In an abandoned Romanesque church in an unnamed Balkan country (presumably Bosnia Herzegovina) Gabriella Pecs shows Dr. Oliver Davenport a lamentation fresco said to date from the early thirteenth century. She tells him how she has tracked it down by following the story of its provenance as it is set out in the (fictional) “Old Nagolitic” national epic (c. 1215). A foreign traveler headed for Persia is captured by villagers and threatened with death but saves his skin by offering to paint on their church wall the famous scene of the Virgin and Christ’s followers mourning the dead Jesus. The fresco uncannily recalls Florentine painter and architect Giotto di Bondone’s Lamentation (1304-1306) in Padua, Italy, both in its verisimilitude and in its skillful deployment of perspective, although it was created a century before the Italian masterpiece. If authentic, it would rank as the art discovery of the century, since only 1 percent of Byzantine era paintings are known to have survived. Even more, it would mark the beginning of the Renaissance and the great shift in the West from a theocratic to a humanistic perspective.
Contemporary representatives of church and state—an Orthodox priest, a Roman Catholic priest, a hardline right-wing nationalist leader with skinhead support, and a swinging American-slang-talking minister for the preservation of national monuments—contend among themselves and with Davenport and Pecs regarding the disposition of the fresco, which was hidden by bricks for centuries and which was, until the play’s opening, covered by a “grand heroic revolutionary picture,” a piece of agitprop kitsch. To this sextet joins a brash, fast-talking, erudite American art historian, Leo Katz, who not only doubts the account of the provenance of the fresco but also, and more important, opposes removing it from the wall by an elaborate procedure of chemical transfers. Katz has been brought in by the Orthodox priest as an expert witness to forestall the removal. Anna Jedlikova, a fifty-year-old former student dissident and political prisoner under the...
(The entire section is 853 words.)