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Proġetti Kurrenti

Proġett ta' Restawr u Konservazzjoni tal-Istatwa ta' Marija Bambina

 

In 2016, Atelier del Restauro ltd was appointed by the Parish Church of Senglea to assess the state of conservation of the statue of The Virgin Mary, in order to provide an appropriate conservation and restoration methodology. The face, hair, hands, angels as well as the base of the statue were inspected both structurally and aesthetically using various scientific methods. Primarily an in-situ assessment was carried out during two on-site visits.

Historical Background

The statue of Our Lady of Victories, widely known as il-Bambina, is venerated in the Sanctuary Basilica dedicated to the Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Senglea. Its origins go back to 1618. The figure was donated to the parish church of Senglea in the early 17th century. According to tradition and a source, found on a manuscript document in the archives of the parish, the statue was found floating in the sea together with a wreckage from a galleon. The manuscript states that: “quest’ immagine probabilmente era fatta in qualche quadro di puppa”, meaning that the statue was, in all probability, made to adorn the rear part of a Christian galleon. It is said that the vessel was shattered at the height of a storm and shipwrecked on one of the Dalmatian islands, which today form part of Croatia. The captain of an Austrian galley, in the vicinity, caught sight of the statue in the sea among the wreckage of the galleon and collected the statue. Two of his passengers, happened to hail from Senglea, “a certain Lanzon, who was the grandfather of Joseph Lanzon, known as Ta’ Palmett, and the other was the father of Demetrius Tumbo”. They requested to donate the statue to their parish church. The statue was handed to parish priest Don Cosimo Talavera in the year 1618, and was made the titular statue of the parish. The effigy is the oldest titular statue of the Maltese Islands. In the year 1804, Maltese sculptor Mariano Gerada sculpted a base with clouds and angels for the statue. The statue was solemnly crowned on September 4, 1921. Between the years 1984 and 1996 the statue’s vestments were embellished with embossed plates of real gold and silver, the work of silversmith Giovanni Bartolo.

Assessment of the Statue’s State of Conservation through scientific analysis

Wooden support

In order to better understand the statue’s state of conservation, it was dismantled from its base. By inspecting the otherwise concealed base of the statue it was possible to identify that it was carved from what appeared to be a tree trunk. The sculpture was carved in the round and appears to be of solid construction. Further investigations were then carried out using Computer Axial Tomography (CT scan) and X-ray radiation, in order to ascertain whether a hollow core is present or not.

The wooden support was found to be in a stable state of conservation and no insect activity was identified. Two cracks, visible on the base of the sculpture, indicate the presence of drying cracks. Drying cracks are a natural cause and occur because of the anisotropic properties of wood, meaning that wood has different properties depending on the direction and orientation of the wood’s grain, which differs in all directions. Therefore dimensional shrinkage occurs. Drying cracks were also observed on the base with angels.

Tomographic investigation of the wooden support using a Medical CT-Scan

Tomographic investigation allows for a better understanding of the statue’s wooden support, its manufacturing technique and its structural arrangement. The statue was dismantled into three parts, where the hands were removed and the statue was detached from the base supporting it. Each section of the statue was then investigated separately.

Tomographic investigations revealed that the head of the statue was carved out of the same piece of wood as the rest of the statue, therefore it was not worked separately or replaced. This is evident as there are no joints or splits present at the neck and also the wood grain orientation is the same. A split visible in the head of the statue shows that the face of the Bambina was detached from the statue and worked separately, similar to a mask, but still carved from the same piece of wood as the head, since the wood grain orientation matches the rest of the statue. This shows that the face of the statue was original to the statue and not a later addition.

X-Ray investigations using a portable X-ray Scanner

The Head of the statue was also investigated using a portable X-ray Scanner. X-ray investigations reveal information about the manufacturing technique of the statue. Investigations carried out under X-ray showed that the face ‘ il-maskra’ of the statue was attached to the rest of the head using metal nails, further proving that the face was worked separately from the rest of the statue and was at the time of manufacturing detached from the statue.

Scientific analysis of the wood used for the support

A sample from the wooden support of the statue and another from the wooden support of the base were extracted for the purpose of identifying the type of wood (wood ID) used for the construction. Wood ID was also carried out in order to deduce whether the wood could be dated by means of dendrochronology. From the anatomical observations made, the statue’s wooden support is Lime (Tilia sp.). Lime (Tilia sp.) was the most appreciated and utilised wood for carving all over Europe, thanks to its anatomical characteristics (diffuse porous, very fine texture) and aesthetical features (white colour, slightly visible vein). In particular, in central and Northern Europe limewood was almost the only wood utilised for devotional sculptures. On the other hand the wood used for the base of the statue is Pinus sp. (Pine).

Pictorial layers

Once analysis on the statue’s wooden support were carried out, the preparatory and paint layers were inspected. Detachments of the paint layer were mainly noted on the hair of the statue and on parts of the angels. The natural movement of the wooden support also damages the overlying preparatory and paint layers, causing the layers to crack and detach. The appearance of the statue had been altered significantly during later interventions. A layer of dirt, present over the whole surface of the skin tones, was also noted. The layer of dirt was composed of mainly soot from burning candles and oil lamps, as well as solid particles, probably deriving from atmospheric pollution. During the observations made some stuccoed lacunae were identified, present mainly on the chin of the Bambina and on one of the angels found on the base of the statue. A fairly degraded and non-homogenous varnish layer was identified covering the polychromy. This varnish became brittle through ageing, and had yellowed and darkened due to the oxidation of its components.

Observations under Ultraviolet (UV) light and infrared (IR) radiation

During preliminary observations, the sculpture was examined under ultraviolet (UV) light and infrared (IR) radiation. Images were recorded showing the effect of the non-spectral radiation on the artwork. This method of analysis helped to better understand the statue’s state of conservation as well as the past interventions carried out. Ultraviolet fluorescence (UVF) photographs allowed accurate location of the overpainted areas carried out during the later intervention. The last overpainting intervention was applied to specific areas, namely on the cheeks, forehead, neck and over the feet. This could have been carried out in order to enhance and add further volume and ‘colour’ to the face of Maria Bambina. Other fluorescence visible under UV-light indicated a distinctive organic varnish layer. A light milky greenish/ yellow florescence revealed the presence of a natural resin on the face and neck, the resin was most probably applied in a past restoration intervention due to the fact that it was applied in a very non-homogeneous way. An orange fluorescence present over the feet indicates that a layer of shellac was applied in a past intervention. Heavy overpainting was visible on the hair of the Bambina, with losses of overpainting indicating the original colour underneath to be lighter than the overlying one.

Examination of paint stratigraphy under a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM)

Examining the sculpture, it was clear that it had undergone several aesthetical interventions. In order to understand the number of interventions carried out on the skin tones and if an original paint layer is present, two samples were extracted. The stratigraphy of the samples taken were then examined under a Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM). Analysis of a sample taken from the neck area showed that the preparatory layer present in contact with the wooden support, comprised of a mixture of lead white and barium white (barium sulphate). Barium sulphate had been proposed as an artists’ pigment during c 1782, nonetheless, it did not reach widespread commercial application until the early 1800s and is often used as an extender in lead white paint layers. Thus its presence could imply that these paint layers were applied during the 19th century. This could also indicate that this layer was applied by an artist during a 19th century intervention. No older polychromy dating to prior the 19th century period appears to be present in this sample. On the other hand in the sample taken from the foot, a number of layers were observed underneath a preparation layer of this composition. This suggests that an original polychromy preceding the 19th century is possibly present underneath. The oldest colours used by the artist identified in this sample, included the pigments lead white, cinnabar and minium. The scientific investigations carried out proved that at least two overpainting phases had been carried out on the neck and feet. The analysis of these layers showed that the technique and material qualities of the original paint layers were superior to those overlaying them.

Conservation and Restoration treatments

Scientific investigations confirmed the presence of several layers of paint resulting from different interventions taking place throughout the history of the statue. Therefore the main objective of the conservation and restoration treatment of the statue of Maria Bambina was to reveal the original aesthetical properties of the statue whilst consolidating the physical properties of the original pictorial layers.

Primarily, the detachments of the paint layer were adhered to the underlying preparation layer, providing a stable surface upon which the following conservation treatments could be executed. The treatment consisted of localized injections of conservation-standard micro-emulsion beneath the detaching paint, which allowed the preparation to soften and adhere to its substrate without it risking breakage in the process. Localized adhesion of the detachments was then carried out by re-activating the adhesive using a small heated spatula.

When a stable surface was achieved, cleaning of the overpainting layers and oxidized varnish coating commenced. The cleaning intervention on the statue of Maria Bambina was found to be a very complex process. The presence of several layers of paint and interlaying varnish layers, having different properties and ages, made the process more challenging. Moreover different areas of the statue were found to have a different stratigraphy to others. It was therefore decided to treat each area separately, applying a different methodology, whereby the layers of paint and varnish were removed one layer at a time. A series of cleaning tests were carried out for each of the layers present, determining the most suitable cleaning methodology to adopt. The top-most layers were easily removed using solvent gels. Solvent gels allow for the removal of overpainting and varnishes whilst minimizing the extent of solvent penetration into the underlying layers. The lower layers present closer to the original paint layer were on the other hand more difficult to remove. Being closer to the paint layer meant that the overpaint was older and therefore more oxidized and brittle. Whilst solvent gels were still used on these layers, mechanical cleaning using small surgical blades was also employed. Attention was given as not to damage the original paint layer in the process of removing the overlaying paint layers. Once all the overpaint layers were removed the original chromatic integrity of the polychrome statue were revealed. A finer painting technique was revealed and some features such as the angels’ eyes and hair as well as the Bambina’s hair were found to be a different colour altogether.

The treatment then progressed with the infilling of losses of the paint and preparation layers. A flexible gesso was applied to the losses using a small brush. The gesso used provided elasticity to the infills when movements of the wooden support occur. Many small losses were present on the hair of the statue as well as scattered throughout different areas of the statue. Once dry, the infilled losses were levelled to the level of the paint layer, following the shape of the original surface. Pictorial re- integration was then carried out on abrasions and lacunae throughout the painted surface of the statue, as to bring back the chromatic integrity of the polychromy. Primarily the losses were painted using a layer of tempera and watercolours. The losses were then integrated using reversible conservation standard Maimeri varnish colours, which were applied onto an intermediate layer of retouching varnish. The statue was then coated using a low molecular weight resin, with a high resistance to aging and warm temperatures, including UV protection. A satin surface finish was chosen to protect the painted film as well as to saturate the colours of the statue.

Conclusion

The conservation project was completed in August 2017. All the materials used in the conservation of the statue have the common characteristic of reversibility and every phase of the project has been documented through photography. 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' Organization’s (E.C.C.O) Code of Ethics. Works of art such as this statue are unique and unrepeatable, they uphold traditions and also create cultural distinctiveness to our Maltese identity. Therefore as conservators we are responsible to safeguard them professionally for future generations, through an approach based on the criteria of prudence and respect. We are proud and thankful to the Basilica of Senglea for having entrusted to us the conservation of the oldest and one of the most important Titular statues in the Maltese Islands.