Preserving the Saints
On View through Winter 2013
Click here to see a video on the icons’ conservation.
For centuries, the faithful prayed before icons of the divine and holy for protection and preservation from all dangers, evil, and sin. Recently, worshippers at an Orthodox church in Skopje, Macedonia, claimed that its icons had cleaned themselves. No such miraculous intervention has taken place at LUMA. Instead, the museum received an American Heritage Preservation Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, a federally funded agency, to underwrite the conservation of two 18th-century Russian icons. The account of their treatment presented here is intended to open a discussion with LUMA’s visitors on the duty of a museum and its supporters not only to present but also to preserve objects of cultural and artistic beauty.
Icons: Representations of the Divine
The three great monotheistic religions of the Mediterranean world have proscriptions against the making and worshiping of idols. While Jews interpreted the Second Commandment as forbidding the creation of images of God, Christians argued that such images were permissible because the veneration and worship engendered was directed toward the divine depicted, not to the object or depiction itself. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, in order to restrain the artistic license of painters whose innovations might have been seen as a challenge to the creative power of God, artists were required to paint according to the ancient traditions and memory of the Church. Thus, the figures in Orthodox icons appear largely unchanging over the centuries—ancient, timeless, and other-worldly. Indeed, for the Orthodox Christian, an icon is not a simulation of a holy or saintly figure, but their actual manifestation; the saint is actually present through the medium of the icon. One thus approached icons with due reverence, performing proskinima by bowing, lighting a candle, and touching, even kissing, an icon.
Three icons from LUMA’s collection are exhibited here. The earliest, depicting the Last Judgment, dates from the late 16th century. In execution, style, and iconography, it is heavily indebted to Byzantine art. Not only is it painted in egg tempera on panel, a medium long abandoned in the West, but the faces and bodies have been modeled from shadow to light, starting with a dark, greenish base layer and building up to white highlights. Since the Renaissance, Western artists have painted in a reverse order. By tradition, icons are said to be “written,” rather than painted. A complex iconography—a visual language of symbols—governs the three works. For example, three distinctive orders of angels are portrayed in both Last Judgment and Holy Trinity with Saints and Angels. Seraphim are depicted in red, Cherubim in blue, and Thrones with eyes in their wings. As Russia opened to the West in the 18th century, artists came under the influence of the Italian Renaissance and contemporary Western styles. Something of that change may be detected in the two later icons, such as evidence of the use of oil paint. In Deesis with the Archangel Michael and Saint George, the artist attempts to suggest perspective through the receding landscape and shading of the distant buildings in contrast to the piling up of elements in Last Judgment. The modeling of the horses suggests volume and strength. Could the Russian artist have seen a work by the Italian High Renaissance artist Raphael?
It may seem counterintuitive, but paintings on panel are more delicate than those on stretched canvas. The latter can better adapt to changing levels of relative humidity. Panel, however, may either crack or cause paint layers to crack and lift away from the surface as the wood expands and contracts. The unpainted back is more responsive to environmental shifts in moisture and humidity. It is for this reason that museums strive to maintain stable conditions: ideally, 70°F and 50% RH.
Panel is also susceptible to insects that are attracted to the protein in the animal glue used in joints between the boards and in the gesso layer. The Last Judgment icon was riddled with wormholes that had significantly undermined the panel’s cohesion. The painting was conserved at Chicago’s Conservation Center in 2007, at which time non-toxic wood filler was injected into the wormholes to consolidate the panel.
Proskinima can adversely affect the icons it is meant to honor. Centuries of being touched and kissed will damage paint surfaces by abrasion, flaking of loose paint, and discoloration of gold from skin oils. There is also the danger of scorching from the flames of votive candles that soften the glue, weaken paint adhesion, and darken the surfaces with soot deposits. Indeed, evidence of flame damage was detected on Holy Trinity with Saints and Angels in the area of the intersecting circles of Thrones at the feet of God the Father and Christ. Soot and wax deposits were also detected there, presumably from spluttering candles being placed too close to the icon.
Between 2009 and 2010, Maura Checconi, LUMA’s conservation consultant, undertook a systematic survey of the condition of the collection’s paintings. She determined that both of the 18th-century Russian icons were in delicate states and required immediate treatment.
Unable to treat the icons at the museum, we looked for conservators with specific training in the treatment of egg tempera panel paintings. Chicago is fortunate to have two experts in the field, Cynthia Kuniej Berry and Julie Simek of Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC–Fine Art Conservation and Consulting, working in the Ravenswood neighborhood. They undertook the icons’ conservation over the summer and autumn of 2010.
Before treatment, both icons underwent further assessment, including color-balanced photography, examination under the binocular microscope and with a strong raking light, and ultraviolet radiation. This assessment enabled conservators to determine areas of cracking and vulnerability that were not readily apparent and to see the extent of previous treatment intervention. A photographic record was kept throughout the treatment period. The icons’ panel supports were determined to be stable and sound. There was only slight evidence of woodworm; none of which was considered active. Areas of the painted surface, particularly the faces in Holy Trinity with Saints and Angels gave considerable cause for concern. Here, the gesso (plaster) layer had dried, cracked, and lifted, disturbing surface paint layers. The possible use of oil paint, which contracts as it dries, may have encouraged such cracking. Much of the fine original facial modeling and detailing was in danger of being lost. [Detail 2]
At some point, dampness had also affected the icon's lower edge, causing the paint and gesso layers to fall away, revealing the icon's canvas and panel supports. Overall, Deesis with the Archangel Michael and Saint George was found to be in better condition. However, there were a number of small scratches deep enough to expose the gesso ground layer, and other small areas of paint loss. Most alarming of these was a one-inch diameter area in which one could see the underlying panel. Surrounded by rough and lifting edges of gesso, paint, and gold leaf, this area of loss threatened to expand further
The conservators’ first step was to stabilize all areas of cracked and loose gesso. Small amounts of isinglass, or glue made from sturgeon fish’s bladder, were wicked or infused into the cracks with a #0 fine-tipped paint brush. (Accounts of preparing fish glue for painting date as far back as ancient Egyptian times.) Pressure from a warm Teflon spatula was applied to ease the lifting gesso and paint back down.
Once the icons’ surfaces were secured, they were cleaned with a mild enzymatic aqueous solution—a.k.a. saliva—applied with cotton swabs. The enzymes in human saliva break down the composition of dirt, making it a particularly effective cleanser of lightly soiled paintings.
Gouges in the gesso layer were filled with fresh plaster made with rabbit skin glue, another traditional ingredient in the preparation of panel paintings. [Detail 4] With great skill, the conservators then painted in these areas, carefully choosing pigments to match the lost paint. Mixed with an aldehyde resin that is not susceptible to yellowing when it ages, the inpainting, as it is called, is completely reversible. Reversibility is a fundamental rule of conservation, because all materials will undergo chemical change over time. Newer pigments, bound in a different medium from the original paint surface, will age differently from older ones. Thus after a generation or two, as the inpainting ages at a different pace from the surrounding original paint, it may become necessary to adjust or remove and retouch it.
Conservation, not Restoration
In the professional language of museums, a distinction is made between conservation and restoration. The latter attempts to turn the clock back, to restore an object to its appearance at a particular moment in its life, usually its creation. Accretions may be removed, losses replaced, and pigment changes corrected. The conservator’s goal is first and foremost to preserve an object as it has come down to us. Their intervention is based on a scientific knowledge of the properties of the pigments and materials used. They are charged to intervene as conservatively as possible, and to use substances that are sympathetic to the original. Whenever possible, their interventions should be reversible. Changes that are inherent in the nature of the materials, due to its use, or the result of a historical or cultural accident are invariably left untouched by conservators, as these changes are part of an object’s history.
Conservators and curators collaborate closely. Through careful examination and technical analysis, conservators often discover interesting evidence of the artist’s working method. Loss of paint on the tower to the right of St. George’s arm in the Deesis icon has revealed the detailed nature of the underdrawing by which the artist laid out the composition. Entablatures and arches were carefully delineated. [Detail 5] It was common practice for artists to incise the outline of the composition into the gesso layer. Evidence of the practice abounds in this icon, particularly in those places in which the artist changed the composition as he painted, as in the position of the horses’ rearing hooves. When viewed in a raking light, the incised lines of their original disposition can be discerned.
Slightly different treatment parameters were established for the two icons. To a large degree this was dictated by their condition. Inpainting on Holy Trinity with Saints and Angels [Detail 6] was limited to filling very small and distracting areas of loss, for example in Christ’s face and St. John the Baptist’s right forearm, and in strengthening abraded contours as with the feathered body of the upper blue Cherubim. Several areas along the edges of the panel were also treated to prevent further erosion of the painted surface; however, the loss caused by damp along the icon’s bottom edge was left untreated. It was evidently of some considerable age, and the edges to the gesso, paint, and gilding had been treated previously to prevent further encroachment on the main image. This loss did not detract from the icon’s overall appearance and legibility. The conservators and I were content to leave evidence of the icon’s age and hard life.
However, gesso, paint, and gold leaf were flaking around the edges of the inch-diameter area of loss in the lower right corner of the Deesis icon. Restorative intervention was required to protect its integrity. Thus the conservators filled the loss with new gesso, and restored the damaged gold border. Matching the luster of that small patch of gilding to the aged gold leaf was no easy feat! But you will notice that not every nick and crack along the icon’s edge was filled and inpainted. Setting the parameters for conservation treatment is difficult and ultimately somewhat arbitrary. I could have authorized additional in-filling and inpainting, but my personal preference is to be as minimalist as possible. It was harder to draw that line on the Deesis icon once it had been determined that the best defense against further loss required in-filling, inpainting, and re-gilding.
2012: The Year for Conservation
The American Heritage Preservation program is intended to promote awareness of conservation issues as much as to conserve art. This installation is but one part of a year-long initiative to raise awareness of the collection’s conservation needs. Throughout the year, there will be additional installations and public programs. Please consult the events calendar for upcoming programs, and keep abreast of developments in the conservation column in the museum’s magazine, The LUMANARY.
Toward the end of the year, the D’Arcy’s 15th-century Italian processional cross will undergo conservation treatment before being sent to the Cleveland Museum of Art for exhibition. Please help us conserve the treasures in this collection. For more information on how to contribute, contact Ann Fruland at email@example.com or 312.915.6719.
The icons’ conservation could not have taken place without the American Heritage Preservation Grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
I am most grateful to Maura Checconi who volunteered for almost three years as LUMA’s conservation consultant. I wish her well as she prepares to return to her native Italy to resume her private practice.
I would like to acknowledge the work of Julie Simek, Associate Painting Conservator, and I look forward to collaborating with Kuniej Berry Associates, LLC, on future conservation projects. I am grateful for their readiness to be videotaped by University Marketing and Communications.
I very much appreciate the role of UMC in promoting the collection’s conservation needs through the skills of its videographers, Brendan Keating and Dustin McQuary.
Jonathan P. Canning
Martin D'Arcy, S.J. Curator of Art
Image Details: Last Judgment, late 16th century Russian (Moscow), tempera and gold on panel, Gift of Mr. & Mrs. Robert C. McNamara in honor of Father D’Arcy, 1972-20; Holy Trinity with Saints and Angels, 18th century Russian, tempera on wood, Gift of Father Willard F. Jabusch, 2001-02