Hundreds walked behind Christ the Redeemer in Senglea two weeks ago as part of the penitentiary pilgrimage led by Archbishop Charles Scicluna, and more will accompany the 300-year-old statue on Friday when it joins the traditional Good Friday procession.
However, few are likely to be aware that the statue, which has been venerated for centuries, is suffering from internal structural weaknesses.
A detailed scientific study commissioned by the Senglea parish five years ago found the statue is unstable, resulting primarily from the detachment of the original internal wooden support beams.
The study, under the scientific direction of Fr Charles Vella, a conservator, involved various tests, including the internal investigation of the statue using a borescope, an optical device mounted on a flexible tube.
This was probably the first time a borescope was ever used to investigate the interior of a statue; and it was carried out by airline engineers from Lufthansa Technik.
The results have given invaluable insight on the conservation state of the statue, revealing details being published for the first time in The Sunday Times of Malta.
The report suggests that the weight of the statue, calculated at 118kg, has shifted towards the front, putting greater strain on the whole structure. The wooden beams are also infected with woodlice, although the straw around them is relatively fine.
Hands and feet show signs of ‘dirt’ as a result of saliva residue
Fr Vella says the statue is not in the best state of conservation but he is cautious when asked whether it faces imminent danger of collapse.
“The statue is not in a happy state. I cannot say it is an earthquake when it could be a rain shower but I cannot prescribe Panadol when it could possibly be cancer,” Fr Vella says.
He says it was clear from the outset that the external cracks visible in different parts of the statue were not the result of superficial problems. This is how Fr Vella decided on carrying other scientific tests.
“This is not just a work of art but a structure and this is why I needed the input of an engineer,” he says.
But Fr Vella notes that the structural problem is likely to have been present for a long time. He points to a thin sackcloth that was overlaid on the original tunic at some stage.
“It is said this later intervention was probably done by Carlo Darmanin in the mid-19th century and it is probable that it was intended as a consolidation measure,” Fr Vella says.
He says it may be necessary to carry out a second study in the future to determine whether the deterioration has stopped.
There were other interventions in the past but all were linked to superficial retouching of paintwork, some without the refilling of cracks.
Fr Vella says the face is the only part of the statue that still has the original paint. However, the skin tones are thinning out, making the green base coat used originally more visible.
“It is for this reason that a strong greenish hue is visible across the face of the Redentur.”
Ultraviolet photography shows the hands and feet seem to have been repainted during an undocumented intervention in the past and the robe was overpainted at least twice.
Fr Vella says the hands and feet show signs of “dirt” as a result of what is probably a fungus. This is the result of saliva residue left on the statue when people kiss the feet and hands in devotion.
Fr Vella says the original red colour of the tunic was the very rich and expensive vermillion. However, this was painted over using an ordinary paint during one of the retouching processes.
A shock load assessment found that movement of the statue during processions increased the risks associated with the structural problems.
“The absorption of shock, resulting from movement, requires attention and can lead to unpredicted damage due to structural failure if not attended to,” the report says.
Fr Vella has suggested “a limited use” of the statue for processional purposes, combined with a reduction of the length of the processional route.
“Movement of the statue has to be limited and handling has to become more specialised and sensitive to the requirements of the statue,” he says.
Fr Vella advises against reinforcing the statue from inside since this is a very invasive process. However, he is suggesting the inclusion of an external Perspex support that is not visually intrusive to help bear the weight.
It seems Senglea’s Christ the Redeemer has to find his own Simon of Cyrene to help him bear the weight of time.
A historic statue
The statue of Christ the Redeemer is a life-size effigy of Christ falling under the weight of the Cross on his way to Golgotha.
The shrine in Senglea is among the oldest and most frequented of all national sanctuaries and in many respects, a national treasure. It is popularly considered to be a miraculous statue.
The statue maker is unknown and records on the origins and history of the statue have not been found in the Senglea parish archives. It is believed to be more than 300 years old.
Humid and hot niche: The climate analysis
The temperature and humidity of the niche where the statue is kept were recorded over a one-year period.
The results showed the humidity and temperature to be substantially higher than the outside average. Humidity and high temperatures provide the right environment for biological degradation, through mould formation and insects. The report author suggests the introduction of a controlled climate in the niche.
Paint retouching: UV photography
UV light was used to determine what past interventions took place and how many layers of paint the statue bears. The different shades that appear under UV light are indicative of instances when the original paintwork was painted over. The face, excluding the hair and crown of thorns, is the only part that has retained the original paint.
Six paint layers: Scientific lab analysis
Three samples were taken from different locations on the statue for laboratory analysis. The analysis revealed the original paintwork consisted of six layers of paint. Every layer was glazed before the next was applied. Fr Vella says this is the typical Spanish way of painting and the binding material is a type of animal glue.
Wood and straw mannequin: Borescope examination
An optical device was inserted inside the statue through an existing hole in the bottom.
This enabled the experts to conduct a visual study of the state of conservation of the statue’s core structure.
Fr Vella says the internal structure is built around two wooden beams held together by nails. The upper beam, which protrudes horizontally, is under stress because of the weakness in the joint.
Straw was used to build a mannequin around the wooden structure. It is probably straw that existed in Malta in the 17th century and is still in a relatively good state.
Cracks: the X-ray investigation
This gave important information on those elements of the statue which were not accessible through the borescope examination. The X-ray revealed the extent of internal cracks and the relatively good state of the tunic from the inside.
Processional shock: Dynamic shock load assessment
This test carried out by engineer Duncan Camilleri from the University of Malta assessed the impact of movement and the related forces of gravity on the statue. Fr Vella says movement does not help the situation, especially when the statue is rested on wooden supports during a procession.
What is Senglea’s statue made of?
The Christ the Redeemer icon is made of papier-mâché and the sculpture is built around a straw mannequin.
However, Fr Vella has expressed the possibility that the face was sculpted from solid wood. A biopsy would determine whether this is correct, he says.
For the modelling of the anatomical details, such as the hands, arms, legs and torso, a skeleton is normally created using wood and metal wire.
The head, hands and feet would then be built of papier-mâché or wood. The mannequin is then draped with cloths made of paper or hemp cloth immersed in animal glue.
After this early stage, layer upon layer of a mixture of gesso and animal glue are applied so as to create a uniform finishing, facial expression and detail.
Fluctuations of humidity and heat often lead to biological deterioration and infestations.