15 April 2024

A first icon from the Terra Sancta Museum restored by the Institut National du Patrimoine


Oriental Christian art will occupy a decisive place in the future Terra Sancta Museum – Art and History, with a dedicated section of 90 square metres. In particular, a selection of icons from the 240 held by the Custody of the Holy Land and some from the private collection of George Al-Ama, member of the Scientific Committee and Palestinian collector, will be on display. In Paris, we met Maylis de Chevigny, who is completing her course at the INP with the restoration of a Hodegetria.

La Manufacture des allumettes (The match factory) is a former factory in Aubervilliers, in the outskirts of Paris. Since 2015 it has housed the department of restorers of the Institut national du patrimoine, the prestigious French school for curators and restorers of the national heritage. It is in this vast complex built of bricks that Maylis de Chevigny is studying and restoring an icon from the collections of the Custody of the Holy Land. The young expert describes it to us : “ It is an icon from northern Russia, dated approximately from the 18th century. Its style is mixed with very structured, even strict, lines, echoing back to a medieval approach to the icon, whereas its decoration shows a more modern approach. It has as its iconographic model the Mother of God of Tikhvine, a frequently copied iconographic model, the original prototype of which, also from northern Russia, has the reputation for being at the origin of many miracles.”

The icon in the premises of the Terra Sancta Museum in Jerusalem ready to be shipped

Gaining further knowledge of the icon

Maylis de Chevigny is passionate about the art of the icon which she was able to study at close hand during an internship at the Byzantine and Christian Museum in Athens. It was at the end of this experience and on the suggestion of Raphaëlle Ziadé, Head of the Department of Byzantine art of the Petit Palais and a member of the Scientific Committee of the Terra Sancta Museum, that she decided to write her thesis on this icon.

This work entails a detailed study of the work and the techniques used in its creation, drawing up a highly detailed report on its present condition, a technical and scientific study of the suitable methods of restoration and, lastly, a restoration report presenting their concrete application in detail.

This research allowed the restorer to gain an in-depth knowledge of the technique of the icon, thanks to regular exchanges with the St. Andrei-Roublev School of Orthodox Iconography in Paris and studying ancient manuscripts which gave in detail the methods of creating these figures. They also allowed throwing light on the journey of this icon from Russia to the Holy Land. Maylis de Chevigny set off on the traces of Fra Frans Cornelissen, a Flemish Franciscan and Commissary of the Holy Land, who bought and left this collection to the Custody in 2006.

Returning the work to its wholeness

This work of research and documentation is inseparable from the method of work of which Maylis de Chevigny presents the main stages. “My work starts with curative conservation before actual restoration. The former allows protecting the work and preserving it. I begin with a treatment against any harmful insects that may be present. This is followed by a stage of fixing the scales of paint that are no longer adhering to the support, which is made up of wooden panels, and showed signs of fragility and also had to be consolidated.”

It is after this first stage of work that the continuation of the restoration can start. It is work of great precision done with the aim of improving the appearance of the icon. The treatment of the varnish is one of the specific difficulties of this icon: “reduction is necessary, it was added on a previous restoration and is not even. It will be the longest and most complex operation of this restoration as it entails the use of slow-acting solvents. Each area of the icon will also have to be treated specifically.”

Maylis de Chevigny at work

Once this action has been done, the restorer will then be able to act on the coats of paint, removing certain parts painted over when it was previously restored: “this work has been very damaged and gaps have been filled in with putty on which the paint has overflowed in certain places. Part of the work will consist of removing this superfluous putty then putting more on the raised parts of the icon. Lastly, I will be able to work on this new coat to obtain a smooth finish.” One of the difficulties of this icon will also be to find the coat of original paint from the later coats applied over the centuries in order to give this work a better appearance.

Questioned about how long the restoration, which began on 11th March, will take, the young restorer thinks that she will need about 70 hours of work without counting the scientific work carried on at the same time. This number is also liable to increase depending on the fragilities that could appear during the restoration. The icon will return to Jerusalem in September after Maylis de Chevigny has discussed her thesis. Visitors will be able to appreciate its new splendour when the Terra Sancta Museum – Art and History opens in its section consecrated to Oriental Christian art !

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