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Vandalised Mayer-Marton mural in Oldham church given Grade II-listed status

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Crucifixion mosaic and fresco saved from destruction after six-year campaign

The mural at the Holy Rosary church in Oldham.
The Mayer-Marton mural at the Holy Rosary church in Oldham. Photograph: George Mayer-Marton estate
The Mayer-Marton mural at the Holy Rosary church in Oldham. Photograph: George Mayer-Marton estate

A stunning mural created in a Catholic church by a Jewish refugee from the Nazis has been saved from destruction, decay and vandalism after being granted Grade II-listed status by the UK government.

The Crucifixion, by the leading 20th-century artist George Mayer-Marton, is a rare combination of mosaic and fresco standing almost 8 metres (26ft) high, taking up an entire wall inside the Holy Rosary church in Oldham.

A six-year campaign to protect the mural, led by the artist’s great-nephew Nick Braithwaite, gained extra urgency after the artwork was damaged as a result of vandalism in recent weeks.

The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport listed the mural – described by the V&A director, Tristram Hunt, as a “dazzling beauty” – and the church on the advice of Historic England.

The Historic England report states: “The mural is highly unusual and possibly unique in this country in its striking aesthetic combination of neo-baroque mosaic and modernist Cubist-influenced fresco inventively applied to traditional Christian iconography in a deeply personal evocation of suffering and redemption.”

The George Meyer-Marton mural before it was painted over.
The George Mayer-Marton mural before its outer sections were painted over. Photograph: George Mayer-Marton estate

It also praised “the transcendent spiritual nature of Christ … heightened by the use of glittering mosaic for the figure and golden mandorla, contrasting with the figures of Mary and St John in earthbound, monochrome blue fresco”.

It added that it was “a major work in [Mayer-Marton’s oeuvre, much of which has been lost. The quality of execution and craftsmanship is superb, creating a piece of considerable power.”

The mural, created in 1955, is one of only two ecclesiastical murals by Mayer-Marton to survive in situ. The depiction in stone and glass tesserae of Jesus on the cross is flanked by frescoes of Mary and St John, which were painted over in the 1980s by a local priest.

Mayer-Marton, a Hungarian Jew, was a significant figure in the interwar Viennese art world. But in 1938, following the Anschluss – the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany – he fled to the UK. After his departure, a decree was issued by the Nazis declaring him barred from the National Chamber of Fine Arts because investigations had shown he “did not possess the necessary commitment and reliability to promote German culture”.

He established himself in St John’s Wood, north London, but his studio containing his life’s work was destroyed in the blitz. After the war, he taught at Liverpool College of Art, establishing a mural decoration department, and took commissions for murals in Catholic churches and schools. One of them, The Pentecost, is on display in Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral.

In 2017, the Roman Catholic diocese of Salford closed the Holy Rosary and more than 20 other churches as part of a restructuring. The building has been used as a store.

Nigel Huddleston, the heritage minister, said: “This stunning mural in the Church of the Holy Rosary deserves to be listed at Grade II. This will protect the one of a kind mural and serve as an important reminder for future generations of Hungarian artist George Mayer-Marton’s escape from Nazi persecution.”

Braithwaite said he was delighted at the listing. “I’m now keen to see the necessary steps taken properly to secure the church and to preserve George Mayer-Marton’s masterpiece for the enjoyment and inspiration of future generations.”

Marcus Binney, the executive president of Save Britain’s Heritage, which supported the campaign for the mural to be listed, said the decision “averts the possible loss of a major religious work which has been causing huge concern in the art world and beyond”.

This article was amended on 12 August 2022. An earlier version referred to a “two-year campaign to protect the mural”. Braithwaite has been campaigning to save it for six years.

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