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Push underway to save UK church mural made by Jewish artist who escaped Nazis

‘The Crucifixion,’ by Hungary-born George Mayer-Marton, has been left on a disused wall of Church of the Holy Rosary; now his great-nephew is hoping to see it preserved

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

'The Crucifixion' mural in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham by artist George Mayer-Marton. (Estate of George Mayer-Marton)
'The Crucifixion' mural in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham by artist George Mayer-Marton. (Estate of George Mayer-Marton)

Conservation activists in Britain are campaigning to save a church mural created by a Jewish artist who escaped from the Nazis that has been damaged by a priest’s dubious decoration.

George Mayer-Marton was commissioned to create “The Crucifixion” mural for the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham, a town that is part of Greater Manchester in northern England. It was completed in 1955.

Efforts to preserve the piece were given a boost after Mayer-Marton’s great-nephew Nick Braithwaite was able to determine that paint damage to part of the mural can be removed, restoring it to a complete work, the Save Britain’s Heritage group told The Times of Israel in an email Wednesday.

The eight-meter-high stone and glass depiction of Jesus is flanked by two frescoes of Mary and St. John. With the church boarded up and and not in use, activists fear it could be demolished or sold. It is one of only two ecclesiastical murals by Mayer-Marton that have survived in their original place.

A 2017 request to have the mural listed as official UK heritage was turned down “because it was believed to be only partially intact,” Save Britain’s Heritage director, Henrietta Billings, wrote in an email.

“However, now it has been revealed that the fresco element of the mural is in fact beneath the emulsion paint, and can, according to conservators, be successfully restored,” Billings said. “Our main concern is that the mural is saved from demolition or potential vandalism or neglect. SAVE would like to see the mural retained if possible in the church — failing that, a good new home for the complete piece.”

In August, Braithwaite, with the support of SAVE, resubmitted a listing request to Historic England, a government body tasked with preserving the country’s history and heritage, asking that the mural be listed as a protected work of art.

Undated photo of artist George Mayer-Morton working at his desk in Vienna. (Estate of George Mayer-Marton)

The paint problem was caused during the 1980s when a priest painted over the two frescoes, apparently during an attempt to smarten up the inside of the church, Braintwaite told the Guardian newspaper in a story published Sunday.

“The less said about that, the better,” said Braithwaite, who described the mural, which he has seen firsthand, as “very overpowering because of its size and sense of the sublime.”

Mayer-Marton was a Hungarian Jew who made a name for himself in the inter-war Viennese art world. He fled Austria after Germany annexed the country and was able to obtain a visa for the UK.

The Nazis later decreed him barred from the National Chamber of the Fine Arts, saying he “did not possess the necessary commitment and reliability to promote German culture,” the report said.

In Britain, he set himself up in the St. John’s Wood area of north London, but his studio was hit during the blitz, destroying his life’s work. After the war he taught at Liverpool College of Art and took on mural commissions in church and schools. One of them, “The Pentecost,” is on display in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

The Holy Rosary was closed in 2017 as part of a restructuring plan by the local Roman Catholic diocese.

“It came as a great shock to me,” Braithwaite told the Guardian. “We made submissions to the diocese not to close the church and to guarantee that the mural would not be destroyed, but there were no guarantees.”

The building is currently being used for storage. It is in danger of damage from leaking water “and there’s always the threat of vandalism,” he said.

‘The Crucifixion’ mural in the Church of the Holy Rosary in Oldham by artist George Mayer-Marton. (Estate of George Mayer-Marton)

“Since the closure of the Church of the Holy Rosary in 2017, protecting George Mayer-Marton’s rare work of art has been of paramount importance to us,” the diocese of Salford said in a statement to the Guardian. “We have taken action to improve the security of the building to ensure the safety of the work and have cooperated with parties who have shown an interest in it.”

The statement said the diocese “is committed to finding a new home for the work of art, and we continue to explore options to find a place where it can be permanently displayed and made available to members of the public for years to come.”

Earlier this month Braithwaite wrote to the Catholic church’s patrimony committee warning that the diocese may only move the central mural and not save the frescoes.

A decision by Historic England on listing the mural should be made by the end of the year, the report said.

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