Recording the frescoes of Dionisy at the Ferapontov Monastery

Russia - October 2016

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The team from Factum and Peri looking at Dionisy’s frescoes on the entrance portal. © Shamil Gadzhidadaev

Factum Foundation were at the Ferapontov Monastery near Lake Beloe (Vologda Region, Russian Federation) from the 18-21 October to participate in the pilot recording of the frescoes of the icon-painter Dionisy in the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin. The project was carried out in collaboration with the Ziyavudin Magomedov Charitable Peri Foundation, a Moscow and Makhachkala based organisation that focusses on empowering youth in Russia with education in culture and technology. They were on-site with Factum Foundation to introduce the full-scale recording of the site, which will take place in early 2017, and to call for young photographers from Vologda to take part in the project. Shamil Gadzhidadaev and Gennady Viktorov – two Dagestani photographers who trained with Factum from April-June 2016 were fully-fledged participants in the pilot at Ferapontov and will form a crucial part of the team in 2017.

A full, high-resolution colour and 3D recording of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin has never before been undertaken. If possible, the recording in 2017 will also involve scanning Dionisy’s icons for the Ferapontov iconostasis, some of which are currently held by museums in Moscow and St Petersburg. The data gathered in this project will provide a base for further research into the evolving state of conservation of the frescoes, as well as for the public outreach programmes so necessary to the museum at Ferapontov.

A full, high-resolution colour and 3D recording of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin has never before been made freely available to the public.

The Ferapontov Monastery and the frescoes of Dionisy

The exterior of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin: conservation works in August 2016

The Ferapontov Monastery is a UNESCO world heritage site, nominated for the unique preservation of its 15th-16th century architecture; and for the frescoes of Dionisy, famous throughout Russia both for their beauty and for their extraordinary state of conservation. The monastery was founded in 1398 by a monk from the Muscovy clergy, in a period which saw a number of monasteries established in the Lake Beloe region. These lay on important trade routes north to the White Sea, owned large tracts of land and thousands of serfs, and maintained strong connections with the Muscovite nobility. As such, they enjoyed a significant epoch of wealth, religious and cultural prominence, which lasted in some cases into the 18th century.In the late 15th century the monasteries of Lake Beloe were already able to engage the leading architects, stone-masons and icon-painters of the time.

The Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin, completed in 1490 after the wooden buildings of the monastery complex were destroyed by fire in 1488, is one of the earliest masonry churches in the region. In 1502, the interior and the western portal were decorated by the icon-painter Dionisy, the most famous Russian icon-painter after Andrei Rublev; an inscription on the northern door dates the frescoes to a period of thirty-four days in August and September of 1502, and names the artists as Dionisy and his sons.

The frescoes of Dionisy are exceptionally beautiful, transforming the small, otherwise dark, vaulted interior of the church into a light and expansive environment. They cover almost every surface of the Nativity cathedral, and are arranged in rows which were painted in sequence from top to bottom. Christ Pantocrator in the cupola is surrounded by angels, the Evangelists, and minor saints in the vaulted ceilings; scenes from the Akathist hymn, the Ecumenical councils and the Last Judgement make up the middle levels; the ground level is an ornamental band comprising fifty-two different, coloured medallions. Together with the iconostasis icons, the frescoes constitute Dionisy’s most intact body of work and are one of the only extant examples of original wall paintings in a medieval Russian church.

  • The cupola in the Nativity cathedral with Christ Pantocrator
  • The lower decorative band
  • Scene from the Last Judgment on the western wall

A number of factors contributed to the preservation of the frescoes at Ferapontov. As early as 1530, modifications had been made to the structure of the Nativity cathedral; later alterations in the 17th century, whilst completely destroying several compositions, nevertheless resulted in the creation of an ideal climate for preservation within the church. The declining fortunes of the monasteries in the Lake Beloe region also meant that from the 18th century onwards, there was little opportunity for repainting frescoes – common practice in the Russian orthodox church. After the inscription was discovered in the early 20th century, the monastery complex was named a state museum, thereby protecting it from the ravages of the Soviet Union. Finally, in the 1980s a comprehensive research and conservation project was undertaken to assess the state of the frescoes and a temperature, humidity and dust-control regime implemented to ensure their continued survival.

Pilot project in October 2016

The pilot recording was carried out in three seven-hour night-time recording sessions from the 18-20 October. These sessions have resulted in a collection of different types of information. Data was recorded both inside and outside the church: this is the first time any part of the portal has been recorded with high-resolution photography. One of Dionisy’s icons for the iconostasis – two of which are at Ferapontov – was also scanned. The pilot will allow us to resolve important questions about the full-scale project in 2017: full equipment list, time, and number of people required will be decided upon in the next few months to make the full-scale project as efficient as possible.

  • Pedro Miro showing Shamil Gadzhidadaev how to work the Faro
  • Preliminary 3D reconstruction of the interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin
  • An orthophoto - a geometrically corrected image with uniform scale - of the western wall obtained from FARO laser data
  • An orthophoto of the northern wall: orthophotos allow us to measure true distances within the church

A FARO Focus 3D laser scanner was used to create a 3D model of the interior of the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Virgin. From this data, it will be possible to obtain accurate dimensionsof the interior of the building and to scale the colour data recorded with the panoramic heads.

  • The Canon AF 600mm lens being used with the Dr Clauss panoramic system to record a part of the Last Judgement scene on the western wall
  • Panoramic colour captured with 600mm lens ? the scene is from the southern central vault of the Nativity cathedral, suggesting that the 600mm lens will be sufficient to capture most of the ceiling
  • Screen capture showing the head of an angel recorded using the 600mm lens

Colour was captured using a manual panoramic head as well as the Dr Clauss automatic panoramic recording system. Both a Canon AF 300 mm lens and Canon AF 600 mm lens were tested – the 300mm lens requires significantly less time to record an area than the 600mm lens but the quality of the results is also significantly less. In 2017, a 600mm lens will be used to record the entire Nativity cathedral.

  • Gennady Viktorov recording a medallion with photogrammetry
  • Screen capture of the point cloud of one of the windows of the eastern wall, recorded with photogrammetry
  • Colour render of a medallion recorded with photogrammetry
  • Render of the 3D data of a medallion recorded with photogrammetry. The results obtained suggest that 3D recording parts of the Cathedral could be of interest for conservators
  • Orthophoto taken from the 3D model of the icon of St Nicholas
  • Colour render of upper half of Icon of St Nicholas
  • Render of 3D data of the Icon of St Nicholas showing noise resulting from gold paint

Photogrammetry was tested as a potential method for recording 3D and colour information in the interior of the Nativity cathedral. Two medallions from the decorative band were photographed: once processed, they will show whether the white stucco which has a glossy sheen in many areas – will cause too much interference with the results. Photogrammetry was also trialled as a potential method for digitising icons. Preliminary results suggest that the golden paint is problematic: the photographs have shines and the 3D data is noisy. This is exactly the kind of problem we were expecting to encounter in the pilot: instead of photogrammetry, in 2017 the Lucida Laser Scanner will be used to record the icons of the iconostasis.

Visit the Ferapontov Monastery website here.
Visit the Peri Foundation website here.
Read our press release here

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