It was a technique used by artists on the Island of Crete in 1500 B.C., and perfected by Michangelo in the 16th century when he completed the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

That unique procedure is called a true fresco painting, in which the artist paints directly on wet plaster and then needs to join the design the next day to match the original work. Several elements are required to accomplish this unique technique, and the process is tedious and challenging.

In 1955, two teenagers entered a contest in Rome to paint a mural in the Jesuit Pontifical Biblical Institute that Pope Pius XII had suggested for the refectory. These two young women --- Isabel and Edith Pizcek --- had recently fled their home in Communist Hungary and sought refuge and art work in Rome. To compete in the mural project, Isabel submitted a pen-and-ink drawing of the “Miraculous Draught of Fish.” The entry bore an anonymous number, so when the design was selected, the judges were astounded that the artists were so young.

Although the Piczek sisters’ talent already was being recognized, the judges nonetheless demanded to see a third of the original cartoon to ascertain their ability. The sisters complied, the committee unanimously accepted the cartoon rendering, and the two artists successfully completed the 377-square-foot mural in the true fresco style in seven months, even though they required papal permission to enter the “clausura” of the institute. 

Isabel completed the figures of John, Peter, Thomas, the two fishermen and the fish, while Edith painted most of the figure of Christ, Nathanael and James. Then the Institute was opened for public viewing --- a first-time event. 

Today, more than a half century later, a restoration of “Miraculous Draught” has been completed, with the generosity and cooperation of the Los Angeles Chapter of the Patrons of the Arts in the Vatican Museum --- and, in a rare occurrence, with the original artist closely involved in the restoration process.

In fact, said Isabel --- who supervised the restoration --- it is probably the first time in art history that the mural of an American artist was restored in the Vatican under the direction of the artist. The group Domus Dei, headed by Rederica Tartarine and assisted by Diego Pistone, performed the work under Isabel’s direction.

Although the mural had been relatively well preserved, Isabel recognized for some time that restoration was needed, something that became clearer as the two-month process unfolded. 

 “The natural destructive force of time and other circumstances brought damaging effects,” she noted. There was an accumulation of salt, scratches, holes and even drops of household paint left by the repainting of the ceiling. 

All of that has now been taken care of; the restoration is complete and “very professionally done,” said Isabel. The “Miraculous Draught” looks down on the refectory’s occupants as brilliantly as it did in the days of Popes Pius XII and John XXIII.

{gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/1028/piczek/{/gallery}