David Mayernik’s San Cresci Cycle

by Matthew Alderman, appearing in Volume 19

While new construction is a significant aspect of the present revival of ecclesiastical architecture and design, the enrichment of existing churches is equally important. While many churches have elected to undo the infelicitous renovations of past decades in recent years, the fresco cycle recently completed by David Maynernik at the historic parish church of San Cresci in Valcava, Tuscany, shows that modern classicism can help make an ancient, time-mellowed Romanesque church even more beautiful than before.

According to the mandates of standard literature on the subject, I am at this point contractually obligated to describe buon fresco as a dead art brought back to life in recent decades. Mayernik’s grasp of both classical technique form and the lively intellectual framework that undergirds it, means his work is far more than mere archaeology. His work stands within a living tradition, as all classicism should. An architect, author, and associate professor at Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, he studied fresco in Florence in the late 1980s under master Leonetto Tintori, honing his further skills with an intense program of self-study and practice. His frescoes grace not only San Cresci but locations such as the American School in Switzerland (also known as TASIS, a campus he planned and designed), the library of the American Academy in Rome, and the church of San Tomasso in Agra, Switzerland.

Inside the Church of San Cresci. Photo: Alberto Pini

The San Cresci frescoes are located in the church’s winter chapel. The project began life in the form of a monumental crucifix intended to complete a set of two images of the Apostle John and the Virgin which had originally been cut from a larger painting of the crucifixion. Mayernik wrote of his work in an article in Traditional Building, “My solution … preserved the historical integrity of the paintings while completing their narrative logic.” Originally intended to stand above the chapel’s high altar, the proposed image was relocated to a lateral wall after an eighteenth-century fresco of the Annunciation was discovered underneath the whitewash. This new location required the removal of an existing fresco depicting the martyrdom of the church’s namesake. Mayernik proposed to replace the old fresco with a cycle of five oval images, to be set in trompe-l’œil baroque frames, depicting the saint’s life.

Saint Cresci is freed from prison in Florence. Photo: Alberto Pini

In summer 2002, Mayernik painted the crucifixion while students from the same school at which he had studied fresco labored over the restoration of the Annunciation. The labor of the fresco artist is quick and brutal—each day’s work, or giornata, must be perfect, or otherwise chipped out and started over from scratch. The artist commented to Notre Dame Magazine in 2010 that fresco is “battling a wall. You are tied to that wall for eight or nine straight hours because the plaster is going to dry when it wants to, not when you want it to. You have to plan how much you think you can get done in a day and then do it.” Mayernik completed the crucifixion in four grueling giornate. The remaining images in the cycle were done over a series of summers beginning in 2003.

The five scenes describe the last days of Saint Cresci and his companions. The wall facing the crucifixion includes three scenes, from the angelic liberation of Saint Cresci, (reminiscent of the liberation of Peter) to Saint Cresci’s cure of the daughter of the prison warden Ognone and their baptism.

Saint Cresci cures the daughter of Ognone the prison warden, and Saint Cresci baptizes Ognone and his family. Photo: Alberto Pini

The Cycle continues on either side of the crucifixion, and is thematically linked to it, with the images of the beheading of Cresci, Ognone and Emptius for refusing to sacrifice to the pagan idols. The final scene near the altar depicts Cerbone re-intering the head of the three martyrs and founding the site of the present church. Mayernik completed he final image in 2010.

The beheading of Cresci, Ognone, and Emptius, and Cerbone re-interring the heads of three martyrs. Photo: Alberto Pini

The proper integration of art within contemporary church design—whatever the style—is often lost in the shuffle of budgets, committees, and fundraising. Mayernik’s organic fusion of fresco and architecture in his designs shows this need not be the case. Mayernik is quoted as speaking of frescoes and iconography as essential to making classical design meaningful: “Architecture itself is not all that articulate. It’s limited in content, much like music. Frescos are the lyrics. That’s why they were traditionally considered the pinnacle of painting. They were large, they were public, and they were expected to convey important messages.” Mayernik’s lyrical, elegant, intellectual yet accessible frescoes only prove that reports of the death of fresco has been greatly exaggerated.