A Historical Continuity: Research into and Conservation of the Medieval Doors of Split Cathedral

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Žana Matulić Bilač examining parts of the door in the Croatian Conservation Institute, Dept of Split workshop, Image courtesy by Tom Dubravec

By Žana Matulić Bilač

A cycle of lectures was recently held to celebrate the 805th birthday of the monumental wooden doors of Split Cathedral, installed by Andrija Buvina, pictor de Spaleto (as one 13th-century reference calls him), on St George’s Day, 1214, in the frame of the ancient portal of Diocletian’s Mausoleum, which in the Early Middle Ages became Split Cathedral.

This also marked the conclusion of the five-year-long conservation-restoration project of the Croatian Conservation Institute and the Ministry of Culture of the Republic of Croatia, presented last year to the public in an international multimedia exhibition and conference. Adding to the contributions of the conservator and principal researcher Žana Matulić Bilač (Croatian Conservation Institute), scholarly consultant Joško Belamarić (Institute of Art History), expert consultant Charles Indekeu (University of Antwerp) and artistic consultant Mladen Čulić (University of Split), the project has included another twenty academic and scholarly papers from various disciplines, which have significantly advanced the understanding of the medieval heritage of Dalmatia within its European context.

The programme was intended at the start as a simple review of the current condition and a surface cleaning of the doors to mark the 8th centennial of their existence (this being the first intervention after the major renovation by Max Dvoŕàk, Frane Bulić and Antonin Švimberský in1908). However, right in the early phase of the work, conducted entirely in situ, a comparison of the current condition and the state before the 1908 renovation revealed a number of new questions. In the extensive early-20th-century restoration operations, the monumental wooden doors were treated with a series of materials, the greater part of their original physical and chemical properties thus being lost. Great importance is attached to the discovery of as many as 65 original segments of the doors, found in the stores of the Archaeological and Split City Museum. In the 1908 operation they were sawn off and replaced with new carvings. This has made possible detailed technical research into the poly-chromy and authentic properties of the original wooden material, traces of the carpentry and carving tools (23 types of tools were distinguished), the techniques of wood working and painting, as well as a number of historical modifications to the doors. What was at first a conservation programme then took on the character of an integrated scientific research programme, expanded to include all works in wood in 13th-century Split. This led us in new directions, researching the history of Dalmatian wooden heritage from Late Antiquity to the Early Baroque through analysis of woodworking tools from various Dalmatian museums. A database of these traces was constructed using examples from the time, the oldest of which are the carved and painted oak roof beams from St Donatus’ in Zadar, dating from the end of the 8th century.

The gradual but systematic replacement of wooden houses and structures with stone houses and protective ramparts in Dalmatian towns has informed our perception and image of a stone Dalmatia, with its string of coastal towns (several of them on the UNESCO World Heritage List), from Dubrovnik, Split, Trogir, Zadar and Šibenik, and the system of coastal fortifications that protected them. Before that time, these cities were built using dense local oak, fir and spruce woods from which (together with the poplar, maple and walnut or Juglans regia—for which the native area of growth ended somewhere on the western edge of today’s Croatia—as well as other cultivated woody species) their works of art were also made. To this new understanding, we can add data telling of the rich tradition of shipbuilding and the timber trade. A number of travel writers have described the ancient eastern shores of the Adriatic, in complete contrast to today’s mainly denuded, steep and craggy mountains onto which the Dalmatia coastline abuts, as covered in shade, particularly around the short and shallow mouths of the rivers that issued in rapids not far from the foot of the limestone cliffs.

In Split, the 13th century was a golden age of historical prosperity. Yet, that era of its artistic heritage includes only nine surviving monuments in wood which is a very small number in comparison to the postulated original corpus, and so new data are all the more precious.

The monumental doors of Andrija Buvina (526 x 356 x 13 cm, about 1,300 kg) are constructed of 380 separate elements of oak and walnut, once held together with almost 1,000 metal and wooden nails; only a few of these nails are extant, having been replaced in the renovation with brass screws (restoration dossiers from 1908 descovered and publised in 2010 by Franko Ćorić, University of Zagreb). The wholly carved surface (about 19 square metres) is divided into 28 fields with reliefs showing the Life of Christ, from the Annunciation to the Ascension. Comparisons with the oldest photographic records from the end of the 19th century show the later deformation of the original hand of the carver and the complete removal of the original polychromy in 1908. After research into the construction of the joints and the remaining particles of paint, the original appearance of the doors can indeed be conjured up today, but only with virtual media. The discovery and analysis of tiny particles of the original polychromy under the deposits of secondary layers—the oldest known remnants on carved and painted wood in Dalmatia—have made possible an understanding of the pattern of the original painting. These findings have allowed the creation of a virtual reconstruction (Mladen Čulić), putting before us a suggestive image of the doors’ complete original appearance. The identified palette of pigments originally applied to the doors has been added to the previously established palette known to have been used on early medieval stone sculpture and 13th-century paintings on panel and wall surfaces.

We are currently bringing together papers from two international conferences held at the beginning and at the conclusion of the conservation-restoration project, and we are rounding up the analysis of a very worthwhile corpus of data. This body of new research constitutes, for us, a new platform upon which information is being collated through the newly compiled database which includes analyses of wood, tooling marks, working techniques, the pigments database, painting techniques and various technical data about the work.

Today we can network all this information with the current research on several other equally important monuments, such as the 6th-century wooden doors of Saint Sabina in Rome and the 11th-century Saint Mary’s in the Capitol in Cologne. The synthesis of several years of research into Buvina’s doors will be summed up at the end of 2019 in a doctoral dissertation aimed at including an informational technology database that will be integrated into the broader existing medieval polychrome wooden sculpture scientific and technical database.

You can access the project publication, “Wooden Romanesque Doors of the Split Cathedral: Research, Conservation and Protection”, using this link: http://www.h-r-z.hr/images/stories/godina_bastine/buvina_publikacija.pdf


Žana Matulić Bilač is a consultant conservator-restorer at the Croatian Conservation Institute and an associate professor at the Department for Conservation-Restoration of the Arts Academy in Split. Žana specializes in the conservation of paintings on canvas and wood and polychrome wooden sculptures. She has supervised and worked on various conservation, preventive, and research projects all over Croatia and is actively involved in presenting, exhibiting, and writing multidisciplinary studies about her work. zmatulic@h-r-z.hr

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A cycle of lectures was recently held to celebrate the 805th birthday of the monumental wooden doors of Split Cathedral, installed by Andrija Buvina, pictor de Spaleto (as one 13th-century reference calls him), on St George’s Day, 1214, in the frame of the ancient portal of Diocletian’s Mausoleum, which in the Early Middle Ages became Split Cathedral.
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