Preparing for a masterpiece in focus: The conservation treatment and technical investigation of four Spanish processional sculptures from the early 18th-century

Maureen Russell


An exhibition titled “Trends, A New Presentation of LACMA’s Collection of European Art” was installed at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art to highlight several new acquisitions in the museum’s Center for European Arts. Of particular note are four rare Spanish polychrome sculptures on display for the first time. They date to the early 18th century and were originally made for religious processions during Holy Week, the week proceeding Easter Sunday. The Conservation Department took advantage of this rare opportunity to treat and study these sculptures in great detail.

The centerpiece of the exhibition is the “Pieta”, an iconic image of the Virgin Mary holding the body of Christ. The nearly life-size work of art is the only known sculpture of its kind in an American museum. It is also one of the few surviving sculptures made from glue-saturated and molded linen. The light weight of these materials made them ideal for icons carried in religious processions. This sculpture is particularly noteworthy because of its balanced composition and convincing expression of pathos. The Virgin’s head and hands are sculpted of plaster; her eyes were made of glass to heighten realism. Clothed in a luxuriant cascade of drapery, her gilded mantle was embossed in varied patterns executed in the technique of estofado: (the linen substrate is first gilded and brilliant colors are applied then incised with patterns imitating a brocade fabric woven with gold threads).

A technical examination of the “Pieta” is underway to further elucidate the method and materials of manufacture. X-ray radiographs taken at the Getty Museum reveal a hollow core with a limited armature. Other methods of analysis will include infrared spectroscopy, polarized light microscopy, and x-ray fluorescence.

The presentation of the “Pieta” is enhanced by related sculptures from LACMA’s permanent collection. An 18th century “Bust of a Sorrowing Female”, made from polychrome wood with glass eyes, was originally part of an imagen de vestir (“dressed image”), a kind of mannequin of which only the head and arms were treated as fully finished sculptures.

Also conserved and on view is another recent addition to the collection, “Corpus of the Expiring Christ”, a small crucifix figure that is made of macerated fiber and gesso like the Spanish “Pieta”. The sculpture is particularly interesting because its crown of thorns is made with actual fish-spines and embedded coral.

The fourth sculpture, “Bust of a Sorrowing Virgin” of about 1700, made of gilded polychromed wood, was lent by the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, California. The carved wooden bust was recently discovered in the Huntington Museum’s basement. One glass eye was partially missing and the piece was covered by decades of accumulated dirt and grime. The conservation treatment and technical examination revealed new information about the sculpture, including the fact that a different colored mantle existed under the current one and delicate layers of gilded and embossed estofado were uncovered under old plaster restorations.

The “Trends” exhibition incorporates a variety of disciplines and media in a contextual installation to enhance the visitors’ overall knowledge of European art and life, all presented in galleries that hint at 17th and 18th century European settings. It furthers LACMA’s goal of presenting its collections in ways that cut across departments and engage curators, conservators, scholars, and the public to see works in new ways and exemplifies a melding of the museum’s talents and resources.

2002 | Miami | Volume 9