Art historians campaign to save rare mosaic in closed UK parish church

Art historians campaign to save rare mosaic in closed UK parish church

The mural-mosaic "The Crucifixion" by George Mayer-Marton at the closed Holy Rosary Church in Oldham, England. (Credit: Courtesy of the Estate of George Mayer-Marton.)

In Holy Rosary Church in Oldham – a town in the Greater Manchester area of England – is one of the most important works of Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton. The church closed in 2017, and now his mosaic-fresco “The Crucifixion” is at risk.

LEICESTER, United Kingdom – In Holy Rosary Church in Oldham – a town in the Greater Manchester area of England – is one of the most important works of Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton. The church closed in 2017, and now his mosaic-fresco “The Crucifixion” is at risk.

The Jewish artist was a pioneer of the Byzantine mosaic method in England after fleeing Austria – where he settled after World War I – in 1938 after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany. He worked on several churches – especially in the northwest of England – after his arrival in the country, creating “The Crucifixion” – which is over 24 feet long – at Holy Rosary in 1955.

Clare Willsdon, professor of art history at Glasgow University, told Crux artist’s works in the Oldham church is the only known surviving mural by Mayer-Marton that combines fresco painting and mosaic.

“Both the historic facetted ‘Byzantine’ mosaic technique that Mayer-Marton used for the Crucifixion element, and the Italian Renaissance-type ‘true fresco’ that he used for the flanking figures of Mary and John, and the background sky, involve a physical integration of image and building that is very evocative and meaningful in relation to Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation,” she told Crux.

“For in Byzantine mosaic, which Mayer-Marton learnt in Italy, the mosaic pieces – tesserae – are pressed into the still wet plaster of the wall, whilst fresco similarly involves painting on wet plaster, so that the pigment bonds chemically with the wall as it dries. The images of the crucified Christ and his mourning mother and St. John were thus made symbolically one with the body of the church, and the rituals performed within it – not least of Holy Communion at the altar directly beneath the mural,” Willsdon explained.

George Mayer-Marton in an undated photo. (Credit: Courtesy of the Estate of George Mayer-Marton.)

The frescos were partially overpainted in the 1980s, however experts say the work is still extant underneath.

However, with Holy Rosary Church being closed, the work could be destroyed if the building is sold to developers and then demolished. Even now, with the church being empty, vandals could easily break in and damage the artwork.

Gordon Millar, who was a student and apprentice of Mayer-Marton — who died in 1960 — said the destruction of “The Crucifixion” would be “a serious loss to the Church and to the history of art in Britain.”

“His works stand as unique and important examples of mural and religious art in Britain of the time. They are among the very best work produced during the period,” he told Crux, adding that although the Hungarian artist’s work is traditional in its technique, it is “expressed in a truly modern idiom.”

Willsdon and Millar have now collaborated on a book about Mayer-Marton’s work, called Murals & Mosaics: George Mayer-Marton.

The project hopes to raise funds and awareness about the artist’s work in hopes of gaining “listed building” status for Holy Rosary Church, giving it protection under English law. The authors hope the building can be repurposed without compromising the mosaics.

The closed Holy Rosary Church in Oldham, England. (Credit: Google Maps.)

“The original Christian and Roman Catholic symbolism of a mural for a church such as Oldham is obviously obscured if the building has to be repurposed; this means that arguments for preservation have typically to rest on aesthetic, historical, and art-historical grounds,” Willsdon told Crux.

However, inventive uses have been found for redundant churches with significant artwork/architectural interest, especially when the building is listed by the British government’s architectural/monument preservation organisation, Historic England. Hence the current campaign to have Oldham listed,” Willsdon told Crux.

She noted that some ecclesiastical artwork had successfully been relocated – such as Mayer-Marton’s 1957 work “The Pentecost” which was transferred from the Church of the Holy Ghost in Netherton to Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral – but a work such as “The Crucifixion” needs to be “kept in situ to understand its full meaning.”

“The Oldham mural is the focal point in a remarkable play of reflected light, that links its Crucifixion imagery with that of Mary with the infant Jesus in the stained glass at the opposite end of the church – so we have Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, in symbolic convergence, with the congregation enfolded between,” she explained.

“Before the figures of Mary and John, and the background, were so regrettably overpainted in the 1980s, the mural must have had an astonishing presence in the building, almost literally radiating the Christian message of hope as symbolised by the crucified Christ,” Willsdon added.

To preserve the works full meaning, she said “inventive and sympathetic re-purposing is key to successful preservation.”

Willsdon suggested local organizations in Oldham such as the art gallery, history and heritage groups, and social services could be “instrumental” in this task.

The campaign to get Holy Rosary listed building status has received wide support, with the Victoria Gallery in Liverpool, the Vivian Gallery in Swansea, and the Victoria and Albert Museum and Imperial War Museum in London all officially endorsing the idea.

In a letter to Heritage England – a government agency – the Imperial War Museum’s curator Claire Brenard noted “the Crucifixion” reminds the people of Britain that its culture “was enriched by the contribution of a whole generation of artists who came to our country following Nazi persecution.”

“The mural encompasses the pain that is never far away in Mayer-Marton’s work, but also complexity, the joyous and the divine,” she wrote. “I speak on behalf of my colleagues at the museum in calling for the further tragedy – of losing one of the artist’s most important, and public, works – to be avoided. We wish for the mural to be fully conserved and a more permanent home to be found for it.”

Millar said the problems in saving “The Crucifixion” is one that is faced across the country, as more churches are closed due to shrinking congregations and less money for upkeep.

“It is certainly a significant and difficult issue, not least because the funding of the arts is inherently hard in a time of relative austerity,” he told Crux.

“It is of course closely allied to the appropriate adaption and use of under-used church buildings. When murals of this high calibre are located in churches and other building types that may be at risk of demolition, the problem becomes even more severe,” Millar added. “Only with the support of public and private bodies can such survival be achieved.”

In a statement to the Manchester Evening News, the Diocese of Salford said it “remains committed to protecting George Mayer-Marton’s rare work of art and to ensuring that the work is made more accessible to the public going forward.”

“We are actively exploring several options with interested external parties. This includes options to leave the mosaic and mural in situ if an appropriate use can be found for the building, along with the funding needed to secure its future,” the diocese said.

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