A set of 14 quadretti (small paintings) of the Via Crucis and their gilded frames found at Kirkop parish church were recently restored using funds raised by the parishioners.
Art Restoration & Conservation of Qormi was entrusted with the project which, first and foremost, aimed at retaining the works’ historical value.
The restorers paid special attention to the frames, which are often considered to be an extension of a painting or an objet d’art in their own right.
According to the restorers, the gilded frames of the 14 Stations of the Cross at Kirkop’s church, dedicated to St Leonard, could have been made by Emmanuel Buhagiar (1876-1962) since the style, design, composition and proportions are similar to other works by the fine craftsman. Buhagiar was also behind the highly-decorated frames of the 14 Stations found at the nearby Qrendi parish church.
“It is, however, difficult to ascertain that these frames were made by Buhagiar, since no documentation has been found,” the restorers said.
“On the other hand, it was common practice at that time − albeit even nowadays − for artists to copy one another,” they added.
The carved frame mouldings were subjected to a degree of wear and tear, resulting from the church environment.
The surface damage varied from minor scratches to a major abrasion. Wear on the gold leaf used to gild the frames was apparent as the clay bole layer (a shade of red) began to show through the worn leaf on the most prominent parts of the frames.
The conservators endeavoured to retain as much of the original finish as possible, which was achieved by first stabilising “insecure and weak areas” before a full restoration exercise was carried out.
Frames are often considered to bean extension of a painting or an objet d’art in their own right
This included structural reinforcement of the base wood, replicating missing decorative elements, repairing damaged ornaments and in-gilding in the traditional way.
The restorers noted that none of the frames were, however, completely re-gilded and only abraded areas, broken gesso and missing parts were treated, “carefully blending the new with the old”.
In contrast to the frames, most of the paintings showed previous interventions, including heavy over-painting and relining. Relining refers to the process whereby a new canvas is attached to the back of the existing one to strengthen, flatten or consolidate the paintings on a canvas.
“Over-paintings, especially if done badly, or which cover the original paint layer, have to be removed completely, if possible. If these are left untreated, they may alter the main composition and meaning of the painting over time and diminish its value,” the restorers said.
After the paintings had been cleaned from the various re-touchings done by amateurs, it was found that the original paintings had been executed by not one but two artists who had similar styles.
“The main differences can be seen from the features on some of the main figures,” the restorers pointed out.
Other interventions were carried out on those paintings that had not been restored in the past and which had developed intense flaking of the paint layer.
The fully restored paintings and their precious frames can now be seen at the small parish church of Kirkop, which is celebrating the feast of St Joseph on Sunday.
The village will celebrate its patron saint, St Leonard, on August 25.