Triumph of Teamwork: Conserving an Elaborate Spanish Colonial Frame

Our staff at The Conservation Center is always up for a good challenge, so when a 17th-century Spanish Colonial painting (most likely from Peru) came to us for repairs recently, we rallied not one, but two conservators from different departments to collaborate on this project.

Towering at 6 feet tall by 9 ½ feet wide, the sheer size of this frame is impressive enough before even considering the stunning craftsmanship and detail worked into the edges and corners.  Constructed from South American Pine, it’s obvious that the original carver put in an immense amount of labor and craft. A regional method was used to create an arrangement for this particular painting, entitled Triumph of the Immaculate Conception. As was common practice at the time, benefactors often commissioned large, ornate frames and paintings, using the finest materials possible. It was believed this was the best way in which to honor God, thus securing a place in the afterlife. The intent of such pieces was to inspire awe.

The imagery of this painting also seems to reflect this sentiment. Two great themes of Spanish and Spanish Colonial art were associated with the socio-political aspirations of the Spanish Monarchy: the defense by the Spanish Habsburgs of the Catholic Church in the form of the Eucharist, and their defense of the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.  These triumphal images were based upon engravings of Paul Rubens’ cartoons depicting the Triumph of the Faith.  In this painting, The Virgin of the Immaculate Conception is suspended over a chariot pulled by angels. The chariot carries members of the church hierarchy who defended the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception in their writings, while the wheels grind remorselessly over the prostrate figures of heretics.

Due to the specific nature in which this frame was carved, our conservators knew that they had their work cut out for them. Josh McCauley, The Conservation Center’s Senior Gilder and Frames Conservator, explained: “It is a continuously carved frame, meaning it was carved from a single piece of wood with high relief.” This meant a lot of extra work would have to go into making sure the work we did on the frame would visually integrate into the pre-existing material. Josh noted further issues during his assessment: “The frame’s joints were loose, rendering it structurally unsound. Additionally, corner and sub-center sections of its decorative carvings were broken or chipped, and the entire bottom right corner was missing.” He also noticed that the adhesive, thought to be the original used during its construction, failed, causing the loss of high relief carvings at the corners and sub-center sections. 

Josh’s first task was to stabilize the frame. He was able to repair its structure and joints before facing the more daunting task of recreating the areas of loss—eight areas of ornamental high relief carvings that surrounded the frame. This was where The Conservation Center’s Senior Furniture Conservator, Stephen Ryan, is introduced to collaborate on this project. “The conservators here frequently collaborate; it is a great resource to have when tackling a job as large as this one. Steve is a master in all things wood. He offered me advice and guidance, and we were able to devise a plan that would enable us to complete the work—and yield excellent results—in a reasonable amount of time,” said Josh.

Josh further explains the process, “After I repaired the loose joints, and once the frame was strong enough to be manipulated, we went back to the missing decoration areas that had been stained over and cleaned off previous hide glue residue. Then I re-flattened the areas of loss in the frame to make it accept a new glue block.”

Next, Josh and Steve had to make exact copies of the decorations that remained intact and undamaged. Again, due to the nature of the hand-carved frame, our conservators were prevented from taking molds of the decorative details to fill in the spots where the wood had fallen away; instead they had to hand-carve the areas of loss. “It’s a sculptural process. I made a drawing on top of where I would need to recreate the decorative parts of the frame, and placed some laying-in lines before trying to find the proper contour. I would basically take that tool and place it to the original to check the contour, and in this way I was able to tell if this was the tool most like one the previous carver used. It is more of a loose, sculptural type of carving with deep undercuts, thus it is very physically challenging.” 

The treatment did not end there, however. Once our conservators hand-carved the missing decorations and adhered them to the frame, they needed to stain them to make the frame appear as one cohesive piece. “We first tested a piece of wood with an acidic solution,” said Josh. “Since wood is porous, it can only handle so much manipulation and treatment before it gets worn out. When you chemically change the wood, you haven’t changed the pores and the cells of the wood—only the color.”  But the new decorations needed to appear as if they were properly aged, and this is where once again having a resident wood expert came in handy. “Once Steve applied the acidic solution, the wood warmed to a deep orange color.” After neutralizing the wood with a basic solution, the conservators were able to apply thin films of various stains and waxes until the new additions perfectly emulated the original tones of the frame.

When all was said and done, the entire process totaled more than 120 hours of work between two people, but was completed in just two weeks, thus attesting to the skill and breadth of knowledge of our conservators here at The Center.

Watch the Vimeo video of Josh and Steve sculpting decorations for this frame