Written by Lydia Serrant, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom

From the halls of ancient Egypt to the streets of modern Mexico, frescos play a major role in storytelling and cultural preservation in ancient societies the world over.

Interior of the Boyana Church, Bulgaria

Frescos are one of the oldest-known forms of art in which water-based paints are applied to dry or semi-dry walls. However, the technique allows for decorative painting on other surfaces too.

There are two common types of fresco painting, buon fresco, an Italian term meaning ‘true fresh’ and fresco-secco, known as ‘dry’ fresco that is prepared using binders.

The buon fresco method uses pigment that is ground in pure water and applied to fresh, semi-dry plaster. The drying plaster binds the pigment so binders are not needed for finish and durability.

However, buon fresco requires complex plaster preparation, whereas fresco-secco is worked on dry finished walls that have been soaked in limewater to create a surface for the paint to be applied. Secco is the preferred method for more detailed work as well as the restoration of buon frescos.

Mural painting of Hierakonpolis, Egypt (reconstruction)

The First Frescos

The earliest known fresco was found in Tomb 100 at Hierakonpolis in Egypt and dates back to around c.3500-3200 BC.

Frescos in ancient Egypt had many purposes. One purpose was to decorate buildings and monuments. Another was to tell a story, to relay a message or record a historical moment or series of events.

The Egyptians favored the secco method, and their use of it testifies to its longevity. Later civilizations perfected the technique, eventually developing the buon method commonly seen throughout Europe.

Fresco showing an unknown, high-society woman. Before believed to portray Sappho, this fresco is now considered a depiction of a high-society Pompeian woman. Pompeii, ca. 50 CE. (Naples National Archaeological Museum)

Frescos in European Antiquity

The Ancient Greeks and Romans were known to have used frescos, but many of these works have been lost to time.

Etruscan frescos have been found in the Tomb of Orcus dating back to the 4th century BCE. Frescoed images of men reclining at a symposium and other scenes of daily Greek life have also been discovered in the former Greek colony of Magna Graecia and date to around 470 BC.

Roman buon frescos have been preserved at the beautiful Villa Dei Misteri at the ruins of Pompeii. These works have been dated to 1st century BCE. Others were discovered in the catacombs beneath Rome. Ancient Byzantine Greek frescos have been discovered in Ephesus, Cyprus, Cappadocia and Antioch.

The Ladies of Sigiriya, Sri Lanka, by Bernard Gagnon

Frescos in India and the East

A series of frescos from medieval India has been discovered on the surfaces of rock-cut cave temples.

The most famous and largest of these are on the ceilings and walls of the Ajanta Caves. They depict scenes from the life of Buddha, a discovery that is incredibly valuable for historians and followers of Buddhism.

The majority of these frescos employ various techniques, the most common of which is the tempura method, a form of secco that uses egg as an adhesive. This allowed the artists to construct much larger paintings, unrestricted by the time limits of the buon method (the buon method requires the artists to finish within a day before the plaster sets, whereas the tempura method allows the artist to continue working for several days at a time).

Further south in Sri Lanka, The Sigiriya Frescos offer us a rare glimpse at the effectiveness of fresco techniques used by the ancients.

Created during the reign of King Kashyapa I (ruled 477-495 AD) the Sigiriya Frescos are brightly colored and beautiful, depicting images of nymphs and noblewomen of the Kings’ court. The paintings are presented in a uniquely Sri Lankan style in the fresco lustro style that, similarly to secco, uses a mild adhesive to apply the pigment.

The Sistine Chapel

Italian Renaissance

During the Italian Renaissance, frescos became hugely popular. While frescos were common during the Middle Ages, they were commissioned mostly for educational purposes or to convey Biblical messages for the majority-illiterate Church congregation.

This paved the way for the boom in decorative and elaborate portrayals of religious figures and scenes that became poplar across Italy during the 15th century.

Among the most popular are the Sistine Chapel Frescos by Michelangelo, who experimented with both color and perspective.

Other artists such as Perugino (Christ Handing the Keys to St Peter, also in the Sistine Chapel 1492) and Raphael (The School of Athens in the Stanza Della Segnatura, 1508-11) are just a small sample of other grand works that still attract thousands of visitors to Italy each year.

Detroit Industry by Diego Rivera

Mexican Murals and the Twentieth Century

Mexico has some of the best examples of fresco painting in modern times. Mexico had its own fresco renaissance during the 1920s and 1930s with prominent artists such as Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros leading the way.

Twentieth-century Mexican frescos often carry political and sociological messages intended to unify the population in the wake of the Mexican Revolution (1910-1920).

These bright and beautiful frescos have inspired similar artistic waves across South America and the United States in modern times.

Although frescos were traditional to the ancient Olmec civilization and on throughout the Christianization and colonization of Mexico, modern Mexican murals today most often recall the early 19th and 20th-century frescos.

Mexico really is a testament to the longevity of frescos and the importance of the craft to human expression. Although each country and time has its own unique style and voice, frescos and fresco-making have not changed much since its early years in Egypt. They continue to tell stories, convey messages, and record information for the generations to come.

Today, although the art form is in some decline due to the increasing popularity of digital art, new fresco artists are re-imagining the craft and preserving a space where the fresco can continue to tell the human story in new and innovative ways.