Conservation within religious communities

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(The following text is a shortened version of a presentation done at West Dean about conservation advocacy)

Having worked as a conservator within a religious community in the past, to see the media success of a disfigured Christ is, unfortunately, a familiar episode. A situation like this makes us wonder why and how this happens in what we call a "well-informed" society such as today's. A situation like this makes us wonder if the correct information is reaching those in charge of heritage's care and protection. Why would someone "ruin" a two-hundred-year-old painting on the wall?

Like in the above episode, these people are from devoted, religious communities to which a church is more than a place of worship; it is a home. Churches often hold valuable and rare heritage, hidden in the local church away from the public on the street.

I found that sometimes people will care about their church more than their own houses. We will always find flower bouquets freshly cut over the gilded altars and white drapery and lit candles and just-cleaned one-hundred-year-old shiny silverware.

We will find these people convinced they are doing only good when splashing buckets of water onto floors and walls and others alike to make their house the prettiest one. That's what they genuinely think is the right thing to do! It is not bad will; rather a question of ignorance.

“Alternative treatment of sculptures. Image found in a popular magazine by Hans Westhoff. (Photo, copyright Voller Ernst, Berlin).” In Bigelow, D., ed. (1991). Gilded Wood: Conservation and History. Madison, Conn.: Sound View Press, p.15.

Why would they need to employ a cleaning expert if these people can do it themselves? Although extreme, this exemplifies the lack of information about conservation within some religious communities. These people will have an expectation about what conservators do and what they think should be done.

When working in the northeast of Portugal, the broad idea was that a conservator, or better a restorer, was actually a craftsman who learned his job with his father and his father with his. Craftsmen, who have learned the craft of carving and painting saint sculptures according to traditional techniques and resources or with cheaper, modern materials. They would be concerned with current aesthetics more than the objects' history and will proudly defend their art.

By browsing the internet, we can actually find these craftsmen willing to fix old religious sculptures, to bring them to life again.

The image on the left (over-painted with a flat brown colour) shows traces of an under layer of a decoration similar to the image on the right (tempera graffito over gold leaf).

Some people will like it, others will not. Some people will prefer the aged look although a couple of fingers are missing, others will want the bright coloured finishing with shiny gold and all.

So, how do we conservators tell these people what our job is and how different it is from what the other so-called "restorers" do? The solution is simple language. Young priests in charge of their parishes are now taught about conservation principles and art history and are important mediators between conservators and local communities.

Therefore, words like consolidation, surface cleaning or retouching need to be replaced by less fancy ones like fixing, repairing, dusting, painting, etc. It does not mean we are going to overpaint everything; we just use different words that people can relate to.

Detail of the base of a sculpture with metal nails used to secure pieces of fabric to embelish the saint during a festive day.

X-ray photo shown to these communities to illustrate the accumulation of nails over time.

The analogy with medicine often works very well. The need for exams (like x-rays), diagnosis, consequent treatment and healing has been very well-accepted. Often, telling people that objects did not need a surgery or stitches to hide the damage, making an ugly mess, would suffice. Or even - and thinking of the Spanish mural - that tons of make-up will hardly hide the wrinkles making these worse and more pronounced over time.

To a conservator's eye these interventions are sometimes difficult to understand but one must not forget they are done with the best intention (but not always!) and are a work of devotion. Maybe the recent incident will now reach some of those communities and alert for the damage caused by these less informed actions.