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Restoration, conservation of Safi’s titular statue of St Paul

The statue’s face and (right) a detail of the mantle before and after the conservation and restoration treatments.

The statue’s face and (right) a detail of the mantle before and after the conservation and restoration treatments.

The way some works of art look now is different from the way they did at the time they were made, and therefore not what the artists had intended. The aesthetic appearance of most polychrome wooden sculptures in Malta has been changed at some point in time, and the changes have often occurred more than once, especially in the case of titular statues. Renovations adapted the sculptures to the different tastes of later periods and were often carried out without any documentation.

The team of Atelier del Restauro was commissioned to carry out the conservation and restoration on the titular statue of St Paul and its pedestal at Safi parish church, dedicated to the saint’s conversion, in order to conserve and recover the original artistic value of these works of art. A conservative approached was needed in order to address the work of art not only from an aesthetic point of view but first and foremost to address the materials it was made of. Throughout the project, the historical, social, religious and aesthetic values, which are an essential part of the sculpture, were taken into consideration.

The statue was sculpted in the mid-19th century by Alessandro Farrugia, known as Mastru Xandru (1781-1971). Farrugia was an apprentice of the prominent sculptor Mariano Gerada and was influenced by his tutor. Farrugia is known for various sculptured works, namely the Annunciation of the Virgin at Tarxien parish church (1829) and the Assumption of the Virgin at Mqabba.

On October 4, 1841, he was commissioned to sculpt a statue of St Paul, a bradella and pedestal for Safi parish church. The contract stated that the statue should resemble the titular statue of the saint at St Paul’s Shipwreck church, Valletta, carved by Melchiore Gafà (1636-1667) in the mid-17th century. It also stipulated that the statue had to be ready by November 25, 1843. The price was set at 250 scudi.

Prior to the commission the artist created a bozzetto. The statue was polychromed and gilded by Francesco Coleiro in 1890. Research revealed that most probably this was the first sculpture gilded by Coleiro. The original pedestal was replaced by a new one in the mid-20th century. The new pedestal and bradella were commissioned to Emmanuel Buhagiar in 1938. Buhagiar was unarguably a master and the most prolific artist of 20th-century de­corative arts in Malta.

The challenging conservation and restoration interventions started in January 2015. A methodical approach involved the use of photography in visible and ultraviolet light. This was followed by a documentation procedure with various mappings in order to identify the different areas where deterioration and past restoration interventions had taken place.

Scientific analysis was carried out from a micro sample taken from the polychromy of the skin tone in order to determine the composition of the dark brown coating and whether an older polychromy existed. Two samples from the wooden support of the statue were also analysed to determine the type of wood used.

Removing the oxidised varnish coating over the mantle.Removing the oxidised varnish coating over the mantle.

The analysis revealed that the statue was carved out of Scots/Black pine while the base is composed of Spruce wood. The wooden support was found to be in a stable state of conservation.

A longitudinal crack was found at the back of the saint’s head and another one started from the central area of the left foot going through the base. The cracks were probably caused due to a loss of cohesion after the wood experienced internal physical stresses caused by a combination of factors. These included the shrinkage and swelling of the wooden support due to changes in temperature and humidity.

Cracks in the wooden support were consolidated using injections of a two-component epoxy-resin, specially formulated for grouting and bonding of wooden artefacts subject to movement generated by thermos-hygrometric variations. An environmental scientific analysis was carried out inside the niche to determine whether there were any haphazard fluctuations in temperature and relative humidity so as to evaluate whether the climate inside the niche was appropriate for the wooden polychrome statue.

The coatings had darkened and altered with time, changing the aesthetic appearance of the skin tone to a dark one

Different areas of the polychromy and gilded surfaces were not found to be in a good state of conservation. Due to the absorption of moisture and movement of the wooden support, paint had detached as the wooden support shrank and expanded. The cracking and movement of the wooden support also damaged gilded surfaces, causing the gilded layer to crack and detach in areas of the red mantle and gilded trimmings, including the paint layer of the feet and arms.

Extensive and severe abrasions of the gilded layer were found all over the border of the burnished mantle, especially on the front. In addition, there were several abrasions and scratches of the gilded areas all over the hem and trimmings. Most areas revealed the red bolo layer underneath. Certain abrasions and losses of the gilded layer appeared to have been caused by excessive cleaning methods.

Removing the dark coating and overpaintings applied over the face in previous interventions.Removing the dark coating and overpaintings applied over the face in previous interventions.

The statue might also have absorbed moisture when it used to be taken in procession during the month of January before the 1960s.

As a first step the detached paint was glued back onto the statue. Numerous tests were carried out to enable the softening of the thick scales of detaching paint that was in danger of cracking completely. The treatment continued with the use of a conservation-standard microemulsion injected through insulin syringes underneath the detaching paint. This allowed the preparation to soften and achieve the right adhesion without the risk of breakage. The lowering and adhesion of the detachments was carried out through the use of a small heated spatula.

The statue was examined under ultraviolet (UV) light. A light milky greenish/yellow florescence revealed the presence of a non-homogenous layer of a resin-based varnish. It also appeared that different applications were present, indicating interventions at different times. The varnishes had altered with time, giving a yellowish hue to the polychrome surface. A yellow-brown fluorescence on the skin tones of the saint revealed the presence of an oil-based coating. The presence of shellac was also noted.

Removing the dark coating that had been applied over the statue’s hand.Removing the dark coating that had been applied over the statue’s hand.

The coatings had darkened and altered with time, changing the aesthetic appearance of the skin tone to a dark one, flattening the sculptural volumes and thus completely transforming the readability of the original polychromy of the skin tone. Dark areas and spots under UV pinpointed areas of overpainting carried out in a past intervention, and traces of purporin over the gilded motifs were also observed. Several areas of the red mantle were overpainted in various interventions, and a red metallic paint was also used in several areas. The beard and hair were completely overpainted.

The cleaning phase operations were complex and laborious. The protective substances applied over the vest and mantle in past interventions, consisting of numerous overpaintings of various thicknesses and non-homogeneous coatings, required a complicated cleaning treatment.

The pictorial and gilded surfaces of the green vest and red mantle were cleaned using a solvent gel mixture applied with interposition of Japanese paper to allow a gradual thinning of the substances to be removed. Most of the intervention was carried out in the dark using UV light so as to attain a homogenous cleaning. The layers of varnish were softened and removed so as to regain the brilliancy of the gilded surface and the vividness of the green and red colours. The thick overpaintings were mechanically removed using small blades.

The intervention to clean the saint’s skin tone was different to the one related to the vest and mantle. Preliminary tests showed that after removing the thick, dark coating on the skin, the skin tone underneath was light and completely hidden by the dull and tenacious coating. Stratigraphic analysis of a small sample was carried out under a microscope and revealed that the layer below the dark coating appeared to be the original one.

One needed to act cautiously in this situation, primarily because the aesthetical appearance of the statue of St Paul was believed to be a dark one. After a careful, critical evaluation, conducted in an interdisciplinary way and with the involvement of the parish priest, Fr David Farrugia and his appointed committee, it was decided to bring to light the beauty of the original skin tone. This decision was not a straightforward one because the aesthetic perception of the statue by parishioners has a religious and devotional function for the parish community.

This was meticulous and demanding work which included the softening and removal of the coating using a solvent-based gel applied for a set amount of time in order to safeguard the original polychromy and patina. Thick accumulations of the coating, including impregnated layers of dust and grime, were removed manually using small scalpel blades.

Cleaning the dust and grime from the gilded mantle.Cleaning the dust and grime from the gilded mantle.

The removal of the thick brown coating revealed a skin tone of refined quality, and the cleaning intervention brought out the delicacy of the face with its three-dimensional forms and tones. After the dark coating on the flesh tones of the face was eliminated and especially when the overpainting on the hair and beard was removed, abrasions were found on the surfaces, probably caused by a drastic cleaning intervention carried out in the past. The total removal of the thick overpainting on the hair and beard also revealed lighter and softer brushstrokes.

The treatments continued with the infilling of the large amount of capillary cracks and lacunae. A flexible gesso-based infill mixed with a specific percentage of a heat-seal adhesive was devised by the team after several tests, in order to permit elasticity of the infills when movements of the wooden support occur. The infills were then levelled to the pictorial surface using fixed blades moistened in a hydrocarbon-based solvent.

To carry out the original gilding of the statue Coleiro had used the water gilding technique through the use of bole and a 23¾-carat gold leaf. The technique consisted in the application of a thin coat of yellow bole and then another more compact layer of red bole. The leaf was then applied by means of an aqueous mixture.

During the latest restoration the same manufacturing technique was used, namely water-gilding integration, to replace losses of gold on the statue. Double 23¾-carat gold leaf and Armenian yellow and red bole were used. The newly gilded areas were balanced with the original gold by means of light glazes of varnish colours to age and integrate the latest intervention with the original gilding.

The project was performed in accordance with the ethical principles for the protection and preservation of a work of art

Pictorial reintegration was carried out only on abrasions and lacunae to bring back the chromatic integrity of the polychromy by means of tempera colours through the use of the mimetic technique, and in certain areas were the sgraffito motifs were lost, integration was carried out through reconstruction.

Finally, the statue was varnished using a synthetic resin with a high resistance to aging and warm temperatures, including UV protection. A satin surface finish was given to protect the gilded and painted film and to saturate the colours. Varnish colours were then used in fine glazes to refine the retouching carried out using tempera colours.

Consolidating and gluing detachments between the polychrome layer and wooden support.Consolidating and gluing detachments between the polychrome layer and wooden support.

The pedestal’s condition was not found to be in a good state. Over time the altered surface coating and dirt had caused extensive aesthetic damage.

The varnish coating had oxidised and significantly yellowed the original gilded layer, and thick dust deposits had contributed to the formation of a biofilm on the surface. Poor maintenance had degraded the gold, causing numerous losses that were previously not visible. Excessive cleaning methods had also abraded protruding areas of the carvings.

It was necessary to treat all the capillary cracks of wood and the detachments to obtain a stable and well-consolidated support. The treatments proceeded with the cleaning intervention, which was a complex challenge because the gilded layer was found to be very fragile and compromised by the biofilm.

Burnishing the newly gilded areas of the pedestal.Burnishing the newly gilded areas of the pedestal.

This cleaning was performed using Japanese paper and an emulsion gel so as to remain on the surface as much as possible. The result was incredibly satisfying because the original brilliance of the gilded surface was brought back to light; however, unfortunately, many areas of the gilded surface were found to be very frail.

The gilded decorations, which represented motifs in matte gold, were done using a yellow layer of bolo, which was only burnished before applying the gold leaf. The ‘shiny’ carvings were burnished with agate stone after applying the gold leaf in order to obtain a shiny and compact surface finish. The new gilded areas were then aged using glazes of varnish colours so as to integrate the newly gilded areas with the original surface. A final protective coating was then applied that also functions as a consolidant.

The titular statue of St Paul after the conservation and restoration treatments. Photo: Ronald FalzonThe titular statue of St Paul after the conservation and restoration treatments. Photo: Ronald Falzon

The approach used for the conservation and restoration of the statue of St Paul was based on an understanding of the materials, technology, and causes of deterioration, and using treatments that favour a prolonged conservation of the statue.

All the materials used in the conservation and restoration have the common characteristic of reversibility. The project was performed in accordance with the ethical principles for the protection and preservation of a work of art, following the European Confederation of Conservator-Restorers’ Organisation’s (ECCO) code of ethics.

The meticulous cleaning intervention brought to light and allowed the recovery of the original layers of the skin tone of the sculpture in its integral originality, without creating a false history, and still visibly showing the signs of age. The aesthetical appearance of the skin tone has been brought back as far as possible to its former splendor; indeed details have resurfaced that had been buried under a thick coating. The decision to remove the costing was the result of a critical act motivated by the recovery of the original unity of the work of art.

Works of art such as this titular statue are unique and unrepeatable; they uphold local traditions and also create cultural distinctiveness in the Maltese identity. Therefore the restorers were committed to safeguard them professionally for generations to come through a conservative approach, based on criteria of prudence and respect.

The project was made possible thanks to the co­operation of Safi parish priest Fr David Farrugia, the Kummissjoni Restawr Statwa San Pawl com­mit­tee and the parish community. Thanks goes also to wood conservator Michael Formosa for the environmental monitoring of the niche and scientific analysis carried out on the wood and paint samples.

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