You might be unaware that there are two historically significant sites located just 30 minutes from our campus. Saint Mary’s Episcopal Church and Holy Trinity Episcopal Church are two of the quaintest little country churches imaginable, and they are both located in Ashe County, North Carolina – just over the state line from our boarding school campus in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia. One may never guess the stunning and artistically important works that these two churches house. Here exist some of the only examples of the historical painting technique known as “pure fresco” found outside Italy. You may remember studying the technique in a college art class – Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and works by Raphael are famous examples from the High Renaissance in Italy where the ancient technique (developed by the Egyptians!) was kept alive. Here in the United States, the only examples of this Italian technique are those by North Carolina artist, Ben Long. In the 1960s, Mr. Long studied fresco painting in Italy with the few remaining masters. Upon his return to the U.S., he approached many North Carolina churches to create a fresco. Not many people are familiar with the technique (more on this later) and he didn’t have any takers. Thankfully, two affiliated churches in our area took him up on the offer in the early 1970s. Many modern-day art historians consider these works of art “masterpieces,” for their quality and rarity. And we are fortunate to have them in our backyard!
Oak Hill Academy faculty member, Rev. Doug Turnmire, has been taking his “Bible as Literature” and “Survey of World Religions” classes to visit these churches for many years. Combining religious storytelling, imagery and unadulterated artistic wonder, the frescoes found in Ashe County always impress his students. I recently accompanied his classes on a visit, and the level of engagement and reverence from these students was memorable. They saw, first-hand and up close, examples of the pure fresco technique, usually not possible outside Europe, that put their class discussions into a new framework. The story of the Last Supper, the Passion of Christ, the Ascension of Christ, and the image of a pregnant Virgin Mary are all depicted in Long’s fresco works in these two tiny sanctuaries. As the students lingered before these murals, the discussion was lively and connections from class were made with the works in front of them.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the experience was seeing the way these works, created with such a complex process, have held up over the decades. In fact, the images have become more vibrant over time. Pure fresco is done within the wall itself. The artist introduces pigments directly into wet plaster and uses no man-made paint products, only natural minerals. Two interesting facts are obvious as one looks at the fresco murals. First, the artist can only complete a small part of the work at a time, racing the clock before the plaster dries – this is what separates a “pure” fresco from a standard mural. The “day lines” reveal this as each day’s section is slightly demarcated from the next day’s work. Second, the brilliance of the murals is surprising knowing that they are more than 40 years old. The natural minerals used for coloration actually become brighter as the plaster cures over time.
A pregnant Virgin Mary appears above. A local resident was used as the model for artist Ben Long.
(Photos courtesy of Sam Fryling, ’17)
The Last Supper is featured behind the altar at Holy Trinity Episcopal Church at Glendale Springs in Ashe County, NC. The “day lines” are most visible in this work, and artist Ben Long makes a cameo appearance in the lower right corner. Photo taken from the Ashe County Frescoes Foundation website.