CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Curator's Project

Mural Painting in Medieval Frisian Churches

March, 2023

In 2022, as a part of the CODART 23 congress, we offered a full-day excursion to several churches in the province of Groningen. Unfortunately, this excursion eventually could not take place. Now, we are pleased to be able to offer our members and other readers insight into the extraordinary heritage in the Groninger churches via a CODARTfeature.


The fame of early Netherlandish painting rests – quite understandably – on altarpieces, devotional images, and portraits, scattered in museums all over the world. In the same period, however, there was also a huge production of murals. Some of the most renowned artists of the period, such as Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden, are known to have also made murals.1 Nevertheless, mural painting in the North was never as important as it was in Italy, from Giotto to Tiepolo – although the latter’s masterpiece in this field is the Residenz in Würzburg. Art history scholars have never focused intensely on mural painting the way they have on canvas and panel paintings. Of course, murals are more inaccessible: to see them, you have to travel to numerous churches, some of them in remote places.

The fate of mural painting after the Reformation

Thanks to restorations in the decades since the Second World War in medieval Frisia – roughly comprising the current Dutch provinces of Friesland and Groningen, as well as the neighboring region of Ostfriesland in Germany – an abundance of mural paintings has come to light in many a medieval church that was refurbished around 1600 according to the demands of the Calvinist branch of Protestantism.

Usually executed in secco technique, mural painting in the North, unlike Italian fresco painting, is rather fragile. In a fortunate turn of irony, the iconoclastic Reformation’s vigorous whitewashing program helped to preserve many murals. Still, we should bear in mind that the iconoclasm of 1566 was a fairly isolated event. Once the Reformation had been firmly established in the Northern regions, altars and statues were removed, but covering painted images took far more time than destroying them – and was apparently carried out during regular maintenance work and redecoration of the church buildings.

This explains how it was possible for the itinerant Jesuit priest Franciscus Mijleman, writing in 1642, to describe his great joy at having seen the vault paintings in the chapel of the Virgin Mary in the church at Loppersum – paintings that would not be rediscovered until the 1930s.2 In the Akerk in Groningen the paintings could probably be seen until the western nave vault collapsed in 1671 following a lightning strike that destroyed the tower. It appears that while the church was being reconstructed, all the nave and transept vaults were whitewashed afresh. The vault paintings resurfaced in 1975, when comprehensive repairs were undertaken.

Rediscovery and restoration

Once murals are uncovered and restored, ongoing and careful monitoring is paramount if they are to be preserved. In specific cases, such as the church of Eilsum in the Krummhörn municipality in Ostfriesland, it has been established that right from the start, that is, the second half of the thirteenth century, the physical conditions for the apse decoration – a monumental Maiestas Domini – were unfavorable. In consequence, modern restorers have encountered enormous problems in preserving it.3

On the other hand, exposing to light murals that have survived for centuries in a protective microclimate may put their further survival at risk. In the early 1970s, in St. Martin’s Church in Groningen, a fragment was discovered of a rare image of the Virgin Mary on Solomon’s throne, dating from the third quarter of the fourteenth century. Exposed to sunlight radiating through the large windows of the south aisle, it has gradually but irretrievably faded into a shadow of its appearance just a few decades ago.

Such mundane conditions remind us that these murals were not originally intended to last for all eternity. In fact, they were devotional and didactic images that could be discarded in response to changes in religious attitudes, or simply because they were outdated.4 In larger churches, such as the two parish churches of Groningen, several layers of decoration have been uncovered, each from a different period. This set off a complicated decision-making process: what should be preserved for visitors’ eyes? A common outcome in such cases is a potpourri of images from different periods in different styles, which is not just utterly ahistorical but in many instances aesthetically unconvincing as well.

For these reasons, it is not automatically the case that every mural whose existence is suspected – or even discovered – leads to the work being permanently uncovered and restored. Provided the plaster layers are sound, for the time being, it is left to posterity to decide what to do. A similar approach has become standing practice in archaeology: only if a site is in imminent danger, from work such as a building project or hydraulic engineering, is it decided to start excavation.

The oldest murals

Very few murals have survived from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. In general, however, they are superior in terms of artistic quality to the bulk of murals dating from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. For instance, the small church of Britsum contains superb fragments dating from the mid-thirteenth century that were discovered during restoration in the late 1990s (fig. 1). Their iconography was reconstructed as a Passion cycle, allegorically linked to Old Testament figures in the manner of the Dialogus de laudibus sanctae crucis. The probable point of reference for both iconography and style is Lower Saxony.5 Another example is a series of apostles in an arcade on the triumphal arch of the church in Noordlaren, dating from around 1300 (fig. 2). This mural too displays a close affinity to German art, more specifically to Cologne, possibly linked through Utrecht.6

3. St. Peter and Paul’s Church, Loppersum, western bay Virgin chapel: <em>Presentation in the Temple</em>, late 1490s<br>Photo: A.J. van der Wal, 1991, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Amersfoort, 289.129

3. St. Peter and Paul’s Church, Loppersum, western bay Virgin chapel: Presentation in the Temple, late 1490s
Photo: A.J. van der Wal, 1991, Rijksdienst voor het Cultureel Erfgoed, Amersfoort, 289.129

Fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century murals

The affinity to German art described above continues to apply to mural painters active in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, as is corroborated by the few names that have come down to us. In the 1490s, the above-mentioned chapel of the Virgin Mary in Loppersum was decorated with a Marian program, focusing on feasts in her honor (fig. 3).7 For some of these images German prints may have provided the models. In another case, an image is enclosed in an architectural frame that is likewise typical of prints.

Prints have also been identified in the case of the extended cycle from the 1530s that depicts a Nativity and a Passion cycle, as well as a Last Supper, in the chancel of St. Martin’s in Groningen (fig. 4). In this case, however, some of the images have a distinctly Italian origin. The Last Supper is an adaptation – altered to fit the narrow space of a niche – of a print by Marcantonio Raimondi after Raphael (fig. 5). 8 The late Gothic overall style of the painter – or rather, group of painters, given the enormous size of this commission – reflects a familiarity with the work of Dürer, among others, in the rendering of the costumes.

More directly inspired by a Dürer print is the Pentecost scene in St. Hippolytus’ Church in Middelstum, also from the mid-1530s (figs. 6 and 7). It is part of a concise cycle on the crossing vault, culminating in the Last Judgment. The paintings were discovered in the 1970s, and unfortunately suffered considerable damage from earthquakes, caused by decades of natural gas extraction in this region. The vaults and paintings were restored last year. Sadly, many more medieval churches in Groningen suffer earthquake damage. Monitoring and restoring will therefore be necessary for many years ahead. Luckily, the Groningen Historic Churches Foundation, into whose care a hundred old churches are entrusted, is well equipped for this task. Cracks in the masonry of the vaults can be remediated, the loss of painted fragments cannot be undone, though.

Where did the painters come from?

Whereas in Italy, and to some extent in the Southern Netherlands, panel painters and illuminators also produced murals, further North these genres or fields appear to have been almost completely separate. This may in part be attributable to socio-economic factors. Artists who specialized in murals used to travel widely, from one commission to the next. In Sleen, the painter signed his work in the vault: ‘broder Joan van Aken’. The same name occurs in the vault in Sellingen.9 In 1571 a contract was signed with ‘meester Johan Heveskesbeke’ to redecorate the Akerk in Groningen. This artist, who had grown up in Havixbeck near Münster, became a burgher of Groningen in 1561.10

Most of these artists must have operated largely outside the guild system, for this was connected to single towns. Town-based guilds held no power in rural areas. The downside of this seems to have been a sort of artistic hierarchy, in which lesser talents were assigned to murals. To this very day this seems to have resulted in a certain lack of scholarly interest. This is unfortunate: the mentality of an age is reflected not just in its highest artistic achievements but possibly even more in the work of the many minor artists who shaped the religious imagination of the common people. It is very much to the credit of G.J. Hoogewerff that he was one of the first to recognize this state of affairs. In consequence, in the first two volumes of his Noord-Nederlandsche schilderkunst, he gives these modest artists their due.

Kees van der Ploeg is an architectural historian. Until his retirement in 2021 he taught architectural history at the University of Groningen and Radboud University in Nijmegen.

1 Marjan Buyle and Anna Bergmans, Middeleeuwse muurschilderingen in Vlaanderen, Brussels 1994, 50.
2 A. Pathuis, ‘Het handschrift “Ommelands Eer” van pater Franciscus Mijleman, S.J., Missionaris der Ommelanden 1639-1667’, Archief voor de Geschiedenis van de Katholieke Kerk in Nederland 7 (1965), 1-110, here 58.
3 Peter Königfeld, ‘Die Kirche in Krummhörn-Eilsum und ihre romanischen Wandmalereien. Aktuelle Erhaltungsmaßnahmen an einem bedeutendem Kunstdenkmal’, in Rolf-Jürgen Grote and Kees van der Ploeg (eds.), Wandmalerei in Niedersachsen, Bremen und im Groningerland. Fenster in die Vergangenheit, 2 vols., Munich and Berlin 2001, vol. 2 (essays), 399-406.
4 This highly pragmatic approach is to be found virtually everywhere during the Middle Ages. For Siena and Florence this is well documented; see Bruce Cole, ‘Old in New in the Early Trecento’, Mitteilungen des Kunsthistorischen Institutes in Florenz 17 (1973), 229-248.
5 Emanuel Klinkenberg, ‘The Medieval Mural Paintings in the Dutch Reformed Church at Britsum: A Reflection of Frisian Crusade Participation’, in Anne-Maria J. van Egmond and Claudine A. Chavannes-Mazel (eds.), Medieval Art in the Northern Netherlands before Van Eyck, Utrecht 2014, 40-57, 201-204.
6 Kees van der Ploeg, ‘Apostelen en Apocalyps in de kerk van Noordlaren’, Groninger Kerken 39 (2022), 6-23.
7 C.A. Chavannes-Mazel and C. van Tuyll van Serooskerken, ‘De gewelfschilderingen van de Mariakapel te Loppersum’, Publicaties Stichting Oude Groninger kerken, nr. 8 (1972), 121-152.
8 Jan Schoneveld, ‘Muurschilderingen in de Martinikerk. Groningse schilderkunst en de Europese traditie’, Akt kunsttijdschrift 10 (1986), 62-97; id., ‘Muurschilderingen in het koor van de Martinikerk te Groningen: Een wereldgeschiedenis op de muur’, Groningse Volksalmanak. Historisch Jaarboek voor Groningen 1988, 7-38.
9 G.J. Hoogewerff, De Noord-Nederlandsche schilderkunst, vol. 1, The Hague 1936, 308 (Sleen), 330 (Sellingen).
10 R. Meischke, ‘Het kleurenschema van de middeleeuwse kerkinterieurs van Groningen’, Bulletin van de Koninklijke Nederlandsche Oudheidkundige Bond 65 (1966), 57-91, here 87-89.