Though widely considered an Italian art form, frescoes have been found all over the world. Here, we take a look at some of the most famous of these paintings on plaster.
Created around 1400 BC for a wall in the Palace of Knossos in Crete, the Bull-Leaping Fresco is one of the most famous works of Minoan art. The ancient mural is celebrated for its vivid colors and subject matter, which shows stylized figures taking part in a bull-leaping ritual: a unique ceremony in which individuals would perform acrobatic tricks over the backs of cows and bulls.
Once the site of an ancient palace, Sigiriya Rock in Sri Lanka is renowned for its small surviving collection of colorful, mythology-inspired frescoes. These exquisite works were created by King Kasyapa in the 5th century BC and were intended to transform the earthly site into his very own ethereal kingdom.
Woman with Wax Tablets and Stylus—better known as the Sappho Fresco—is one of many works of well-preserved wall art discovered by archaeologists in ancient Pompeii. This buon fresco was found on the wall of a home and features a portrait of a young, wealthy woman holding writing implements as she contemplatively poses.
The Annunciation by Italian painter Fra Angelico signifies the shift from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. Unlike medieval pieces featuring similar subject matter, this fresco conveys a more realistic composition, as Angelico expertly suggests depth through the use of a vanishing point.
This fresco is located in the Convent of San Marco in Florence, Italy. While it is not the first time Angelico explored this iconography (he also completed three visually similar panel paintings and another Annunciation fresco), it has become one of the most well-known frescoes of the early Renaissance.
The Last Supper
In the 1490s, Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan to create The Last Supper, a large-scale wall painting depicting Jesus' last meal. Painted on dry plaster, this piece is a secco fresco—though the artist also incorporated a white lead undercoat to lighten the tones.
The Sistine Chapel Ceiling
From 1508 until 1512, Florentine artist Michelangelo painted a complex and colorful fresco on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican's Apostolic Palace. This massive buon fresco features 9 central scenes from scripture and 343 figures.
Many of these characters are surrounded by giornata, subtle “outlines” made by scraping off sections of the wet intonaco. Intended to suggest depth, these giornata are present throughout the entire plaster painting.
The School of Athens
Like Michelangelo, High Renaissance painter Raphael was also commissioned to create monumental frescoes for the Vatican. In 1511, he painted a set of four murals inspired by the main schools of thought: theology, law, poetry, and philosophy.
The School of Athens, the most well-known fresco in this series, features portraits of the world's most celebrated philosophers. In addition to great Greek thinkers like Plato, Socrates, Euclid, and Aristotle, this colorful mural also incorporates a sneaky self-portrait of the artist himself.
Detroit Industry Murals
While fresco painting fell out of fashion following the Renaissance, the practice was rejuvenated by the Mexican Mural Movement in the 1920s. With frescoes at the forefront, this renewed interest in mural art was pioneered by Mexican painter Diego Rivera, who painted Detroit Industry—a 27-piece series inspired by the Ford Motor Company—between 1932 and 1933.
Characterized by “masses, machines, and naked mechanical power,” Rivera's murals helped bring fresco painting into the modern world.