June 2006: Conservation of Polychrome Sculpture, Blessing Christ
The Saint Louis Art Museum will soon reopen its early European galleries. As part of that new display the museum had wanted to include a polychrome (painted) wood sculpture, Blessing Christ. The 13th-century piece is the museum’s only example of medieval Spanish sculpture, and it is one the few represented in American museum collections. The sculpture had not been on view for more than 30 years and its condition was extremely fragile: the wood was powdery, the paint actively peeling, a large crack disfigured the face. The sculpture, depicting a standing Christ with an arm raised in a blessing, could not even be placed in an upright position.
The sculpture was in critical need of conservation care, but the museum did not have a conservator with special knowledge of polychrome wood. A grant was needed to send the sculpture to a conservator with the specialized skills and knowledge needed to stabilize the piece.
In addition, the museum saw a need to bring the story of the conservation of the piece and other polychrome sculptures in its collection to its student audiences. With funding from IMLS, the museum would be able to develop, produce, and distribute a curriculum packet for teachers. The packet would discuss career opportunities in museum conservation and show how careful examination leads to new discoveries about works of art.
Project design and goals
The Saint Louis Art Museum applied for a Conservation Project Support grant primarily to stabilize Blessing Christ for eventual display to the public. The funding would enable the museum to send the sculpture to a medieval art conservation specialist at the Cloisters of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. Objects conservator Lucretia Kargere could offer her knowledge of how paint is applied and how a surface is prepared for painting, as well as an understanding of the wood encountered in medieval works of art.
The work of Kargere was intended to address further goals of the project. For one, Judith Mann, curator of the museum’s early European collection, had hoped to address the prominent vertical crack in the face of the figure. With sculpture, museums do not always fill holes and losses or try to reconstruct missing parts. When they do, decisions are made based on mitigating those things that seem to interfere with the viewer’s ability to appreciate the aesthetics of the entire piece. In the case of Blessing Christ, Mann authorized a fully reversible patching and retouching so that visitors could see the beauty of the face as originally intended.
Curator Mann also hoped that Kargere’s conservation detective work would shed some light on questions surrounding the sculpture. Mann had long been aware that the sculpture had been painted more than once. A visible layer of paint showed a dotted floral pattern. She hoped to get clues about how the piece may have been painted in the past. In addition, the museum’s records about the piece included documentation describing some question of the sculpture’s authenticity. Another goal of the project, therefore, was to confirm for the record Mann’s view that the sculpture was indeed from the medieval period and was not simply a later work "in the style of" medieval art.
The goal of the museum interpretation staff’s curriculum packet was to help teachers introduce students to careers in museum conservation and show the role of the conservator as a detective who can uncover important events or details in the life of a work of art.
Plan in Action
Kargere successfully addressed the immediate concerns about the fragility of Blessing Christ. After removing accumulated dirt and grime, she consolidated paint on the sculpture with a water-soluble gelatine solution and stabilized the portions of the wood damaged by insects so that the piece could again be lifted upright.
The conservator also examined paint samples under a microscope for clues to their composition and sent two tiny paint samples to a lab for analysis. Kargare discovered that the sculpture had been painted only twice in its 800-year life and that a good bit of the original layer of paint remained. An analysis of the paint pigment showed that the original paint layer was from the 13th century. The pattern she discerned was similar to patterns she had seen on other early medieval pieces, including one of a seated Virgin and Child at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This bit of news laid to rest any idea that the work was from a later period.
Kargere was able to sketch out the original painted design of the work, as well as the later painted design that she determined was from the 17th or 18th century.
Once the sculpture was stabilized, curator and conservator discussed cosmetic options for the face. The facial gap was filled with removable paper filler that was then retouched with removable paint to blend with the face. The less distracting portion of the crack in the hair of the figure remains. A detailed report was written and returned with the treated sculpture to be included in the sculpture’s permanent files.
The curriculum packet was the first developed by the museum and served as a prototype for two later curriculum packets for teachers. The packet was designed to explore such conservation issues as: How do we understand how objects are made and how they look? How do various methods of conservation analysis illuminate the historical context of a work of art? How do conservators preserve and restore painted wooden sculpture? What are the limitations of restoration?
The packet’s booklet has five lesson plans based on five polychrome sculptures in the museum’s collection. Written by a contract writer with input from the curator and conservators, the booklet also includes historical background, a piece on careers in art, a vocabulary list, and selected bibliography. The packet comes with images of the artworks on paperboard and on CD-ROM and is packaged in an attractive box package labeled, "Layers of Meaning: How Conservators Protect Art."
Four hundred copies of the packet were produced. Many were put in the museum’s remote resource centers at the public libraries in the city and surrounding county; many others were distributed for free to teachers who requested copies. And some were distributed at a workshop the museum held to introduce teachers to the new resource.
The packets were a hit with area schools, especially among the Catholic schools, of which St. Louis has many. Jean Turney, fourth grade teacher at St. John the Baptist in south Saint Louis used it at her former school and uses it with her current class at St. John’s. A museum member, Turney enjoys visits to the museum personally and has participated in general teacher workshops offered at the museum. She has used the packet for a variety of lessons that have included fieldtrips to the museum. She said, "Incorporating art into the curriculum adds a layer of appreciation for the resources students have in their neighborhood."
She used information in the packet to explore museum careers with her students and to discuss how decisions about conservation treatment are made. She said students enjoyed thinking about how things were made, why they were saved, and why a museum would or would not keep objects looking old.
Mann hopes that visitors to the museum’s soon-to-be-opened early European galleries will also consider such questions. The display of Blessing Christ will include a special text panel showing the two painted designs uncovered by the conservator and will describe how the appearance of works of art can be changed over the years by their owners. She said, "We’re hoping that museum visitors will take away that idea from this piece and begin to look more discriminatingly at other pieces."
Copies of the curriculum packet are still available. The charge is $8.00 for shipping. To request one, email: email@example.com