Statuettes 'doctor' focuses on his greatest work

The elliptical dome of the Carmelite church in Mdina showing the angels "supporting" the central painting with their wings. Picture reproduced from Il-Karmelitani Fl-Imdina by P. Serafin Abela Ocarm.

The elliptical dome of the Carmelite church in Mdina showing the angels "supporting" the central painting with their wings. Picture reproduced from Il-Karmelitani Fl-Imdina by P. Serafin Abela Ocarm.

A young man who started out restoring miniature statues of baby Jesus, repairing a broken finger here and replacing a lost hand there, is now more than half way through his magnum opus.

He is restoring the badly damaged sculptures that adorn the dome of the Carmelite church in Mdina and creating replacement copies of the sculptures and ornamentations.

Chris Agius Sultana picked up the art of restoration from his father, the renowned sculptor Anton Agius, who had learnt this art from the doyen of Maltese sculptors Giuseppe Galea of Rabat.

"At Christmas time, many were those who used to make a bee line to my father's studio to have their baby Jesus restored. These tasks were passed on to me and in a short while I became known as the 'doctor' of these statuettes.

"I have now adapted this intricate craft to fit modern materials and needs," Mr Agius Sultana said.

When the Carmelites came to commission the restoration of the dome of their church about three years ago, they called Anton Agius who asked his son to draw up a report on the scale of the restoration needed.

The painting and sculptures on the dome, both masterpieces in their own right, were made in 1901 by Santi Cacciaguerra and Tommaso Malerba with the assistance of Italian artisans. The five-month task cost £300 and was completed on January 22, 1902.

"The Carmelites had for quite some time been noticing pinkish brown as well as white dust on the floor of the church and they suspected it was peppering down from the sculpture adorning the elliptical dome.

"The white dust turned out to be plaster, the material that was used to make the statues and ornamentations. It was disintegrating at a fast rate.

"The reddish dust came from the base material, the deffun that had been applied as a bed in order to fit the plaster figures to the dome and which also was disintegrating."

Deffun is a mixture of ground terracotta, lime and globigerina limestone sand that was traditionally used as cement on roofs.

As a precaution, the Carmelites installed a platform isolating the dome from the rest of the church against the possibility of any other material falling onto the congregation.

Mr Agius Sultana, an industrial designer by profession, made an estimate of the damage but it turned out later that it was far more extensive than originally thought.

On closer inspection, he found that the Italians had applied a thick base of deffun in which to embed nails and hooks to hold the plaster angels and the other embellishments.

"The plaster contained a high percentage of lime which reacted to the moisture that formed in the limestone through the seepage of rain water and the presence of humans inside the church, leading to the rapid corrosion of the iron nails and hooks stuck in the stonework."

As the nails and hooks rusted and expanded, they caused the stucco sculptures to split and crack and in the process also damaged the stone walls.

"In fact, soon after the Carmelites put up a platform as a precautionary measure, one of the angels, weighing about 150 kilos, came off the hooks and nails which it had been fastened to for the past 100 years and crashed onto the platform," Mr Agius Sultana added.

With his meticulous manner and technical aptitude, he restored the broken cherub and made a mould of it. He did the same thing with the rest of the ornamentations around the dome when he realised that the whole series of decorations would in the end fall off because of the corrosive effect of the nails and hooks embedded in the dome.

Mr Agius Sultana had to pool his imaginative abilities and technical expertise to improvise and adapt tools and equipment, which were hoisted in situ in order to prepare the moulds.

Working against the laws of gravity he eased the original sculptures off the wall. They were literally falling apart. He has now reached the stage where he has made copies in synthetic plaster of the original sculptures and ornaments.

"My main concern was to reproduce the original works of art as faithfully as possible. On the reproductions one can distinctly see the final touches the artists originally added with their fingers and tools."

Each of the hundreds of nails and hooks has been routed out of the stonework. The spoilt deffun base has also been removed to start on a clean slate.

"Waterproofing roofs by the use of membranes leads moisture to get trapped inside the limestone which will eventually spoil not only the stone but also any painting or sculpture it comes in contact with it.

"I have managed to fine tune a mixture of deffun for use on Maltese stone which provides a watertight seal and at the same time allows the stonework to breath, with the result that water and moisture do not cause any damage."

The damaged sculptures have been cleaned and each part numbered. Once they are restored, the idea is to have them displayed in a museum forming part of the Carmelite church and convent in Mdina.

The 'accidental' restorer

Chris Agius Sultana's baptism of fire followed an accident that took place when a client brought to his father's studio two fine statues about a metre high that needed to be restored.

"The statues were extremely fine antiques finished in a thin outer plaster layer about four millimetres thick resembling porcelain.

"My father Anton had already judged such a restoration job as requiring not only extreme patience and attention but also high technical expertise." But worse was to come.

One of the two pet dogs that Anton Agius owned decided to race through the two statues, hitting one of them and smashing it to smithereens.

"My father was practically in tears not knowing how to explain the irreparable loss to his client."

With his innate ability not to let fatalism get the better of him, Mr Agius Sultana picked up the bits and pieces of the statue, which looked like the crushed shell of an egg. "I took the pieces and laid them out on the table of the sitting room and succeeded in putting the statue back together again.

"When the client came to collect his statues, he could not believe the fine job done because the statues had actually been in a terrible state.

"Just imagine if the client had seen the state the statue was in when the dog bumped into it.

"My father had told me then that having restored that statue, I would be able to restore anything."

Mr Agius works under the registered trade name Griffin & Crown, fine art sculpture and architectural restoration services and the Foundation for Underwater Prehistoric Research.

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