When conservator-restorer Amy Sciberras was approached to examine, conserve and restore the altarpiece dedicated to the Immaculate Conception at Gudja parish church of the Assumption, little was known about how this painting is linked and relevant to our times and current global situation.
The painting of the Immaculate Conception with St Paul, St Roch and St Sebastian has graced the first left-hand altar of the church for over 200 years. Throughout these years, the painting has served the ongoing devotion to Our Lady, however it has also been admired as a work of late Baroque Maltese art.
The painting was executed by the Maltese artist Gio Nicola Buhagiar (1698-1752). Buhagiar was the leading artist of his time, especially in the field of religious art, after he spent some years in Rome where, thanks to the patronage of Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari, he learnt the art of painting and also studied the old masters in the Eternal City. In fact, it is well known that Buhagiar executed several altar-paintings between 1720 and 1740, that is, after the death of the artist Alessio Erardi (1669-1727) and before Francesco Zahra (1710-1773) reached his fame as a religious artist after having trained in Buhagiar’s bottega.
In his three decades of artistic activity, Buhagiar was entrusted with commissions for the parish churches of Żejtun, Żebbuġ, Qrendi and Għarb, as well as the Jesuits’ church and the church of St Mary of Jesus (Ta’ Ġieżu) in Valletta, among others. Paintings by Buhagiar are also found in private collections. The restoration of The Immaculate Conception altarpiece may hopefully lead to a timely re-evaluation of Buhagiar’s place in the history of religious art in Baroque Malta, as his reputation has long been overshadowed by his successor, Francesco Zahra.
The painting is dominated by the figure of the Immaculate Conception standing over the serpent and moon, beneath the vision of the Eternal Father and Holy Spirit. In the lower register, one sees the figures of three saints – St Paul on the left, and St Sebastian and St Roch on the right – gazing in devotion at Our Lady. The painting is executed in the style in which Buhagiar was consistent throughout his career, that is the late Baroque style known as Rococo, with its saturated colours and clear illumination recalling Venetian Renaissance art.
Buhagiar’s distinctive treatment of the figures can be seen in the grace of the elongated figure of Our Lady, while the saints’ poses are ones of expressive movement. One can remark that the altar-painting contains all the features one associates with Buhagiar’s paintings with regard to his colourism as well as his treatment of the human figure, in some cases drawing on inspiration from paintings by Mattia Preti.
However, the church and the altar of the Immaculate Conception are older than 200 years, leading to the question of which painting graced the altar before Buhagiar’s. While the devotion to the Immaculate Conception has long been known, how can one explain the inclusion of the figures of St Roque and St Sebastian with St Paul in this painting?
Archival research by Mgr Vincenzo Borg has shown that an even older painting with the same four figures once graced the altar. This painting was executed in 1594, a year after the first documented plague that had ravaged Malta, thus explaining the inclusion of the ‘plague’ saints along with the patron saint of Malta.
In 1728, the cleric Gio Maria Pace had made a formal request to dedicate the altar to the Immaculate Conception. By 1731, a new altar was erected together with Buhagiar’s painting. With the discoveries made in the course of the restoration of the painting, one can confirm that the Pace also paid for the costs incurred: the cleaning of the lower register of the painting revealed the Pace coat-of-arms together with the inscription ‘JO…M…..P’, the first letters of the patron’s name, as an abbreviation of ‘Gio M[aria] P[ace]. Pace endeavoured to instil a greater devotion to the Immaculate Conception by means of his patronage, while ensuring that his own devotion would also be recorded within the painting.
The conservation of this painting has thus reminded us of the ongoing appreciation of sacred art not only by those following a religious devotion but also by many others seeking to learn more of Malta’s cultural history. It also underpins the fact that the religious art found in the churches of Malta has always been and remains accessible to all those who, for various reasons, may not be able to visit museums or to see the art in private collections.
The saints illustrated at the sides, St Roch andSt Sebastian, are specially invoked against the plague… by the Maltese people represented through St Paul
The conservation project was carried out in three main stages – first, the study, analysis and recording of the state of the painting by non-invasive scientific means; second, the consolidation of the paint and ground layers followed by cleaning of the painting from old varnish; and third, treatments of the canvas support, which were followed by infilling of paint losses and chromatic integration.
Preliminary non-invasive analysis and documentation involved the use of diffuse light, raking light, ultraviolet fluorescence, infrared and false-colour infrared. Through multispectral imaging and examinations using the infrared technique and false colour infrared, it was possible to identify more figures at the base of the painting which prior to treatments were not visible to the naked eye. Hence, these non-invasive scientific investigations were crucial in fully understanding the painting and what it represents.
Through this gained information, the message being conveyed by the artist could be understood, namely a connection could be made between the newly identified lifeless bodies beneath the Immaculate Conception and the saints illustrated at the sides – St Roch and St Sebastian – who are specially invoked against the plague. In this case, they are being invoked by the Maltese people represented through St Paul. Thus, such preliminary non-invasive scientific analyses have thrown light on the true significance of this important painting while paving the way to formulating the necessary conservation treatments.
Examinations have shown that a secondary canvas support had been attached to the original one by past restorers in a procedure known as relining. The past relining canvas was still well attached to the original, and hence performing its function of strengthening the original canvas support; however, the overlying layers were literally crumbling away.
The paint layer was in an overall unstable condition and flaking off due to detachment problems between the paint/gesso preparation layer and the original canvas support. This was resulting in overall micro-flaking of the paint layer. In fact, when examining the painting from close, widespread minute losses of the paint could be observed. Additionally, larger losses of paint were concentrated at the lower part of the paining. The latter could possibly had been caused by high humidity levels and the presence of moisture.
Various darkened past retouchings were also found covering losses in the original paint layer and in some areas overlapping the original. This was hindering the painting’s legibility together with dust deposits and oxidised/yellowed varnish coatings, including the numerous wax drippings that were present on the paint layer.
Consolidation treatments to stabilise the paint and preparation layers were carried out. A consolidant was applied at a low concentration and this had the ability to penetrate within the numerous micro-losses, lacunae and liftings of the paint layer. Injecting and applying consolidants to the paint layer was repeated several times until the paint and ground layers were fully stabilised.
Consolidation was followed by cleaning of the thick and oxidised varnish layers that were covering the original paint layer. Ultraviolet light was utilised to monitor the effectiveness of cleaning agents used. During these treatments, past retouchings and overpaint were also cleaned, thus uncovering more of the original.
The painting also had to be unmounted from its strainer frame in order for the conservators to effectively carry out cleaning treatments of the verso, tear repair and being able to re-stretch the slack canvas through a strip-lining treatment, which procedure involved the attachment of new strips of canvas to the perimeter of the painting. While the painting was unmounted, the auxiliary support was also reinforced.
Ultimately, the final phases of this conservation project entailed the infilling of the numerous losses in the paint and preparation layer; their chromatic integration using reversible conservation-grade colours; and the application of an overall protective coating.
Following the scientific analyses and thorough conservation treatments, the paining’s history, significance and aesthetic values have been enriched, as has the Gudja parish church itself.
Special thanks to parish archpriest Can Fr Norman Zammit for entrusting Amy Sciberras and her team with this important project; art-committee member Martin Gravina for providing historical information; professional photographers Manuel Ciantar and Suzanne Ciantar Ferrito; and administrative secretary of the Archdiocese of Malta Chev. Michael Pace Ross and APS Bank Ltd, who made this project possible.
Dr Theresa Vella is an art historian and museological consultant.
Conservator Amy Sciberras directs a team of conservators and has been entrusted with restoration projects of national and international importance.