Painting in city church finally sees the light

Project: After four months and $30,000, a 19th-century artwork has been restored to its original brilliance.

April 01, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

For the first time in at least three decades, Jesus' head had no halo and his hair was brown rather than blond in the historic painting unveiled to hundreds of parishioners at the end of Easter Sunday Mass yesterday at the Church of St. Ignatius in Baltimore.

The restoration of the long-neglected, 146-year-old painting of Jesus, his Father and St. Ignatius that hangs over the church's main altar was revealed when a purple cloth that shrouded the Mystical Vision of Saint Ignatius at La Storta was ceremoniously removed at 12:24 p.m.

It was as if someone had turned on a light above the dark painting, which for years had been obscured by grime, dust and varnish as it hung in the church on North Calvert Street.

"It was so dreary, there was nothing uplifting about it. It was overpowering, and not in an inspiring way," said the Rev. William J. Watters, who initiated the restoration. "Now it has that sense of awe and reverence - that sense of being called by the Father."

Worshippers, who had just received Communion, applauded at the sight of the 12-foot-by-6-foot painting, which required $30,000 and four months to restore.

The work was presented to the church on Dec. 3, 1856, by Italian artist Constantino Brumidi, who also lived and painted in the United States. Brumidi is best known for his frescoes that line the walls and ceilings of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, as well as churches in Mexico City, Boston and Philadelphia.

His Mystical Vision of Saint Ignatius at La Storta has hung above the church's main altar since its dedication, inspiring parishioners with its beauty, but also collecting dust, candle smoke, and grime.

It underwent at least three previous "restorations" in which heavy coats of paint and varnish were layered on the canvas. The most recent "fix" occurred 30 years ago, when an artist turned Jesus' hair from brown to blond, gave him a halo, and covered the blue sky behind him to make it dark.

The restoration unveiled yesterday was sponsored by Charles B. Reeves Jr., who was baptized at St. Ignatius Church. New lighting, which brings out intricate details of the work, was sponsored by Franz Groll, a member of the parish development committee.

Professional restorer Perette Manz-Hendrich, a native German who was trained in Berlin and now lives in Baltimore, labored over the painting with her assistant, Laura Oster, using cotton swabs, chemicals, needles and glue to bring the Mystical Vision of Saint Ignatius at La Storta back to its original appearance.

The two traveled to the Calvert Street church daily and climbed 15-foot scaffolding behind the altar so they could reach the painting and perform their tedious work. They created a small studio above the altar and behind a scrim.

The first month, they applied hundreds of cotton swabs, doused in chemicals, to gently remove clumps of unwanted grime, paint and varnish. Then they began injecting glue-filled needles to smooth bumps or "blisters" in the canvas, and mending cracks with acrylic. Then they touched up the original painting that was underneath, and finally applied a thin coat of varnish.

After months of intricate, intense work, Manz-Hendrich said she feels she's left a piece of herself in the canvas.

"When I started, I was very, very nervous because it was so big," Manz-Hendrich said. "But now I feel connected to it, and to this place."

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