São Cristovão Church in Lisbon houses a collection of 36 masterpieces from one of the major Portuguese baroque painters, Bento Coelho da Silveira. The church is one of the few buildings that have survived the 1755 earthquake almost unarmed, a natural disaster that devastated most of downtown Lisbon, at the time one of the richest and most lively cities in Europe. But although nature has not destroyed this treasure the inaction of mankind almost has. Considering the state of degradation of the building and its treasures, urgent action was necessary in order to protect it from further deterioration. With the help of a local priest, Fr. Edgar Clara, several local institutions gathered together and the result was a project to obtain the necessary funding for the preservation of the church building and its contents, including 36 Baroque paintings, the gilded wood altar pieces, sculptures and ancient glazed tiles.
The Arte por São Critovão (http://arteporsaocristovao.org/ ) project was put in motion with the main strategic focus of gathering enough resources to launch a comprehensive conservation campaign with the aim of giving back to Lisbon the São Cristovão church restored to all its splendour and glory. The other main objective was to make it possible for the church to be open. This had not previously been the case due to the lack of enough human resources in numbers that would have permitted access to the visiting public while at the same time guaranteeing the safeguarding of its contents.
Recently the Arte por São Cristovão project was included by the World Monuments Fund in their 2016 Watch List of the most endangered places in the World.
WMF considered the São Cristovão Church in Lisbon as one of the treasures of the city and as such worthy of saving. Although this nomination represent a big victory for the Arte por São Cristovão project, it also sends a clear and present call to the world highlighting its state of deterioration.
Using the unique Coelho da Silveira paintings collection as the main ‘star’ for the conservation project, a series of events was designed to heighten awareness and bring as much attention as possible to the project, making this first phase mainly a marketing campaign.
With the support of local authorities, a number events and actions were prepared and implemented during the last year continuing into the next one, including several thematic exhibitions and cultural installations from renowned artists, a congress dedicated to the preservation of cultural heritage in urban areas and several workshops with the aim of involving the local community in heritage preservation. This part of the project has been directly funded by the local city hall of Lisbon.
Fr. Edgar Clara, the project manager, said “One of the main necessities in implementing such a project is to bring the local communities and other stakeholders at the heart of their heritage, to the very place where the art pieces are. It is important for them to understand what is happening to their own heritage. Most of the local people were not aware of the urgent action needed to preserve this heritage because they didn't know how bad the paintings were. We have to remember that most of the time this church was closed to the public. This in itself was another factor that promoted further degradation of the church.
One of the most interesting element has been the opportunity to sponsor a ceramic tile that will be used in the new roof of the church. The tile will contain a dedication with the names of the sponsors as a remembrance of their contribution to the preservation of this unique building. This is one of the most popular activities run by the Arte por São Cristovão project as testified by the contribution of the general public, from local residents to occasional tourists visiting Lisbon.
The conservation phase of the project, in particular the intervention on the Coelho da Silveira paintings, started with diagnostic procedures on several of the paintings. The conservation team is using the XpeCAM X01 multi-spectral system from XPECTRALTEK (www.xpectraltek.com). The primary focus of this phase is complete a comprehensive study
of each individual painting before each one is removed from its frame, as some of the paintings are in a very critical state.
Most of the paintings have darkened due to the deterioration of the varnish layers, rendering it practically impossible to read the images and shapes that are represented. The use of such multi-spectral system will give us information not only about what exists under this altered surface varnish, but the state of the chromatic layer, shape distribution, previous retouched areas, unseen marks, altered pigment areas, and eventually show the pigments and materials identification by classification.
The process of deciding where to start from, with so many beautiful paintings available, was not an easy task. We must remember that this part of the project was essential in providing a successful base for a starter event to raise awareness and funds.
The main criteria for the choice of painting were based on two simple questions:
- Which of the paintings is the most endangered and thus presented a more urgent need for intervention?
- Which painting has the potential to bring more attention and feedback to the overall project?
One of the most iconic paintings, the one depicting St. Anthony, was selected for a conservation intervention to be carried out in the church in full view of people visiting the space. The painting was certainly iconic and would be perfect to attract interest to the initial phase of the project. The intervention took more than 6 months to complete, longer than it would have been necessary had the work been done in a in a conservation lab. A benefit was that it allowed the public full access to the restoration phases.
During the preliminary phase of the project, while compiling an inventory of all the artworks in the church, a missing painting by Coelho da Silveira was discovered behind the altar. The painting, thought to be lost forever, is A última Seia (The Last Supper).
The painting was in a very poor state of preservation and in need of urgent attention. Given the short time frame to gather the necessary resources a crowdfounding campaign was launched. The crowdfunding initiative was a complete success and in no time the resources were acquired to save this beautiful example of the Portuguese baroque.
Last Supper is currently being treated at the Signinum lab facilities in northern Portugal and is at the initial stage of diagnosis. It has been examined using the XpeCAM to gain a better understanding of its material composition and make-up. The intervention will begin very soon and the progress of the work will be constantly shared with the public.
The next objective of Arte Por São Cristóvão is to guarantee the start of the roof and ceiling renovation work as soon as possible. Several water infiltration problems have been discovered and will need to be addressed urgently, in order to guarantee safe conditions for the conservation intervention to be carried out.
All images in this article are courtesy of Signinum
About the authors: Ana Ferreira is a restorer with a bachelor degree in conservation from the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar. She continued her studies in the field of Art Examination and Museology. She is responsible for the management of the Signinum restoration laboratory. She has been developing activities to raise awareness of the knowledge, protection and promotion of cultural heritage and the conservation profession.
Carla Zeferino is a painting conservator with a master degree in conservation from the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar, Portugal. She has several years of experience in restoring paintings and is responsible for the examination and analysis of paintings in the Signinum laboratory.