Bringing Art Back To Life

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If the walls of St. Joseph Church on Tulane Avenue in New Orleans could talk, those who step inside might hear how the Crucifixion of Christ mural was created and installed in 1915 in the apse behind the altar and what has happened to it since.

“The altar and mural are the focus of your attention,” said Vincentian Father Tom Stehlik, pastor of St. Joseph.

A church brochure said the painting “was meant to promote contemplation of Christ’s sacrifice.”

As St. Joseph parishioners and Father Stehlik noticed and wanted to uncover why blotches appeared on the mural and how to restore it, they turned to Baton Rouge-based Elise Grenier, chief conservator and founder of Grenier Art Conservation, LLC.

Grenier said the 35-by-40-foot mural by artist Joseph B. Hann was painted in a “marouflage” technique – a canvas, painted in oil, that is applied in sections to plaster.

CSI: Church art
Before beginning any work, Grenier began an investigative phase last September. She uncovered that approximately 30 percent of the mural had been affected by various degrees of detachment due to the failure of the original adhesive and adhesives used during other restorations, and what she described as “invasive retouching and varnishing with inappropriate materials” not up to current conservation standards.

The preparatory layers on the masonry wall – and then the canvas, pigment and varnish layers – were coming apart, and there was “flaking, cracking, cupping” as well as deterioration.

“(Every layer) exerts tension on one another, and, typically, some of these layers may or may not detach from one another,” she added. “So, the reason for these unsightly blotches was that someone intervened in the past to reattach it to the wall and then retouched it.”

Previous repair artists made additional canvas cuts (joins) to facilitate re-gluing and had retouched the painting with inappropriate materials that had discolored. While not so noticeable from the pews, they were prominent under close examination, Grenier said.

She also found a film of dust accumulation on the surface that had caused streaking. Left unattended, it would have created a permanent, indelible patina.

Grenier is a conservation artist with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts and art history from Louisiana State University, conservation degrees from Florence’s Universita Internazionale del Arte and 35 years’ experience restoring artwork of all types in Italy and the U.S.

She also is certified in Italy and with the American Institute of Conservation (AIC). Grenier was taught to proceed cautiously in the mural’s restoration, using the least-invasive method and most compatible materials.

She first cleaned the mural and repaired as many previous fixes as possible. Next came stabilization, which involved re-gluing with new adhesive through a thin, steel needle and infilling of “fissures and losses” with compatible materials. A hot iron helped flatten adhesives used to fill detachments. Finally, she used archival-quality varnish to protect the mural’s surface.

“It helps to fill in because you are bridging the gaps and it also helps to stabilize an area,” she said. “It’s not just for aesthetic reasons.”

While working at St. Joseph, Grenier discovered other Hann murals that were painted on the wall, not on canvas, including: the Death of St. Joseph, the Annunciation, the washing of the feet of Christ by Mary Magdalen, the baptism of Christ and the Holy Family.

Grenier believes Hann might have been a student in Munich who worked at Vincentian-staffed churches in Chicago before coming to New Orleans, where the Vincentians have pastored at St. Joseph since 1858. Grenier said she has not found evidence that Hann worked at any other New Orleans church. It was his connection with the Vincentians that brought him here.

“(Hann) specialized in ecclesiastical paintings,” she said. “He was someone who was comfortable working in large scale.”

Unusual depictions
Father Stehlik has studied the mural over his eight years as pastor and found unusual features: Christ’s feet are nailed to the cross individually, not one foot over the other, and there is a bowl of water, a pitcher and a towel.

“It calls to mind what Jesus told the apostles before he washed their feet, ‘Love each other as I have loved you,’ and also brings to mind how Pontius Pilate washed his hands of being responsible for condemning Christ to death by letting the crowd choose,” Father Stehlik said. “It begs the question of the observer: ‘Are you going to be a foot washer – or live the ways of the world and wash your hands of your guilt?’ You can either love and forgive or turn your back on the Gospel.”

Father Stehlik estimates that the mural restoration cost approximately $35,000, paid for mostly by donations.

Grenier calls the mural “one of the most spectacular I’ve seen in the United States” and considers it unique for its time and New Orleans. The painting is done in a very classical, post-Renaissance style in the vein of Caravaggio. She said Hann wasn’t trying to do anything modern for his time. If he studied in Germany, he would have been steeped in this tradition.

“I think one of the reasons why people love coming to traditional-style churches is because they inspire devotion and faith,” Father Stehlik said.

He suggested participants who do the nine-church walk in New Orleans on Good Friday consider including St. Joseph to meditate on the crucifixion mural.

“It’s a beautiful work, and it really captures the imagination,” he said. “Elise says the artist didn’t miss anything when he painted this.”

Once the mural work is completed, it will be considered in optimum condition, Grenier said.

“You can never have it back in the exact state that it was first done,” she said. “It’s got its age, all its imperfections, defects and wrinkles. But, hopefully, it will stay this way for at least a generation.”

Next up for the church is tackling lighting enhancements, Father Stehlik said. Grenier recommended LED lights that will “valuarize the palette” of the mural and other works in the church.

“It’s impossible to put a value on this,” said Grenier, who anticipates completing the project soon. “Any time you have something original in a context like this, it will be here forever. It will outlast all of us. One day, it will be as old as the things we go visit in Europe as long as we take care of it. It’s unique. This is a European model, and the quality is so high. It’s really been an honor to work on this.”

Christine Bordelon can be reached at cbordelon@clarionherald.org.