Conservation: St. George and the Dragon

St. George and the Dragon Icon

St. George and the Dragon, ca. 1750
Greek, School of Epirus
Gold leaf and tempera on wood
Museum Purchase Fund

By the fall of 2011 it was apparent to everyone. The thrilling depiction of St. George conquering a dragon had become dull, dirty, and damaged.

icon before conservation

1. St. George and the Dragon, before treatment (in strong light)

Over the last three centuries, an accumulation of surface dirt and discolored varnish had rendered Krannert Art Museum’s scintillating eighteenth-century Greek icon of St. George and the Dragon dim and murky in appearance. More alarmingly, cracks had begun to appear in the wood panel, and delicate areas of paint were at risk of detaching.

Krannert Art Museum’s St. George and the Dragon belongs to a long tradition of holy images called icons painted for the Orthodox Church that originated during the Byzantine Empire (323-1453) and continues today. Like most icons, St. George is painted with a mixture of powdered pigments suspended in an egg tempera binder on a wood panel. Nearly half of the panel’s surface is covered with gold leaf to form a light-reflective, radiant background. The Krannert icon was likely created in the Epirus region of northern Greece in the eighteenth century, but still displays the stylized forms and iconography typical of earlier Byzantine works. Yet small losses of the paint layer, soiled old varnish, and instable areas of the three-hundred-year-old wood panel made it unfit for museum display.

In 2012, Krannert Art Museum engaged the art conservation firm of Cynthia Kuniej Berry Associates in Chicago to address these issues. Two senior conservators, Cynthia Kuniej Berry and Kirk Vuillemot, along with assistant conservator Emily Prehoda, returned the painting to its current glorious state.

The conservators had three clear goals:

1. Stabilize the wood panel and consolidate detached or detaching areas
of wood and paint.
2. Clean the surface and use small, carefully chosen areas of retouching and
regilding to restore the integrity and legibility of the image.
3. Devise a new system of support for the safe hanging and display of the work.

top corner comparison

2. St. George and the Dragon, detail of upper right corner before and after treatment

The painting’s upper right corner was the most immediate area of concern. Above the castle, a large piece of the wood had separated from the main board. Two serious cracks extended into the king’s crown and his courtier’s head, causing the paint and gold to flake along their edges. A before treatment detail (on the left) shows how this large wood sliver had pulled away from the panel and protruded forward. Kirk Vuillemot deftly reattached this portion of wood with adhesive. The conservators then reattached the flaking paint and regilt the small area of lost gold. A detail taken after treatment (on the right) shows this corner as flush with the panel’s surface.

lower corner comparison pre- and post conservation

3. St. George and the Dragon, detail of lower right corner before and after treatment

Cynthia Berry and Emily Prehoda cleaned grime from the entire painting with a mild aqueous-enzymatic solution. They then focused on certain problem areas with stubborn, discolored varnish. This murky buildup was most severe in the bottom corners of the panel, where the old varnish had pooled into a thick, opaque greenish-brown layer against the border of the engaged frame. The panel’s bottom right corner was so soiled that it obscured the dragon’s back foot! Through the careful application of a mild solvent, this dirty varnish was removed to reveal the dragon’s original appendage, which steps out of the painting and onto the frame.

comparison of face and tunic before and after conservation

4. St. George and the Dragon, detail of St. George before and after treatment

After cleaning, a few areas were selected for retouching (also called inpainting), which is the process of adding a harmless, inert watercolor pigment to cover old losses. A close-up photo of St. George before cleaning (on the left) reveals two distinct areas of minor losses: note the small cracks in the saint’s red cloak at the shoulder that reveal a white preparatory layer, and the bare spots in the horse’s gray mane that reveal the gold leaf underneath. These voids in the paint layer interrupt the forms and make it difficult for viewers to visually reconstruct the saint’s cloak and horse’s hair. Consequently, these losses were covered with closely matched colors that complete the shapes and restore legibility to the image. The retouching visible in the post-treatment photo (on the right) is completely reversible, in keeping with modern conservation practice and the basic ethical directive to do no harm to the work of art.

Some, but not all, losses received this treatment. Tiny fissures in the painted surface and areas of wear along the face of the frame are natural signs of aging and use, and were left unaltered. The same is true for the gouge marks in the lower center of the panel below the horse and partly obliterating the dragon’s paw. These deep marks appear intentional, as if a sharp metal instrument was repeatedly knocked against the surface. Also, you may have noticed two other oddities that demonstrate the panel’s construction and past appearance. The heads of two wrought iron nails protrude from the front of the panel: one just to the left of St. George’s raised arm, and the other below the horse’s rear hoof. These nails bind the main panel to two wooden cross rails on the back called battens, which help keep the main panel from warping and formerly connected it to a screen in an Orthodox Church called an iconostasis.

You may have noticed the bare wood in three spots around St. George’s head: two on either side of his neck and one above his forehead. These are likely the holes from nails that once fastened a metal halo to panel. Icons were often embellished with silver and gilt metal halos, and the darkened, oxidized wood in these holes likely indicates that a halo was removed from the St. George a long time ago.

icon back

5. St. George and the Dragon, back of panel, illustrating the metal harness

Finally, a steel harness was attached to the back of the panel, from which it now hangs. Previously, the panel was suspended by a wire attached to screw eyes, which were screwed directly into the wood. This placed a substantial amount of stress on the panel that provoked warping and cracking. The new harness supports the icon from the top and bottom, as well as secures it from the back, without stressing the panel.

icon conservation complete

6. St. George and the Dragon, after treatment

The successful conservation treatment of Krannert Art Museum’s St. George and the Dragon is not a restoration. No attempt has been made to “restore” the painting to its original appearance. The panel displays numerous signs of its age and the wear and tear of its ritual use by the Greek Orthodox Church before it came to the museum in 1962. Rather, it has been expertly conserved, with the guiding principle of conservation being the stabilization, cleaning, and preservation of the icon for future generations. Please visit Krannert Art Museum and see the remarkable results.

Text by Robert G. LaFrance, curator of Pre-modern Art, Krannert Art Museum, September 2013

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