As one word, pietà is Italian for pity, but as an ubiquitous symbol of a grieving mother cradling her fallen child, the pietà has come to stand for the very things that define the human experience–love, sorrow, grief, loyalty, conviction, devotion.
A pietà is a type of devotional image depicting the Virgin Mary mourning over the body of the dead Christ and was first developed in Germany at the beginning of the fourteenth century. It is an example of an Andachtsbild – an image used to form a highly focused and emotionally powerful vignette for prayer and contemplation. References to the pietà are seen throughout art history, including very recently, GONE, 2019, by KAWS. This evocative early sixteenth-century pietà(pictured) in the NGV Collection is carved in limewood with gilding and polychrome (multiple colours) on its surfaces. Originating from Germany, likely by an artist from southern Germany, a region known for this angular style of wood carving, this pietà was originally used for private devotional practices, with its back hollowed out to reduce shrinkage of the wood.
This pietà is among my favourite artworks in the NGV Collection. Having studied in Germany and specialising in the conservation of polychrome wooden sculpture, it is a special treat to be able to work on something as old, beautiful and largely untouched as this, and then to see it on display for the enjoyment of all.
It is not unusual for a sculpture this old to have accumulated dust and suffered damage to its surface. In fact, the damage here could be considered minor, as most of the wood carving was intact except for the halo. It was clear to me this was a skilfully carved and once beautiful example of polychrome sculpture, and as a conservator I could see the potential, but years of accumulated and encrusted dust meant its exquisite visual qualities were obscured. My task was to carefully clean the generally well-preserved paint layer, to undertake remedial treatment to areas of loss, and to reveal the beauty of this hidden treasure.
The conservation was a process of observation and elimination to improve the appearance without taking it too far. The loss of a large part of the halo, for example, did not detract as much as the thick, dark layer of dust which made it hard to read the sculpture and made it look flat. This was especially apparent in Christ’s face, where his facial features appeared blurred and undefined.
I carried out a gentle surface clean with moistened cotton swabs and demineralised water. Beginning with the areas that were most disfigured and balancing that against the overall surface of the sculpture, the cleaning produced an evenly aged appearance, uncovering beautiful detail in the painted surface.
Gradually the sculpture transformed and regained the original emotional quality which had been lost over several hundred years. The bluish grey appearance of Christ’s flesh tones, a visible sign of his death, and the profound sadness evident in Mary’s face from the tears running down her blushed cheeks, emphasises the suffering they experienced and humanise the sculpture.
Following the surface cleaning, particular areas I filled with a material mixture consisting of chalk, plaster and natural glue and in-painted with reversible watercolours. For this treatment we took a minimalist approach, starting with the very obvious distractions first and then deciding if additional steps were required to improve the overall appearance, while honouring the aged surface.
In some instances, it was necessary for me to colour-match largely abraded (worn away) paint sections to their surroundings. Where I desired greater definition between sections of the garment, such as between the collar and the dress, I used the tratteggio technique–an in-painting technique using fine successive paint strokes. This technique allows one to distinguish in-painting, where new colour or detail is added to reconstruct an original work, from the original painted surfaces.
Marika Strohschnieder is NGV Senior Conservator. This article was originally published in Nov-Dec 2019 edition of NGV Magazine.