A stunning mural created in a Catholic church by a Jewish refugee from the Nazis has been saved from destruction, decay and vandalism after being Grade II listed by the British government.
The Crucifixion, by the leading artist of the 20th century George Mayer-Martonis a rare combination of mosaic and fresco almost 8 meters high, occupying an entire wall inside Holy Rosary Church in Oldham.
A two-year campaign to protect the mural, led by the artist’s great-nephew Nick Braithwaite, has gained urgency after the artwork was damaged following acts of vandalism in recent weeks.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport has listed the mural – described by V&A director Tristram Hunt as “dazzlingly beautiful” – and the church on the advice of Historic England.
The Historic England report states: “The mural is highly unusual and perhaps unique in this country in its striking aesthetic combination of Neo-Baroque mosaic and Modernist Cubist-influenced fresco inventively applied to traditional Christian iconography in a deeply personal evocation of suffering and redemption. ”
He also praised “the transcendent spiritual nature of Christ…enhanced by the use of shimmering mosaic for the figure and the gilded mandorla, contrasting with the figures of Mary and St John in a bound monochrome blue fresco To the earth”.
He added that it was “a major work in[Mayer-Marton’soeuvremuchofwhichhasbeenlostThequalityofexecutionandcraftsmanshipissuperbcreatingapieceofconsiderablepower”[l’œuvredeMayer-MartondontunegrandepartieaétéperdueLaqualitéd’exécutionetdesavoir-faireestsuperbecréantunepièced’unepuissanceconsidérable[Mayer-Marton’soeuvremuchofwhichhasbeenlostThequalityofexecutionandcraftsmanshipissuperbcreatingapieceofconsiderablepower”
The mural, created in 1955, is one of only two ecclesiastical murals by Mayer-Marton to have survived in situ. The stone and glass tesserae representation of Jesus on the cross is flanked by frescoes of Mary and Saint John, which were painted in the 1980s by a local priest.
Mayer-Marton, a Hungarian Jew, was an important figure in the Viennese art world of the interwar period. But in 1938, following the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany – he fled to the UK. After he left, a decree was issued by the Nazis declaring him expelled from the National Chamber of Fine Arts because investigations had shown that he “did not possess the commitment and reliability necessary to promote German culture”.
He settled in St John’s Wood, north London, but his studio containing his life’s work was destroyed in the blitz. After the war, he taught at the Liverpool College of Art, established a wall decoration department and took commissions for murals in Catholic churches and schools. One of these, The Pentecost, is on display in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral.
In 2017 the Roman Catholic Diocese of Salford closed the Holy Rosary and over 20 other churches as part of a restructuring. The building was used as a store.
Nigel Huddleston, the Heritage Minister, said: ‘This magnificent fresco in the Church of the Holy Rosary deserves Grade II listing. This will protect the one-of-a-kind mural and serve as an important reminder for future generations of Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton’s escape from Nazi persecution.
Braithwaite said he was delighted with the entry. “I now look forward to seeing the necessary steps taken properly to secure the church and preserve George Mayer-Marton’s masterpiece for the enjoyment and inspiration of future generations.”
Marcus Binney, executive chairman of Save Britain’s Heritage, which has backed the campaign to have the mural inscribed, said the decision ‘avoids the possible loss of a major religious work which has caused enormous concern around the world of art and beyond”.