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Paintings restoration at Ħamrun parish church

Since 2008, restoration works have been ongoing at St Catejan (San Gaetano) parish church, Ħamrun. It is particularly important to safeguard this church as it is richly decorated with art pieces produced by some of the leading local and foreign artists of the 19th and 20th century, including Giuseppe Calì, Pietro Gagliardi, Giuseppe di Giovanni, Anna Forti, Giuseppe Bonnici, Giuseppe Briffa and Domenico Bruschi.

To date, the restoration of the ceiling painted by Emvin Cremona (1919-1987) and both the exterior and interior of the church have been completed. What are left are the interior walls, which are being done with the help of volunteers, and the paintings which adorn the high walls of the nave and the couplets, together with the titular altarpiece.

The conservation and restoration of the church’s prestigious collection was entrusted to PrevArti Company Ltd. This was an essential and urgent project that needed to be addressed immediately since a professional inspection carried out on site revealed that all the paintings were in a critical state of conservation. Neglecting to give these works of art the required attention would have resulted in the loss of part of our national heritage. The project requires a considerable amount of dedication and patience but is ultimately truly worthwhile.

Besides reviving the paintings through a restoration and conservation intervention, it may also be possible to reveal any of the paintings’ hidden secrets. Rumour has it that Forti’s painting in particular, which depicts St Apollonia, has been overpainted in the past to conceal her revealing attire. This was commonly done in the past for Church commissions when the painting was deemed disrespectful.

So far, three of the paintings have been completely restored. These are the two longitudinal paintings depicting scenes from the life of St Catejan by Giuseppe Briffa (1901-1987) and the painting of St Benedict and St Scholastica by di Giovanni (1817-1898). Since the condition of the latter painting was worse, one can now appreciated the great change after the entire restoration process was carried out.

St Benedict and St Scholastica are portrayed with their heads slightly lowered in reverence. While St Benedict stands on the right-hand side and is framed by the arched opening, St Scholastica sits with one hand on her heart and another clutching a book. The heavenly realm is represented as the statue of the Virgin and Christ and the crucifix that hangs on the wall in the background on the left-hand side.

The palette di Giovanni chooses is sombre, evoking an air of mystery and reflection. The architectural setting is reminiscent of the Romantic Movement, with particular reference to the rubble walls and the arched opening in the background. The work is a manifestation of di Giovanni’s artistic maturity. The artist was mostly known for his prints as this was an area he had mastered impeccably. Since he was successful in the printmaking business, this left him little need to venture and experiment with other media. It was thanks to the nobleman Lucio Tasca that he was encouraged to take up painting for ecclesiastical, public and private commissions.

It is said that this is possibly the only Maltese commission di Giovanni had. According to sources, the benefactor was a pious woman who wished to have the saintly twins depicted in front of an altar in the Ħamrun parish church.

The fact that this is one of the only known commissions by di Giovanni in Malta makes it rare and essential to preserve. Although the painting was structurally stable the main problems was in the paint layer. Due to atmospheric changes with which the painting came into contact over the years, the canvas was suffering from deformations, mainly in the top left-hand corner. The tension of the canvas was not adequately taut on its stretcher frame and had started to sag.

There were also some losses of paint and a few tears on the perimeter of the painting, which contributed to the weakening of the tacking margins. Dust had accumulated on the front and back of the canvas. This is a common problem with many paintings and causes damage when the dust starts to attract moisture due to its hygroscopic properties.

The artist had used a dark and very thinly applied preparation layer, and the varnish which was applied to protect the painting was inhomogeneous. Two types of cracks were visible in the paint layer. Ageing cracks were found throughout; these appeared to have been lifting from the substrata, causing micro-losses.

The other cracks were limited to certain areas of the painting and had resulted by the shrinkage of the paint upon drying. More cracks were found towards the border since the painting came directly into contact with the stretcher frame, and marks were also visible due to the constant pressure exerted on it.

Some of the pigments were fading, probably due to the different pigments used and the deteriorating varnish layer. Some areas were affected by blanching; this is when part of a painting as appears chalky and lighter than the rest of the work and is a reaction caused between the varnish layer and the environment.

The fact that this is one of the only known commissions by di Giovanni in Malta makes it rare and essential to preserve

The original pigments were darkened due to the oxidisation of the varnish layer, as well as due to the dust that had settled on the surface. Drips of wax as well as other plaster-based material were also present on the superficial layer of the painting.

In order to carry out the required conservation and restoration treatments, the paintings were transported to the Prev- Arti laboratory, which is equipped with the necessary technology for the task.

The painting was documented and examined under ultraviolet and raking light and by using infra-red reflectography. Any fragile paint was consolidated using Japanese paper in order to protect the unstable paint during handling. The painting was then removed from its stretcher frame and the back was cleaned mechanically.

Tears in the canvas were then repaired by integrating threads and canvas inlays. Pieces of canvas that matched the properties of the original support were cut to fit the gaps, with attention given to the direction of the warp and weft of the canvas. The inlays were then attached using a non-invasive synthetic and stable adhesive. These were finished off by the application of a patch of synthetic fabric.

The painting was then subjected to a low-pressure heating table where it was flattened to remove deformations in the canvas. This allowed a combination of pressure, humidity and/or heat to be applied onto the painting, depending on its sensitivity and necessities. This treatment did not affect the brushwork or impastos, unlike traditional methods.

After the deformations were removed the painting was reattached on to its stretcher frame, which was modified and made beveled so as not to come directly into contact with the painting and continue to damage the painting.

The next step was to clean the painting from dust, the varnish layer and previous retouching and overpaintings done in a previous restoration after carrying out several cleaning tests to determine the most effective and safe materials to use.

After the cleaning process was carried out it was possible to view the original nature of the painting and to examine the number of losses which remained. The lacunae were covered in a layer of stucco and levelled to reach the surface of the paint layer so as to be uniform. These losses were then retouched and reintegrated with reversible varnish colours.

Finally a reversible, non-yellowing protective layer of varnish was applied to the paint layer to seal off the retouching done and to saturate the original colours. In this way the painting’s surface was also protected from deteriorating agents. The varnish applied was of stable nature which also keeps dirt, dust and other pollutants off the paint layer.

Currently the PrevArti team are working on the conservation and restoration of two of the paintings by Calì depicting the Carmelite Madonna, dated 1879, The Madonna of Doctrine, dated circa 1885, and another painting by Bruschi depicting St Anthony, dated 1884.

The titular painting at Ħamrun parish church will also be undergoing conservation and restoration. This altar painting depicts the Virgin Mary offering Jesus to St Catejan, which is common imagery used when illustrating the saint. The painting was commissioned by Bishop Geitanu Pace Forno and painted by Gagliardi (1809-1890) in Rome. It was brought to the church in 1881 when it was elevated to the status of a parish church.

In the painting, St Catejan is portrayed serenely kneeling at the feet of the Virgin Mary awaiting to accept the infant Jesus; this represents the vision the saint experienced in 1517. On the left-hand side of the saint, right next to him there is a lily, which symbolises purity. Another symbol is found in the background and shows Mgr Pace Forno’s coat of arms as the painting benefactor.

The structural condition of the titular painting is good on the whole. The main problem lies in the paint layer, which is cracking with age. This could eventually cause further detachment of the paint layer from the canvas, leading it to flake and result in paint losses. Micro losses have already started to appear throughout. The varnish layer is also suffering from blanching.

Gagliardi was another artist who produced a painting for Ħamrun parish church. The subject he depicted was that of Our Lady of Sorrows, painted in 1880. Gagliardi masterfully executed the subject as he devised his composition in two by dedicating the lower part to Our Lady and the dead body of Christ and the upper part for the dark and stormy sky with the cross on the right-hand side. The state of conservation of this painting is similar to that of the titular painting, however there are more losses present.

The painting has been retouched in the past as this is visible on observing the paintings surface. Upon cleaning and removal of overpaintings found on the paint layer, more losses may be exposed.

Calì’s paintings depicting The Carmelite Madonna, dated 1897, Our Lady of Holy Doctrine, dated circa 1885, and the St Joseph, dated 1884, form part of the Ħamrun oeuvre. These are all painted in a docile and saccharine manner using softness and beauty.

The Carmelite Madonna was donated to the church by Giuzeppi Farrugia Preca and is believed to be one of the first paintings by Calì in Malta. It is proudly marked with the coat of arms of the Farrugia Preca family, found on the lower right corner.

The Carmelite Madonna is believed to be one of the first paintings by Calì in Malta

Here, Calì used the impasto technique by applying the paint thickly and has limited his palette to bright colours. The thick paint is what has caused the most deterioration in the paint layer, causing a network of cracks throughout. The edges of the cracks are lifting from the surface and contribute in making an irregular surface.

The same problem occurs on the surface of the painting depicting Our Lady of Holy Doctrine.

The third painting was commissioned by Antonio Attard, and as in The Carmelite Madonna, is marked with the benefactor’s coat of arms. This painting is considered one of the better works by Calì and represents St Joseph holding the infant Jesus while he stands on a low wall. Overall, the painting is in a good state of conservation and only small losses are present, apart from the normal problems which a painting faces as time goes by.

Bruschi (1840-1910) painted St Anthony holding the infant Christ in his hands accompanied by angels. The palette he has chosen was a subtle one based mainly on pastels, all except for the black robe of the saint. A thin layer of paint was used by Bruschi to execute his subject. Hairline cracks have formed on the surface which has resulted in detachments, flaking and micro losses.

A rare and curious painting at the church is that representing St Apollonia, dated 1874. This is the only painting found in the church by female artist Forti, which is what makes it so special and interesting. The painting is of a neo-classical nature and the palette chosen was that of earth tones with accents of red. The painting is deformed and sagging since the tension of the painting has altered with time. In the past the painting seems to have been treated using adhesive in areas were losses had started to appear.

Our Lady of the Rosary was painted in 1881 by Bonnici. The painting depicts Our Lady sitting on a cloud with the infant Jesus at her side as she presents the rosary to St Dominic who kneels at the foot of the Virgin. Another Dominican figure representing St Vincent Ferreri stands in the background facing the scene of the presentation of the rosary which unfolding before him.

The original tonalities of the painting have been obscured by a yellowed and darkened varnish. By removing this layer of varnish during the cleaning process, the original colours and aesthetic values of the painting can be appreciated.

The other two altar paintings are by unknown artists; one represents Our Lady of Lourdes while the other portrays the Madonna of the Belt. With the use of scientific investigation techniques it may be possible to reveal and identify the artist of these paintings. A hidden signature or clue could be waiting to be discovered in underlying layers of the painting.

Acknowledgements/donations

St Catejan parish priest Fr Henry Balzan would like to thank parishioners for their constant support for the restoration works at the parish church since they began in 2008, some by offering their time and others through donations. He also would like to thank commercial entities that have assisted the parish and professional restoration companies that have worked on the project.

Donations towards the restoration may be deposited in the following account at Bank of Valletta: 400 1906 4741.

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