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Restoration of the most important painting in the Cathedral

25/05/05 The careful restoration study of Lamentación sobre Cristo muerto (Lament on Christ´s dead body) has revealed main changes in the painting´s structure and original composition.

25/05/05 The most valuable painting of the Santa María Cathedral, Lamentación sobre Cristo muerto, does not miss the mysteries that usually accompany works of art. The careful restoration study carried out during one and a half years has allowed the painting for regaining its original splendour and has also contributed to the unravelling of some enigmas about changes in its structure and composition. This has brought about new information which can be revealing concerning its authorship and history.

The painting´s restoration could be made thanks to an agreement signed by the Restoration Service of the Government of Álava and the Santa María Cathedral Foundation. The painting was created in the 17th century in Baroque style by Belgian artist Gaspar de Crayer, who was close friend of Rubens and Van Dyck´s, whose strong influence can be seen in de Crayer´s works.

Lamentación sobre Cristo muerto was painted by 1640, and was brought to Spain by Francisco and Martín Galarreta, members of the local elite, who placed it in their Chapel at the Santa María Cathedral, which was a collegiate church at that moment. The painting depicts a scene of the funereal tetralogy: it represents a moment following the Descent from the Cross and preceding the Holy Funeral. By Christ´s dead body, the Virgin Mary, Saint John and Mary Magdalene are mourning. These characters are surrounded by angels carrying elements of the Passion.

The oil on canvas painting size is 276 x 208 cm at present, but the study revealed that an important change was made to the original work by Gaspar de Crayer: its dimension was increased by sewing two strips of cloth, one at the top and the other at the bottom. These two strips are made of canvas, while the original one is made of linen.

As for the composition and layers of the central linen cloth, they also differ from the ones in the added canvas strips. The central cloth has three layers and the strips, two. Finally, the X-ray study has confirmed this dimension modification through diverging radiographic contrasts.

The assays also showed that when the upper and lower strips were added, the painting composition also changed: the washbowl that was between Mary Magdalene´s feet and the dead body now appears on one of the newly added strips. As for the two angels in the upper left corner, they do not appear in the X-ray image, so it was concluded that they were painted later.

These changes show that Lamentación sobre Cristo muerto has changed over time, and they open the door to the mystery of who has painted the additional canvas. Modifying the dimensions of a painting was a relatively frequent practice, but if it was the same author who introduced the changes, he would make them using the same kind of cloth used for the rest of the painting. Moreover, when applying colour layers, the artist followed the same process, and in the case of our painting, the additional strips show a technique that differs from the original one.

The first related document found so far is dated 1785, and describes the painting in detail exactly as we can see it today. This means that the changes were made between 1640, probably the year when the original painting was made, and 1785, date of the above mentioned document.

Concerning the authorship, which Daphne Hoffman ascribed to Gaspar de Crayer in Gazette des Beaux Arts in 1953, it would be necessary to go deeper on the issue, for the painting was attributed to various artists during the 20th century, Van Dyck, the Belgian artist, being one of them.

Exhaustive restoration process
Once some of the mysteries were revealed, the restoration process began after examining the different proposals that had been made. The most complex phases of the process were the removal of the varnish layers applied throughout the artistic work history, the retouching made in 1785 to hid a written paper placed on some crevices and the polychromous fixing.

Lamentación sobre Cristo Muerto was exhibited at the Santa María Cathedral until 1996, when it was packed and stored. Three years later, it was moved to the Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro, where it was exhibited until 2003. Then, the Restoration Service of the Government of Álava and the Santa María Cathedral Foundation decided to restore the painting and so repair the damages and ensure its survival.

The work was badly preserved, for there were some uneven areas on the oil colour layers, the varnish layers were oxidised so that the original shades were not fully appreciated, and the stretcher was damaged as well.

Prior to the restoration works, complementary assays and tests were made, for which samples of the cloths, stretcher wood and microsamples of the oil layers, preparations and varnish layers were taken. Forty six microsamples were analysed at the laboratory.

Some additional assays, such as UV radiation studies, were made in order to observe the preservation condition of the varnish and colour layers, infrared reflectography methods were used to see the underlying drawing, and X ray tests were made to detect changes in the composition.

The whole restoration process was aimed at the preservation and recuperation of this outstanding work of art. The scientific studies and the resulting data have opened the door to further historical and artistic evaluations. Nowadays, those who want to see the painting and the history of its restoration explained on boards can visit the Museo Diocesano de Arte Sacro.