Open in new tab - Back to search results
library

From Ancient Frescoes to Modern Street Art

Category

Articles

Publication date

30/04/2024

A Journey through Mural Painting

In the rich tapestry of Europe’s artistic heritage, mural decoration stands out as a vibrant and enduring form of expression. From ancient frescoes adorning the walls of Pompeii to the modern street art of Berlin, muralism has evolved over centuries, reflecting cultural, political, and social shifts. This article explores the diverse history and contemporary significance of mural decoration across Europe.

Ancient Origins: The roots of mural decoration in Europe can be traced back to antiquity. In ancient Greece, frescoes adorned the walls of palaces and temples, depicting mythological narratives and scenes of daily life. Similarly, the Romans embellished their villas with elaborate murals, showcasing their wealth and cultural sophistication. The catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD preserved the exquisite frescoes of Pompeii, offering a glimpse into the artistic practices of the time. Latin America also boasts a long history of muralism, dating back to pre-Columbian civilizations like the Maya and the Aztecs.

The Villa of the Mysteries is an ancient Roman villa located near the gateway to Herculaneum, in Pompeii. It was buried following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. It is best known for the series of frescoes on a red background in the triclinium, interpreted as illustrating a mystery cult, hence the common name of the building. The parietal decorations vary according to the historical periods in which they were created

Medieval and Renaissance Splendor: During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, mural decoration flourished across Europe. In Italy, masters like Giotto (1266 – 1337) and Michelangelo (1475 -1564) transformed church interiors with breathtaking frescoes, imbuing sacred spaces with spiritual fervour and artistic grandeur. The Sistine Chapel ceiling, Michelangelo’s magnum opus, remains an enduring symbol of Renaissance artistry and religious devotion.

Landscape painting became also more prominent, with artists like Giotto himself and Fra Angelico (1387 – 1455) who incorporated naturalistic landscapes into their religious frescoes

The Sixtine Chapel Ceiling, painted by Michelangelo between 1508 and 1512, is one of the most renowned artworks of the High Renaissance.

Beyond Italy, muralism thrived in Northern Europe as well. The Gothic cathedrals of France, Flanders and Germany boasted colourful stained glass windows and intricate wall paintings, narrating biblical stories for the illiterate masses. The vibrant murals of England’s mediaeval churches, such as those in East Anglia and Cornwall, offer insights into mediaeval life and belief systems.

Medieval Painting in the St Agatha's Church, Easby, Yorkshire, UK

Later, in the 17th and 18th, during the Baroque and Rococo periods mural decoration, was characterised by opulence and theatricality. In palaces and noble residences, artists like Tiepolo (1696 – 1770 ) and Rubens ( 1577 – 1640) transformed ceilings and walls into immersive panoramas of celestial realms and earthly delights. These grandiose frescoes served as visual spectacles, elevating the status of their patrons and dazzling viewers with their technical virtuosity. Due to the increasing trade and cultural exchange with China, European artists also started to incorporate Chinese themes, including landscapes, architecture, and figures, into their mural paintings and interior decorations.  “Chinoiseries” became very popular in Europe.  (see image on top of the page : “chinoiserie” painted at the beginning of the 19th century in a 17th century palace – North of Italy)

Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo, The Sacrifice of Iphigenia, Villa Valmarana, Italy
The Sacrifice of Iphigenia is a fresco painted in 1759 by Giambattista Tiepolo for the Villa Valmarana 'Ai Nani' in Vicenza.
Peter Paul Rubens Ceiling of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, London, King James carried to heaven by angels.
Peter Paul Rubens Ceiling of the Banqueting House, Whitehall, London, King James carried to heaven by angels.

The Grand Tour, a traditional trip undertaken by young European aristocrats to enrich their education, often included visits to Italy, where travellers encountered classical ruins and Renaissance art. This experience influenced the Neoclassical movement, which revived classical themes and techniques in art and architecture. Landscape painting continued to evolve during this period, with artists like Claude Lorrain and Nicolas Poussin producing iconic landscapes that influenced mural painting.

In the 19th the Romantic movement celebrated the beauty of nature, inspiring muralists to create lush, atmospheric landscapes. Less than one century later, the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau embraced decorative arts, often incorporating natural motifs into mural designs.

The Hôtel Hannon is an Art Nouveau-style mansion located in Brussels (Saint-Gilles) built between 1903 and 1904 for Édouard Hannon by the architect Jules Brunfaut. The stairwell was decorated with murals by French painter Paul-Albert Baudouin)

Modern Revivals and Innovations: In the 20th century, mural decoration experienced a renaissance as artists sought new forms of expression beyond traditional mediums. The Mexican muralist movement, led by figures like Diego Rivera ( 1886 – 1957) , José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros, merged social activism with artistic innovation, using murals to depict the struggles and aspirations of the working class. Rivera’s monumental frescoes, such as those in the National Palace of Mexico City, remain potent symbols of Mexican identity and resilience. 

Diego Rivera's monumental mural, "History of Mexico," stands as a masterpiece encapsulating Mexico's rich narrative from the Conquest era to the modern-day Mexican Revolution. Adorning the grand stairwell of Mexico City's National Palace, this sprawling artwork graces three expansive walls, narrating the nation's intricate journey through time. Through a captivating series of images, Rivera vividly portrays Mexico's past, present, and the promise of its future.

During the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, muralists such as Jacob Lawrence and Faith Ringgold created powerful artworks that addressed racial inequality, segregation, and the fight for civil rights. These murals served as visual protests and tools for education and mobilisation within communities.

Similarly, the street art scene that emerged in cities like Berlin, London, and Paris revolutionised muralism, bringing art out of galleries and into the public sphere. Graffiti artists like Banksy challenged conventions and pushed boundaries, using urban landscapes as their canvases to comment on politics, consumerism, and social justice issues.

Muralism, from renowned artists’ large-scale works to community-driven projects, reflects contemporary society’s diversity and concerns.   Projects like TRANSITANDO in the Dominican Republic, led by artist Croncim Dominguez, promote local art, industry, and social improvement.  

Muralism is a growing industry, offering artists opportunities to showcase talent, beautify communities, and contribute to economic development through tourism and cultural initiatives. As societies increasingly value public art for enriching urban environments and promoting social cohesion, muralism will continue expanding worldwide as a vital form of cultural expression and community engagement.

TRANSITANDO  is a sociocultural artistic project, which aims to promote Dominican art, local artistic industry and use art as a tool for social improvement. Murals were made for the projects LIVE DON BOSCO, ART IN RIO SAN JUAN AND PAINTING OUR HISTORY NEW CITY.   More than beautifying the walls, they seek to shed light on the good art of our country, unify the artists, strengthen the industry and contribute to the social, economic and tourist development of the communities and the Dominican Republic.

“Art does not change the world, but it does change people and we are the ones who can change the world.”

What you might not know about MURAL PAINTING

In mural painting, each material and technique bring its own unique characteristics, contributing to the overall aesthetic and durability of the artwork. Each of them offers its own unique properties, allowing artists to experiment and innovate in mural painting, creating captivating works that engage viewers and enrich their surroundings. Let’s delve into the use of each of these elements:

Casein Paint: Casein paint is derived from milk protein and has been used for centuries in mural painting. It offers a smooth, matte finish and excellent adhesion to various surfaces. Its quick drying time makes it suitable for fresco techniques where layers need to be applied rapidly.

Faux-marbre: Faux marble indeed has a rich history, evolving in style and technique over the centuries. In the Middle Ages, the representation of marble was more symbolic than realistic, reflecting the reverence for the material’s association with grandeur and luxury.

During the Baroque period, artists aimed for a dramatic and exaggerated effect, often transcending realism to create a sense of grandiosity and theatricality. Faux marble was used extensively in architectural and decorative elements to evoke opulence and splendour.

However, it was in the late 19th century that faux marble techniques took a significant leap forward in terms of realism. Artists began to meticulously replicate various types of marble, striving for an illusion so convincing that it could deceive the eye (trompe-l’œil). This period saw the refinement of techniques using oil paints, glazes, and careful layering to mimic the intricate patterns and textures of natural marble.

Beginning with a base glaze to establish tonal values, artists then meticulously add veining to mimic the natural variations found in marble. The careful consideration of how marble ages and reacts to environmental factors adds to the authenticity of the final product.  The application of a diluted glaze serves to enhance the depth and texture of the faux marble, creating a finish that can closely resemble the crystalline appearance of real marble. This dedication to realism continues to be appreciated in contemporary faux marble work, where artisans combine traditional techniques with modern materials to create stunning recreations of this timeless decorative art form.

Van Der Kelen School - Brussels
Faux-marbre - Van Der Kelen School

Fresco. Fresco painting dates back to ancient times. Its durability and vibrant colours have made it a favoured technique for centuries. Artists like Michelangelo and Raphael famously employed fresco in their masterpieces, showcasing its versatility and beauty. The process demands both skill and speed, as artists must work swiftly to apply pigments before the plaster dries. This challenge adds a dynamic element to the art form, with each stroke capturing a moment in the plaster’s transformation. Today, fresco continues to captivate audiences with its timeless appeal and enduring beauty.

Application du poncif, décor affresco (techniques traditionnelles de la fresque), formation Artemisia, Paris, 2023 - Photo Artemisia Formation

Gilding: Gilding involves applying thin layers of gold leaf or metallic foil to a surface. In mural painting, gilding adds a luxurious and reflective quality to specific areas of the artwork. It can be used to highlight details or create intricate designs, adding depth and richness to the composition.

Silicates: Silicate-based paints are known for their durability and longevity. When used in mural painting, they create a hard, mineral-like surface that withstands weathering and UV exposure, making them suitable for outdoor murals. Silicate paints also offer a wide range of colours and are environmentally friendly.

Pigments : The pigments, extracted from natural minerals, offer rich, vibrant colours that retain their intensity over time. In mural painting, they provide a palette of hues that evoke the natural beauty of the landscape.

Décor peint, chantier-école international (France Italie) , château de la Touche, Drôme Provençale - Photo Artemisia Formation

 

Spray paint murals have become a prominent form of artistic expression, particularly in urban environments where they often adorn walls, buildings, and public spaces. This medium offers artists a unique set of tools to convey their messages and visions, with its vibrant colours, intricate details, and bold lines. One of the key appeals of spray paint murals is their versatility. Artists can create large-scale works quickly, covering expansive surfaces with their creativity. This accessibility encourages experimentation and innovation, allowing artists to push boundaries and explore new techniques.

Furthermore, spray paint murals often serve as a platform for social and political commentary. Artists use their work to address pressing issues, raise awareness, or simply brighten up neglected areas. These murals can spark conversations, provoke thought, and inspire change within communities.

Additionally, spray paint murals offer a sense of inclusivity and accessibility to both artists and viewers. Unlike traditional gallery settings, these murals are often free and open to the public, allowing anyone to engage with and appreciate the artwork.

Overall, spray paint murals have emerged as a powerful form of expression, bridging the gap between art and the public sphere. They serve as vibrant reflections of culture, identity, and creativity, enriching the urban landscape and fostering connections between people and their surroundings.

Chantier-ecole international (Belgique France Italie) de restauration d'une fresque , Sienne, Italie (Palazzo Piccolomini) - Photo Artemisia Formation

Liquid Wallpaper made from Cellulose: Liquid wallpaper, made from cellulose fibres, is a versatile material for mural painting. It can be applied to walls using various techniques, such as spraying, rolling, or brushing, allowing for seamless integration into the mural’s design. Its textured surface adds depth and visual interest to the artwork.

Waxed Concrete: Waxed concrete, or polished concrete, is a contemporary material that lends a modern aesthetic to mural painting. Its smooth, seamless finish creates a sleek backdrop for murals, enhancing the overall visual impact. Waxed concrete is also durable and easy to maintain, making it suitable for high-traffic areas.

Wallpaper for Decorating or Inlay Purposes: Wallpaper offers a convenient way to add intricate patterns or imagery to mural painting. Whether used as a background texture or as a focal point in the composition, wallpaper provides endless design possibilities. Inlay techniques, such as collage or decoupage, allow artists to incorporate wallpaper seamlessly into their murals, creating visually stunning effects.

Trompe l’oeil: Translated from French, it means “deceive the eye” is the painting technique used to create optical illusions that trick the eye into perceiving painted objects as three-dimensional. Artists employ realistic imagery and perspective to make flat surfaces appear to have depth and dimension. This technique has been used throughout art history, from ancient times to the present day, in various forms such as murals, ceiling paintings, and still-life compositions.

Trompe-l'oeil - Painted decor inspired by the allegory of Artemisia Gentileschi's painting Paris, headquarters of the Artemisia school

Related resources

Guidebook: Crafts Youth Future Engagement (CYFE)

GUIDEBOOK This guidebook was produced in the context of the Erasmus+ project Crafts Youth Future…

UNDERSTANDING SILK HERITAGE

A FOCUS ON ITALY Silk has always been present in human history, and the economic…

The healing power of crafts

The tragic conflict in Ukraine has been evolving for more than one year. We wish…

May 18, 2023 – World “Vyshyvanka” Day

  In Ukraine this day became a real holiday of national unity, and an attention…

Invite a friend