The convent of the Discalced Carmelites in Cospicua is one of the very first communities founded shortly after the Carmelite reformation in Spain led by St Therese of Avila. The year was 1624, and thanks to the then bishop of Malta Baldasarre Cagliares, the Discalced Carmelites established their convent and college in Malta with the intention of reaching out to missionary destinations in Mesopotamia and elsewhere from Hospitaller Malta.
The community was welcomed with open arms and enjoyed the patronage of distinguished members of the Order of St John, who oftentimes reached out to the Discalced Carmelites for their religious services. Patronage also manifested itself in various artistic projects, including paintings by Mattia Preti and Luca Garnier, both members of the Order of St John, silverware, and other artistic projects commissioned from time to time. Donations were not lacking, as in the case of the bust of Our Lady of Sorrows attributed to Maltese sculptor Mariano Gerada and recorded as having been executed by the sculptor when still studying and subsequently working in Spain.
The history of this complex is indeed rich, and the works of art that are still within its walls include priceless masterpieces. This article will focus on two of these that have been lately restored by Amy Sciberras Conservators. This restoration project was the latest in a series that our firm has concluded, as we continue to contribute towards the conservation and appreciation of Malta’s cultural heritage.
The two oval paintings narrate episodes from the life of St Joseph. The first narrates the dream of St Joseph, with an angel descending on the saint, sound asleep, resting his head in his arms, with his walking stick let loose and his travel luggage right next to him. The second narrates the flight of the holy family to Egypt, with St Joseph leading the way, as the Virgin Mary is taking care in crossing a bridge accompanied by an angel leading her on.
The two oval paintings, roughly measuring 150cm by 120cm, were originally located on the barrel vault of the chapel of St Joseph from where they were removed at some point in time. Their oval shape is rather unusual, and attribution of the paintings to Maltese artist Enrico Regnaud might need to be considered with caution given the lighter palette.
The artist would have been familiar with better-known renditions of the same subject by Carlo Maratti with which he might have been conversant. The subject matter of both paintings also has an écorché disposition, particularly in the case of the dream of St Joseph, whereby the dreaming saint is painted at a higher level to be seen from a lower angle.
The project’s origin began in 2019 when the present author was invited to inspect both paintings, then located in the church’s vestry. Both had their wooden strainer, or stretcher frames, missing and were placed horizontally on the vestry’s marble floor, with their paint layers facing upwards. The paintings had been removed from the barrel-vaulted ceiling of the chapel of St Joseph in order to control and keep in check the damage that they had been subject to.
Preliminary investigations also confirmed that both paintings had been reduced in size, given their current oval shape, which was not their original form and size. This was apparent from their erratically cut borders, the composition of both paintings, and the lack of tacking margins which would generally refer to that part of the canvas that is secured to the stretcher frame and which would generally be secured in place with nails.
It also transpired that once cut out, the edge of both paintings was folded over once again to create new tacking margins and, unfortunately, this time around damaged the paint layer. Indeed, important details, such as the angel’s exquisitely painted toes, were hidden from view and folded for the purpose of having new tacking margins.
The state of conservation of both paintings was also a matter of concern. Both had been probably exposed to moisture and very high humidity levels. Moisture would cause the canvas support to shrink and, as a consequence, cause the paint layer to flake and detach from the canvas. Losses could be noticed in many areas of both paintings.
The lack of auxiliary support also made things even worse. Given the lack of a stretcher frame, both canvases were completely free to react by contracting and expanding in response to the level of moisture and humidity fluctuations. This was the cause of broad deformations and, consequently, flaking and localised loss of paint. The back of both canvases was also soiled with grime, as well as stained. Additionally, an oxidised and yellowed varnish layer was also present, which together with aged and altered overpaint, was not only muting the artist’s palette, but also concealing significant areas of the original.
Conservation treatment on both canvases was carried out in the laboratories of Amy Sciberras Conservators. Once transferred there, both paintings were examined and documented by means of multispectral imaging involving the use of diffuse light, raking light, ultraviolet fluorescence, infra-red and false-colour infra-red, which provided precious insight with regard to the manufacturing technique, past interventions and state of conservation. Due to the precarious state in which they were found, this diagnostic campaign proved to be much more demanding and time-consuming in comparison to similar projects. This stage was undertaken in collaboration with photographers Manuel Ciantar and Suzanne Ciantar Ferrito.
Once the diagnostic stage was completed, it was time for conservation works to begin. The first stage focused on stabilising the hundreds of paint fragments that were detached or detaching from the canvas supports. The application of a conservation-grade consolidant made it possible for the conservation team working on this project to subsequently thin down and remove the layers of oxidised varnish and altered overpaint, also contributing to a certain extent to the paintings’ stiffness and rigidity.
Some of the past retouchings had even been executed directly on the exposed canvas, addressing the same paint layer that had flaked off over the past years. As conservation works proceeded in earnest, the paintings began to slowly emerge and come back to life. Both painted surfaces were then protected using Japanese paper, making it possible to turn the two canvases facing downwards.
Grime and encrustations were removed from the back of the canvases, and deformations were lowered, thus making it possible to mend tears and apply inlays, thus closing off lacunae in the canvases using new linen of similar quality. The seams were also reinforced as the sewing threads holding the two pieces of canvas together in each painting, had begun to loosen up. This had happened in part because both canvases had been reduced in size compromising their stability and integrity as one painting.
The next stage included lining treatments, whereby a newly prepared canvas having similar properties to the original was applied to the verso of the original ones with the function and purpose of fully stabilising them.
Both canvases got new stretcher frames, and both were re-stretched. Furthermore, the part of the composition that had been previously folded to serve as a tacking margin was recovered and can now be seen featuring as it was before, when both canvases were larger and uncut.
The last phase of this very delicate conservation project included the integration of particular areas of the paint layer on both canvases which had been lost over time. This was much more complex to carry out on the faces of the figures depicted, and hence retouching was carried out in such a way as to chromatically integrate missing areas, and hinting at the original composition without repainting it anew, instead executing it in a series of superimposed dots known as puntini.
Both paintings can now be enjoyed to the full, having recovered much of their original look, and what has been reintegrated is clearly visible on close inspection.
Thanks to this conservation project, the Discalced Carmelite community of Cospicua has contributed to the care and conservation of ecclesiastical cultural heritage that intrinsically forms part of their identity as a community and which is also part of their history and the legacy of a complex that saw soon-to-be missionaries preparing themselves for their assigned destination; knights and members of the Order of St John seeking solace and assistance; and the community at large, that still holds this church and complex as a landmark historic site in Cospicua.
Amy Sciberras Conservators are proud to be part of this story thanks to this restoration project entrusted to us.
Amy Sciberras Conservators – Fine Arts Restoration thanks the community at the monastery of the church of St Therese of Jesus, Cospicua, in particular Rev. Martin Borg, Rev. Karmenu Spiteri, Rev. Manwel Aquilina, Rev. Piju Sammut, archivist David Rossi and benefactor Ġużi Galea, for entrusting them with this project and for making it possible.
The author is also grateful to her team of conservators, to art historian Sandro Debono for his insight, analysis and information on the two paintings, to photographers Manuel Ciantar and Suzanne Ciantar Ferrito, and to wood conservator Michael Formosa for manufacturing the new stretcher frames.
Amy Sciberras directs a team of conservators and has been entrusted with restoration projects of national and international importance. One may contact her via the website www.amysciberras.com or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.