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Sixena frescoes to remain in Barcelona for now

The relocation of murals in the MNAC museum back to Aragon temporarily blocked by a Huesca judge due to their “fragility”

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26 January 2018 02:54 PM

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ACN | Barcelona

Not all of the disputed Sixena works of art were ordered back to Aragon: today, a judge from Huesca blocked the relocation of the most fragile specimens, frescoes on the walls of the National Art Museum of Catalonia (MNAC), back to the Aragonese monastery from whence they came. This is the latest in a long line of contention, but it’s the first time a judicial decision was made based on the art’s fragility.

A current controversy...

If you’ve been following the impact that Article 155 (the Spanish government’s seizure of Catalonia’s self-rule) has had on Catalan culture, you may have heard the name Sixena. Most notably because, recently, disputed artwork bearing that name was ordered to be moved from the Catalan town of Lleida back to Aragon.

...dating back to the Spanish Civil War

The reason the Medieval works of art—both those until recently in Lleida, and those currently at the MNAC—were taken to Catalonia in the first place, dates back to the Spanish Civil War. In 1936, the nunnery of Sixena was set on fire, along with all the precious artifacts inside. As regards the MNAC frescoes, the museum’s homepage states that one can still see the damage caused by the flames as “perceptible alteration of the original colours, shiny and with a predominance of blue.”

That very same year as the blaze, specialists took the art to Barcelona to safeguard and restore it. Some of the items were taken to the Lleida Museum, and others made it into the MNAC in 1940. Now, they are part of the very structure of the Barcelona building, adorning the walls and archways.

Catalonia’s culture changes course

The controversy stems from a disagreement. Catalonia bought the items legally in the 1980s, but Aragon claims that the transaction was outside the law: hence, the courtroom sparring to keep—or reclaim—the artwork. This dispute was carried out over years and largely on equal footing by both parties, until the Spanish government implemented Article 155, the constitutional provision that seized Catalonia’s self-rule and deposed its then-government.

With the Spanish government at the helm of Catalan cultural matters, the Sixena disagreement changed course when the Lleida artworks were removed and taken back to Aragon at the end of 2017 - the very last of which was moved just this month. And with a judge having ordered that the MNAC do the same in 2016, the murals in Barcelona faced the same possibility, which the Catalan government and the MNAC qualified as “senseless.”

Proposed space for the artwork not renovated 

Yet, on January 24, a judge from the Aragonese town of Huesca blocked the relocation of the MNAC frescoes back to Sixena. In an interlocutory, the court official alleges the “fragility” of the medieval art, as regards the option of removing them from the walls and moving them all the way to Aragon.

Various scientific studies were made that warned of the potential damage the artwork would suffer when being removed from the walls and moved, documentation which was presented to the judge. The aforementioned also called into the question how suitable the proposed space for the artwork in Sixena was. Indeed, the judge noted that renovation was not completed nor was air conditioning installed. Both are in fact necessary to guarantee optimum conditions for the conservation of the paintings.

"An error in assessment," says the Aragonese government

The Aragon government is already disputing the judge’s decision. On Friday, January 26, the official body sent a document to the judge, asking her to “clarify” that the state of the Sixena Monastery hall that would welcome the works of art is in optimum condition” to do so. They called the estimation of it being the contrary “an error in assessment,” in the document that also contained a technical explanation.

The Aragon government also claimed that when the judge originally asked for the climactic and humidity conditions to be evaluated in 2016, they certified that they were perfect to house the murals.  Yet, the Aragonese Minister for Culture, Mayte Pérez, recognized that “the most advanced climatization system that exists, which very few museums in the world have” has yet to be installed.

Blocked at the MNAC – at least, for now

The judge's decision does not mean that the artwork is in the MNAC museum for good. The frescoes are guaranteed to remain in Barcelona at least until the sentencing on the Sixena case is firm, a process that could take up to three years according to the Sixena attorney Jorge Español.

The director of MNAC, Pepe Serra, expressed his “satisfaction” regarding the judicial decision. Serra further noted that the interlocutory took into account the museum’s arguments, “focused on protecting and conserving a work of art that’s unique in the world.” The Sixena frescoes, he added, are still exhibited and accessible to everyone who visits the museum.

The Biblical renditions of “a work of extraordinary artistic value”

As for the artwork itself, the MNAC website describes the murals as a “masterpiece.” Produced around the year 1200, the art depicts scenes from both the Old and the New Testament, including Adam and Eve and the Original Sin, Noah’s Arc, Moses and the exodus from Egypt, and the genealogies of Christ. These are, according to MNAC, a “unique” and “important example of medieval Hispanic art.” 

Despite their beauty, the paintings are far from being in a perfect state. They were first damaged in the fire, which not only altered the colours but weakened the works themselves. Along with exposure to extremely high temperatures, the removal done with ‘strappo’ (hot glue), overlay of added products, and other treatments make it so that, according to reports, even the smallest vibration or change in temperature or humidity could lead to loss of pigment, original paint, and even growth of microorganisms.

This is why, in the interlocutory released, the Huesca judge stated that “the risk of deterioration (with relocation) is evident, taking into account the fragility of the murals.” The document continued by claiming that this was “sufficient reason to block the provisional execution, taking into account that we find ourselves before a work of extraordinary artistic value.” 

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  • The hall where the disputed works of art are exhibited at the MNAC in Barcelona in an archive image (by ACN Archive / Pau Cortina, February 25 2016)

  • The hall where the disputed works of art are exhibited at the MNAC in Barcelona in an archive image (by ACN Archive / Pau Cortina, February 25 2016)