The mural and the fresco

Editor’s Note: Hovak Najarian, Art History Professor Emeritus from College of the Desert, will begin to help us understand the art that informs our faith and understand the faith that informs our art. In our lectionary on Sunday we read from Numbers 21:4-9. Michelangelo’s fresco the Brazen Serpent, from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, opens up this scene from the Exodus. Enjoy the art, enjoy this background to the art. Keep learning.

Become more familiar with often encountered terms:

Mural:  A mural is a large work of art that is usually created directly on a large architectural surface.  The murals on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel often are referred to as “ceiling frescos” because the fresco process was used to paint them.  In the same manner, critics often refer to an oil painting simply by its medium, “oil,” but all paintings are not oils and all murals are not frescos  The terms mural and fresco are not synonymous.  Mural identifies a work’s category (the type of work that it is) and fresco refers to its medium (the material that is used to make it).

Fresco: In the fresco process, an artist paints directly on wet plaster with water based pigments.  Before painting begins, a plasterer covers an area of a wall (or ceiling) according to an estimate of how much the artist believes can be painted before the plaster sets.  While the plaster is still moist, the pigment is absorbed into its surface and when it is set the pigment becomes an integral part of it.  The pigment is not on the wall or ceiling, it is within its surface.

If a plastered area has set before it can be painted it is no longer capable of absorbing pigment and must be chipped off.  A fresh area of plaster is spread on the wall before work continues.  The removal of plaster is done along a contour of a figure in order that a seam is not apparent.  This procedure is repeated until the mural is completed.  It is a time consuming and messy process and is seldom used now unless a particular effect is desired.  Michelangelo worked on the ceiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel from 1508 to 1512 AD.

Sistine Chapel: This chapel is named “Sistine” because it was Pope Sixtus who had it restored in the latter part of the fifteenth century.

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© 2012 Hovak Najarian

1 thought on “The mural and the fresco”

  1. Thank you so much for these explanations! I know nothing about art, but simple definitions like this make it much more accessible!

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