The 13th century mural paintings in the chapter house of the Villanueva de Sijena monastery, in the province of Huesca, are considered by many to be the Sistine Chapel of Romanesque art; some works that in August 1936 were practically destroyed by a fire caused in the first weeks of the Civil War. The high temperature of the fire, over 1,000 degrees for several days, destroyed the Mudejar coffered ceilings and completely destroyed half of these paintings. The rest – it is considered that, of the total, only 18% are original and 32% is a reintegration – was weakened and lost the colors gold, red and lapis lazuli and with them, and irreversibly, all its splendor. Torn off the walls, in an operation directed by the Generalitat of Catalonia, they were transferred to Barcelona, where they were restored and ended up installed in the National Museum of Art of Catalonia (MNAC), where they continue to be exhibited in a room that reproduces the arches and the dimensions of the original.
These paintings, the reason for the judicial confrontation between Catalonia and Aragon, which has always considered that the safeguarding work after the fire was a pillage and that demands their return to the monastery, star in the documentary Sigena’s dream, directed by Jesus Garcés Lambert (Caravaggio, in body and soul and Amazing Leonardo), which will hit theaters on November 9 after premiering this Saturday at the Seminci in Valladolid.
Sigena’s dream tells the story of Juan Naya, a native of Villanueva de Sijena, who happened to find a book in Barcelona in 2007 that reproduced these paintings in black and white before suffering the fire. Since then, he has not stopped looking for a way to recover them.
The documentary, which lasts 106 minutes and is produced by Naya himself, Xavier Atance, BNC Productions and Dreamdigital Creative Works, with the participation of RTVE, narrates in a dreamlike way Naya’s memories when her grandparents told her about the monastery before its destruction and the real journey of this former NASA astrophysicist and current CEO of the Catalan ISDIN laboratory looking for people who could help him carry out his “project”: historians specializing in Romanesque, restorers, digital artists and artisans.
Naya, who tells the story in the first person, assures that her research led her to discover the colored watercolors made by students of Puig i Cadafalch on an excursion in 1918 kept at the MNAC; the photographs of that excursion and those made in 1936 by the architect Josep Gudiol before the paintings burned, when all this material was known. The discovery of the enormous links of these paintings with Anglo-Saxon works such as the miniatures of The Winchester Bible, something that specialists such as Montserrat Pagés. Another expert, the restorer Rosa Gasol, has studied the original color palette of these paintings in his works.
In the documentary, a voice in off assures that the 1936 fire was caused by the Catalan anarchist militias, as many in Aragon defend, but it ignores the testimony of residents of Sijena and documents such as those of the General Cause in which, with names and surnames, appear the people of Sijena accused of being the authors of the fire. The film makes no mention of the litigation between Catalonia and Aragon, as Naya’s project is only aimed at finding a way to restore the original color and appearance to those magnificent battered paintings.
What the film does provide is the solution to this confrontation. And he does so after verifying that the restored paintings were installed in arches created to be exhibited at the MNAC, which do not have the same length and curvature as those of the original chapter house; For this reason, these works, which went from being frescoes to being canvases, have a difficult fit in the room of the Sijena monastery.
After discarding the possibilities of gel paper, which has given such good results in other wall paintings that have disappeared or emigrated to museums, “for looking like a chrome”, Naya discovers the virtual recreation of the hand of the igualadino Albert Burzon, author, among others, of the successful digital recovery and mapping Sant Climent de Taüll, who has returned visits to this place to see what the church was like in the 12th century, despite the fact that its interior is now empty and without paintings such as the famous Christ in Majesty of Taüll; one of the most recognized Romanesque works by all, which is the main Romanesque piece exhibited at the MNAC as well.
Starting from the photos from 1936, Burzon recreates the paintings, as if he were a 13th century artist, starting from a base color to which he then adds lights and shadows, later the whites and black profiles with different digital brushes to finish with the wall textures.
Naya has rebuilt, hand in hand with the craftsman from Úbeda Paco Luis Martos, one of the 12 coffered ceilings of the chapter house, which have also ended up passing through Burzon’s computer; a digital work that has already received awards, such as the Spain for the dissemination of Cultural Heritage in 2019.
The enormous 12-year effort carried out by Naya wants to culminate in a 3D virtual reality experience where the viewer can contemplate the beauty of the original paintings. Also can walk inside the chapter house at the time of maximum splendor of the building founded in 1188 by Queen Sancha de Castilla, wife of Alfonso II of Aragon, for the order of San Juan de Jerusalem, some nuns who left the monastery in the years seventy of the last century not to return.
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.