Friday, September 1, 2017

Archaeology of an Altarpiece

Copyright © Edward Riojas

It wasn’t exactly a Velociraptor tooth, but I knew I was on to something.

I recently deconstructed an old altarpiece and, in doing so, reconstructed a bit of history. It began months ago, when I agreed to take a dusty, old altarpiece and its companion Baptismal font from a parsonage basement, thus saving the sanctuary “furniture” from certain demise in a county landfill. In exchange, I also agreed to clean and reframe the central painting, and give it back to the church. While not very attractive to me, the painting of a Resurrected Christ held enough historical significance for the congregation to warrant preservation.
Back of the altarpiece's central section.

Thus I began to ponder the filthy altarpiece, and how best to take it apart. Feel free to imagine me with pick and shovel, dental tools, and a horsehair brush. Okay, so I had a pry bar and a hammer.

I first looked at the back – the mostly-likely entry point for the Gothic-arched canvas. A horrible make-over job, probably of 1920s or ‘30’s vintage, left its scars. I mean, who would want to brush over stained wood with cream-colored paint? Is wasn’t a very careful job, either. Paint dripped off the Gothic details and down the inaccessible back. A large wooden panel covered most of the back, but, curiously, two different sets of nails weren’t enough to keep it against the frame – something held the panel away so that the nail shafts were visible.

Things became more clear when I started prying the large panel away. It was nicely “glued-up” lumber, and its hidden surface, facing the back of the painting, was stained and varnished. My original hunch that the painting was not original proved true. The large panel holding the painting in place was actually intended to be visible within the Gothic frame. A few small holes hinted that a small crucifix was probably mounted centrally on the panel.
With the back panel off and canvas exposed.

There was also an odd light fixture just above the peak of the arched opening. It was old enough, but it certainly wasn’t original. Frames of this style easily date to the mid- to late-1800s, and electricity was a novelty, at best.

The painting was now accessible with the panel off, but it was in a sorry state. To begin, the canvas was poorly stretched. Its stretcher frame was less than minimal – even when accommodating a Gothic arch. Its construction had been compromised and it no longer even stretched the canvas. It was a wonder the canvas itself was intact.

The stretching job indicated that it was probably done by an artist of middling abilities and less notoriety. Copper nails were not used, and the nails that were used were set at random intervals. The corners were not tidy at all. If the artist himself didn’t treat his work with dignity, neither did time.
Poor condition of the stretched canvas.

The painting surface was covered by countless years of dust and all manner of insect droppings and who knows what else. I know enough about art conservation that important jobs should be left to professional restorers, but I also knew the painting was no Rembrandt. Professional restorers use a combination of restraint, voodoo-like chemistry, patience, and even their own saliva to accomplish things. I opted, instead, on a simple, but decisive approach.

First, I used a clean, soft brush to repeatedly rid the surface of the obvious dust and dirt. I vacuumed the back of the canvas. (Restorers, feel free to pull out your hair.) Then I carefully used purified water and a brush on small areas to clean the oil painting bit deeper. I was sure to wipe any excess water so that it dried quickly.

There came another “Aha!” moment when I addressed the insect droppings. Prodding with a very small chisel revealed that, apparently, the church at that time could not afford a candle snuffer. What I originally thought were droppings were, based on the location and spatter pattern, candle wax. Smoke from candles can be bad enough for sanctuary artwork, but over-zealous blowing of candles does not bode well for artwork just inches away.
Candle wax, paint line, and date

I had been trying to date the altarpiece at every turn and found only carpenter’s markings – that is, until I removed the painting. Not-so-careful painters left a line of cream-colored paint around the edge of the canvas. Paint even partially obscured the signature of the artist, M. Madsen. When the canvas was pulled out of the frame, however, what was hidden by the frame edge came to light – below the artist’s signature was the date, 1908.

A simple timeline can be constructed from my little exercise of removing a sacred painting from its frame. The altarpiece was originally a darkly-stained, wooden affair with Gothic details. A simple cross hung on its large, central panel. That was in the late 1800s. Some time shortly after the turn of the century, Madsen was asked to create a painting of the Resurrection to replace the crucifix and panel. Electricity was available, so a light was added to illuminate the painting. New tastes in decor later dictated the altarpiece be lightened up, and it was given a makeover with cream and gold paint.
In the 1950s, a much nicer altarpiece was purchased and installed in the church, and the old altarpiece was removed to the parsonage basement. It stayed there for 60 years or more.

The upgrading and removal of such things may seem of little consequence. After so many years few people remember. But one elderly woman did. As the altarpiece was being loaded in a rental trailer to make the trip to my house, she told the pastor that she and her husband were the last couple to be married in front of the image of the Risen Christ. For that simple reason alone, the painting is going back to its proper home.

No comments:

Post a Comment