I’ve never professed to be an art expert – what I know about art (other than knowing what I like) could be written on the bristles of a paintbrush. I have a very rudimentary, non-technical idea of what a fresco is but had never heard of a fresco-secco. And I’d certainly never heard of mixing lime and cheese (specifically that cheese that is found in a túró rudi) and dye to get paint!
Back in 1994, when artist Patay László (1932-2002) was preparing to paint a fresco-secco in the Catholic church of St John the Baptist in Ráckeve, he used 170 kg of tehén túró cheese when mixing his paints. I resisted a childish temptation to lick the walls and see if any of the taste remained. It took one year of dedicated work during which Patay painted 245 faces and his team of volunteers filled in the rest. About 600 square meters of walls space is now home to a glorious feast of colour, blending beautifully with the baroque paintings and the glitter and gold that are features of Catholic church decor worldwide.
With a population of 9000 people, about 70% of those living in Ráckeve are Catholic. The local church made a smart move in its day when it agreed to open a Catholic school on condition that all parents attended mass with their children each Sunday. Of the four regular Sunday masses, two are more than half-full and the other two have standing room only. I doubt many visitors get any prayers said as there is so much to see.
The fresco moves from Adam and Eve in the garden right through to hell and damnation. The seven deadly sins are featured as are the twelve Apostles, and the three virtues of Catholicism (faith, hope and charity). Everywhere you turn you see something new, something different. Tilting your head back and looking up towards the ceiling brings a rush of blood that is further exacerbated by the vision of what’s looking down on you.
Up till now, the only time I’ve come across the word ‘secco’ is on a bottle of sparkling wine. I knew it meant ‘dry’ but I hadn’t realised that a fresco-secco is one that is painted on a dry wall. Whereas other frescos are painted on freshly plastered wet walls. You learn something new every day. Of all the scenes depicted by Patay, the one that really hooked me was of the four horses of the apocalypse. Very eerie and yet very beautiful.
While preparing the walls for the fresco (the whole process, by the way, was overseen by someone from the Vatican who was there to ensure that everything was depicted accurately and in keeping with the teachings of the Catholic church – a project manager with a difference!) they came across evidence that it had been painted on before. I wonder whose decision it was to go ahead and continue painting rather than strip the walls and see what lay underneath. My curiosity would have killed me so I know what I’d have decided. If you’re in the area, St John the Baptist’s is worth a visit. From Budapest, take the #6 hév from Vágóhíd (at the end trams 2 and 24) and it’s about a 75-minute journey.