, but even more so the more recent attempt have drastically changed the situation. It is now clear that under the sinter, plaster and whitewash there are frescoes which are damaged but technologically impeccable, reasonably well preserved and it was and will be possible to preserve and present them.


The greatest problem of the intervention and preservation of the frescoes in the church of St. Martin has been calcareous sinter. A surface is sintered when lime plaster, whitewash and paintwork that also contains lime in regular contact with humidity or condensation, undergo calcination. Sinter is solid and very brittle. For a better understanding what sinter is and looks like, Butina pointed to the marvellous stalactites and stalagmites in the cave Postonjska jama as a sinter formation. Restorers detest and fear it most, for it is exceptionally difficult to remove from the paintwork. The removal is slow, time consuming and often unsuccessful. It is necessary to use considerable force and pressure to remove sinter with electric burns, chisels and hammers or scalpels, a method used by the restorers until now. The force used is transferred onto the wall that is less stable than the sinter crust, so that the plaster underneath breaks and crumbles. In the last phase of procedure, when sinter is removed or thinned, the paintwork level breaks up along with the sinter crust, or even more frequently, the plaster breaks together with the paintwork.


In the last intervention the restorers set themselves the aim of concluding the restoration work on the side of the arch from the nave and on the ceiling and walls of the presbytery. They were successful in achieving this goal. The intervention of the higher levels is now completed, and the scaffold could be removed. There is more work to be done in the church of St. Martin, but its continuation is dependent on funding. There is also more work to be done in the vicinity, in the village Parje, the cemetery church of Zagorje, the sacristy in Slavina and elsewhere.


The information was taken from the display boards describing the site and the process of restoration of the frescoes.

Translated and edited by Aleksandra Ceferin