The Malta Independent 18 March 2019, Monday

A parish church restores all its paintings

Malta Independent Sunday, 25 May 2014, 20:26 Last update: about 6 years ago

It must be a rather rare case where a church restores all its paintings at one go.

In 2008 the restoration of the ceiling of the St Gaetan parish church in Hamrun was completed. 

The paintings on the ceiling and all the internal decoration of the church are by Emvin Cremona - indeed this church is considered by many as being Cremona’s masterpiece. 

Early in 2009 the parish church started the restoration of the dome, both its exterior and interior.  This project was completed and inaugurated in the summer of 2012. 

After that, it was the turn of the rest of the church to be painted, which is presently being carried out by a group of volunteers and which it is hoped to complete by 2015.

The church has a series of paintings hanging on top of what used to be altars, mainly painted by Maltese and foreign artists in the latter half of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th.

They are:

Titular painting of San Gaetan by Pietro Gagliardi (1881)

Our Lady of Sorrows by Pietro Gagliardi (1880)

Il-Madonna tal-Karmnu by Giuseppe Cali (1879)

Il-Madonna tad-Duttrina by Giuseppe Cali (1885)

St Joseph by Giuseppe Cali (1884)

St Anthony by Domenico Bruschi (1884)

St Benedict and St Scolastica by Giuseppe di Giovanni (1878)

St Apollonia by Anna Forti (1874)

Our Lady of the Rosary by Giuseppe Bonnici (1881)

Our Lady of Lourdes  (19th Century)

Il-Madonna tac-Cintura, probably by Enrico Regnaud (18th Century)

A meticulous study by professional restorers was commissioned and it was established that they all need urgent repair, otherwise the parish might lose this artistic patrimony. 

Prevarti –Art Restoration & Conservation, whose founder, Pierre Bugeja, hails from Hamrun, was entrusted with the project, duly authorized by church and civil authorities.  The project will be completed in two years from now and is estimated to cost €65,000.

Prevarti has drawn up a detailed report on each of these paintings suggesting remedial action for each. These are excerpts from the report, given to this paper by the parish.

 

Gagliardi: St Gaetan

The titular painting at the Hamrun parish church depicts the Virgin Mary offering Jesus to Saint Gaetan, a common imagery used when painting the saint. The painting was commissioned by Bishop Gejtanu Pace Forno and painted by Pietro Cagliardi (1809-1890) in Rome. It was brought to the church in 1881 when the church was made a parish. Gagliardi was a disciple of the well-known artist Tommaso Minardi.

In the painting Saint Gaetan is portrayed serenely kneeling before the Virgin Mary awaiting to receive the infant Jesus, imagery showing a vision experienced by the saint in 1517. Besides the saint there is a lily symbolizing purity and in the background there is shown the coat of arms belonging to the benefactor of the painting, bishop Gejtanu Pace Forno.

The painting is an oil painting with a canvas support. It is very well executed with the artist using light and bright colouring, typical of the Purist technique employed by the artist. The paint layer is relatively thin with very little impasto relief. The painting has a canvas support, which appears to be of a medium thickness and having a tight weave. Also a varnish layer is present on top of the paint layer.

When viewed under normal light, the report says,  the painting appears to be in an over-all relatively good condition; further investigation using ultra-violet and raking light may expose further information as with regards the state of conservation of the painting.

The painting’s canvas support is well conserved with little to no damage. The reverse of the painting is covered with a substantial amount of superficial dust and debris, due to lack of maintenance. Superficial dust is harmful to the painting as it attracts moisture to the painting’s surface due to its hydroscopic properties. There were no signs of structural damage at the time of visual examination.

The paint layer is suffering from few ageing cracks caused due to the ageing of the paint layer and the over and underlying layers; namely the canvas support, the preparation layer and the varnish layer. Cracks in the paint layer although fine may cause further detachment of the paint layer from its substrata, flaking and lacunae.

The varnish layer applied to the painting has also aged and altered with time. Due to oxidation of the varnish composition its colour has darkened causing the overall darkening of the painting’s aesthetics. Also due to oxidation the varnish layer has caused dark spots on the painting surface, mainly visible on the white areas of the painting.

The varnish layer has also experienced blanching, an effect caused by a reaction of the varnish layer with humidity. This caused the varnish layer to have a matte, hazy appearance hindering the legibility of the painting and also distracting from the painting’s aesthetical properties.

 

Our Lady of Sorrows

Another altar painting by the artist Pietro Cagliari found at the Hamrun parish church is that of ‘Our Lady of Sorrows’ painted by the artist in 1880. The painting depicts the Virgin sitting at the Calvary with Christ lying in her lap after his crucifixion. The painting has a traditional iconography and is painted using a very good technique.

The painting is on oil painting with a canvas support. The support is of a medium thickness and has a tight weave. It is stretched onto a wooden stretcher frame having wooden keys and a central horizontal cross-bar.

When viewed under normal light the painting’s preparation layer was not identified, although when a traditional oil painting technique was used a preparation layer was generally applied beneath the paint layer.

The paint layer is relatively thin and has very little to no areas of thick impasto. The palette used mainly consists of dark colours for the background, with lighter colours being used to emphasize the two figures in the foreground, giving the painting an overall sombre mood.

When viewed in situ under normal light the painting was found to be in a good state of conservation with little to no structural damage of the wooden stretcher frame and canvas support.

The reverse of the painting as well as the front of the painting where found to be covered in an abundant amount of dust and debris, this being harmful to the painting as it attracts moisture to the painting surface, causing further deterioration.

Due to ageing a network of cracks has formed on the painting surface, this has caused micro-losses of the paint and preparation layers that with time could lead to further losses of the painting layers. Other, slightly larger, lacunae of the paint layer are present along the external borders of the painting; these being a result of handling of the painting and movement of the canvas support as a reaction to atmospheric factors such as relative humidity and heat.

When viewed under normal light the painting’s preparation layer was not identified, although when a traditional oil painting technique was used a preparation layer was generally applied beneath the paint layer.

The paint layer is relatively thin and has very little to no areas of thick impasto. The palette used mainly consists of dark colours for the background, with lighter colours being used to emphasize the two figures in the foreground, giving the painting an overall sombre mood.

When viewed in situ under normal light the painting was found to be in a good state of conservation with little to no structural damage of the wooden stretcher frame and canvas support.

The reverse of the painting as well as the front of the painting where found to be covered in an abundant amount of dust and debris, this being harmful to the painting as it attracts moisture to the painting surface, causing further deterioration.

Due to ageing a network of cracks has formed on the painting surface, this has caused micro-losses of the paint and preparation layers that with time could lead to further losses of the painting layers. Other, slightly larger, lacunae of the paint layer are present along the external borders of the painting; these being a result of handling of the painting and movement of the canvas support as a reaction to atmospheric factors such as relative humidity and heat.

 

Three Cali paintings

Next, the report deals with three paintings by Giuseppe Cali.

The first of which being a painting of our lady of the Carmelites or better known as Il-Madonna tal- Karmnu. The painting was donated to the church by Guzeppi Farrugia Preca in 1879, before it became a parish, and is believed to be one of the first paintings Cali painted in Malta. The coat of arms for Farrugia Preca can be found on the lower right corner of the painting.

Another painting by Giuseppe Cali found at the Hamrun Parish church is that of Il-Madonna tad-Duttrina, dedicated to the virgin of the teaching of Christianity. The painting is said to have been painted in circa. 1885, about the time the veneration to this Virgin was gaining popularity on the island.

The third painting by Giuseppe Cali for the Hamrun parish church was that of St. Joseph, an important saint for the Hamrun community. The painting was painted by the artist in 1884 and commissioned by Antonio Attard, whose coat of arms is found on the lower part of the painting. The painting is considered to be one of Cali’s better works.

The analysis of these three paintings refers, in particular, to two small tears in the Madonna tal-Karmnu painting.

 

Two other damaged paintings

Although the report dwells in detail on each of the church’s paintings, two paintings, in particular, exhibit damage.

The painting of St. Benedict and St. Skolastika is found at the first chapel on the left side of the church. It was painted by the artist Giuseppe di Giovanni in 1878.

Whist still structurally stable the painting is suffering from several problems of the paint layer, which give it an overall un-homogenous appearance.

As with regards the canvas support, there are deformations at the top left corner, where the canvas has become slack and therefore not properly stretched onto its stretcher frame. Also few small losses and tears of the support are present along the painting borders. In addition an accumulation of dust is present on the reverse of the painting, which attracts moisture to painting due to its hydroscopic properties.

The painting of Our lady of Lourdes is another altar painting at the Hamrun parish church. It is most probably a 19th century painting although the artist is unknown. The painting depicts the Virgin at the moment she appeared to Bernadette at the grotto in Lourdes.

Due to its very thin composition the painting is suffering from various deteriorating effects. Four tears of the canvas support are present ranging between 1 and 5cm in width. One of which is an L-shaped tear. The

tears appear to have been caused by an external force exerted onto the stretched painting.

 

This is a major project for the Hamrun parish.  The parish community alone cannot raise the needed finances.  Thus the parish, through a sponsorship scheme, is requesting financial assistance from leading commercial organizations and associations.

The parish, with the assistance of Prevarti, will also organize a seminar for parishioners and the public in general, so that more information on the restoration works of the paintings will be given.  A special notice board has been set up in the parish church, giving information on the works in progress and on the funds collected from the parishioners and sponsorships.

Fr Henry Balzan, Parish Priest, thanks all the parishioners for the support they are giving for the restoration works at the parish church.  A group of volunteers led by Fr Joe Gatt, Vice Parish Priest, are painting the church and others are offering, even anonymously, their financial assistance. 

   
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