Art News Roundup: Fixing Fixation Edition

Something that first-time visitors and old hands alike always enjoy, when they visit the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, is the ability to look into some of the workrooms located in the basement of the basilica. Thanks to a carefully planned layout, the underground space contains not only a multi-media museum chronicling the history of the building, but one can also take a peek through soundproof glass walls into spaces where architects, artists, and engineers are at work on the ongoing project, which just reached a whopping 328 feet tall a couple of weeks ago. (Only 232 more feet to go!)

Public interest in seeing art experts at work has led to a phenomenon referred to by some as “process porn”. It turns out that people love to watch other people as they design replacements for missing portions of decorative objects, clean sculptures blackened by time and candle soot, or repair holes and flaking on old paintings. Although this particular article focuses on such efforts at the Huntington in California, similar spaces exist in other museum conservation spaces as well. At the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for example, visitors can check out “Conservation in Action”, where the MFA announces works that are coming up for treatment, and invites the public to come along and watch. And if you can’t make it to one of these institutions, not to worry: there are plenty of Instagram accounts where you can see these experts doing their thing.

As a bit of a teaser, in the weeks to come – God willing and the creek don’t rise – you’ll be seeing a lengthy Federalist article from me along these lines, detailing the cleaning, conservation, and restoration of a Baroque painting that I picked up at auction over the summer. No, I’m not doing the work myself, but I’ve asked the conservator to fully document and photograph her work, which I hope you’ll find as interesting as I do. Never let it be said that I’m off trend.

In the meantime, let’s take a look at some recent stories about works that need a bit of TLC.

Brand-New Blue

After more than a decade of restoration, including such things as microscopic analysis of original gilding and painstaking research into historic textiles, the famous Blue Room in the White House is finally getting its (rather grandiose) suite of French Empire furniture back. Originally created by Parisian cabinet maker Pierre-Antoine Bellangé (1757-1827) on order from President James Monroe, the set was sold off by President James Buchanan in the late 1850’s, when the Empire style went out of fashion; it was reacquired piecemeal a century later thanks to the efforts of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, who supplemented pieces that were missing or destroyed with exact copies from the originals. Visitors to this year’s White House Christmas Open House should take note.


Titian Tumble

The bad news is that a painting of the Crucifixion by Titian (1488-1576), painted circa 1555, was damaged when it fell off the wall in the sacristy of El Escorial, the basilica-monastery-palace-necropolis of the kings and queens of Spain, just outside of Madrid. The good news, if you want to call it that, is that the damage was limited to a tear in the lower part of the canvas. The life-sized picture, acquired by Felipe II a year after Titian painted it, is roughly seven feet tall, and was immediately taken away to restorers. The culprit here appears to be a deterioration of the plaster wall into which the painting had been anchored.


Bringing Back Bruegel

Staying in Spain, albeit just briefly, ahead of a major retrospective in Vienna on the life and work of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c. 1525-1569) the Prado recently completed a two-year cleaning and restoration of Bruegel’s magnificent “The Triumph of Death” (c.1562), one of the artist’s largest (at more than 5 feet across) and most compelling paintings. Crammed with figures getting their individually-tailored comeuppances as a result of their mistreatment of others, this a gruesome but fascinating piece, clearly inspired by the work of Hieronymus Bosch (c. 1450-1516) a generation or so earlier. It’s also a kind of last, highly anachronistic gasp of Northern Gothic, even as the Renaissance itself was already on the way out in Italy. During the Prado’s treatment of the painting, lost details were recovered, and missing portions were carefully replaced by studying copies of the painting executed by Bruegel’s sons and assistants. The Prado has indicated that this is the first and only time it will be lending “The Triumph of Death” to an exhibition, which makes me think they’re expecting a major loan from the Austrians in return. “Bruegel” is at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna now through January 13th.


Still Higher: A Brief Sagrada Familia Update

Being a project that I’ve been fascinated with my entire life, I wanted to update you on a few developments at the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The work of the late Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926) the Basilica of the Holy Family (“Sagrada Familia”) has been under construction since the late 19th century, and is undoubtedly the most unique church in the world. Millions of people visit each year to marvel at it, and there is always something new and exciting going on with regard to its architectural progress.

The latest addition to the building is a massive, 18-ton stone cross, nearly 25 feet tall and about 14 feet wide. The construction team described its installation on Monday as “a real challenge”, not only because of its size, but because of its placement. There was no room for error in swinging it about into position, which could have damaged the statuary and architectural elements beneath it.

You can see a short video of it being raised here, and its final placement here.

The cross is located on the pinnacle of the porch attached to the façade of the church that represents scenes from Christ’s Passion. There will be three sculptures of angels placed around the cross, each engaged in a different action: the first will be venerating the cross, the second will be embracing the cross, and the third will be kneeling and holding aloft a chalice. You can see a model for the group below:


While the giant cross may seem like just another decorative element on an already highly-decorated building, it ties in to the overall sculptural program. Just below the cross is a platform, reached by two staircases that will eventually be accessible to visitors, depicting the scene in the Bible in which the women come to the tomb on Easter morning and find it empty. An angel appears to them to inform them that Jesus has risen from the dead, and points to both the empty tomb and to Heaven as the women react with astonishment:


Most of the sculpture on the Passion Façade is by the late Catalan sculptor Josep Maria Subirachs (1927-2014), whose work straddles the lines between Expressionism, Cubism, and Brutalism. To be honest, for the most part his work is not to my taste, although I do confess to liking some of it. Subirachs died before all of the sculptural groups on the Passion Façade could be finished, and two other Catalan sculptors have been working to complete the programme on this side of the building.

The cross and the angels surrounding it are the work of contemporary Catalan sculptor Lau Feliu (born 1957) whose style is, while not exactly the same as that of Subirachs, certainly related to it and perhaps a bit more pleasing to the eye. In addition to the cross and angels, Feliu has also completed two animal sculptures which stand on either end of the porch: the Lion of Judah, and the sacrificial ram caught in a thicket which was sacrificed by Abraham in place of Isaac:


The empty tomb scene on the other hand, is the work of another contemporary Catalan sculptor, Francesc Fajula (born 1945). Like Feliu, Fajula’s style is not the same as that of Subirachs, but shares some of the same visual influences, particularly from Expressionism. The faces of the Marys, in particular, had to be carved with great thought, since they would need to be seen from the sidewalk down below. Fajula also sculpted the crucifix which is suspended over the main altar in the Basilica, based on Gaudí’s designs for the piece.


As to overall progress, by the end of this year it is expected that the six main towers of the Basilica will all be as tall as the currently existing towers on the Nativity and Passion Facades, which are about 295 feet tall. Of the six, the tower located over the apse will be dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and will eventually be 459 feet tall, crowned with a giant illuminated star representing the Star of Bethlehem. Over the crossing at the center of the church are a central spire surrounded by four supporting spires. The supporting spires will be dedicated to the Four Evangelists, Saints Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and each of these will be 443 feet tall. The central spire rising from the midst of these will be dedicated to Jesus and stand 566 feet tall, making the Sagrada Familia the tallest church in the world when it is completed.

Construction on the Sagrada Familia is still on pace to be completed by 2026, the centenary of Gaudí’s death, and I must confess that every time I go back to Barcelona I’m astonished by how quickly things have been moving. While the final decoration of the building will be completed long after 2026, to have it structurally complete in my own lifetime is something that, as a child, I never thought that I would see happen. It’s already a structure which makes you gasp when you stand in front of it because of its sheer size and height, and I can’t imagine what the final effect will be when it’s nearly two times as tall as it already is right now.

To keep up with the progress on the Basilica, be sure to follow the Sagrada Familia’s Twitter and Instagram accounts. Images are posted every day, with accompanying text in English, Catalan, and Spanish, and there’s always some new detail to be featured, or a new achievement in the construction process to note. Unlike many other buildings, the construction of the Sagrada Familia is being funded entirely by private donations and tickets – no government or diocesan money is going toward its completion – and it’s been that way from the beginning. So if you’re interested in helping to complete construction on this astonishing project, you can visit the official website and learn how you can participate.



Is Gaudí Getting Closer to Sainthood?

Regular readers know of my admiration for the great Catalan architect, Antoni Gaudí i Cornet (1852-1926), most famous for his Basilica of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona.  The hugely original and innovative Gaudí was a deeply devout man, and spent the last decades of his life working exclusively on this structure which, when it is completed around 2026, will be the tallest church in the world.  With a new Vatican-approved graduate studies program being named after him, and Gaudí’s cause for beatification now in the review stage in Rome, one wonders whether this is a sign that the Vatican is moving in the direction of his canonization.

Located in Barcelona, the Antoni Gaudí School offers graduate studies in Church history, Christian art, and now archaeological studies, in conjunction with programs approved by the Vatican.  The architect himself loved archaeology, not only as part of his research and design process, but also as a reason to go out into the countryside at the weekends with fellow enthusiasts.  Groups of these thinkers and creative individuals would explore ancient ruins and crumbling castles to get a better sense of their own history, as well as to understand design concepts and building methods.

Pope Benedict XVI admired the Catalan architect a great deal.  He not only traveled to Barcelona to dedicate the church and raise it to the level of a Minor Basilica, but he also used a photograph of the sculpture of the Holy Family on the Nativity Facade of the building for his official Christmas cards that year.  An exhibition celebrating Gaudí’s work was mounted at the Vatican at the same time. And recently, Pope Francis accepted a gift of a portrait bust of Gaudí from the group promoting his cause for beatification, a work based on an original carved shortly after the architect’s death.

The current expectation is that the Congregation for the Causes of Saints will complete their investigation sometime in the spring of 2015, and will make their recommendations to the Holy Father at that time. Despite some earlier rumors that beatification was going to be announced for certain, so far there has been no official word from the Congregation on that point. It would seem to me more likely that he would first be made a “Venerable”, if the cause is moving forward, but Catalan sources insist that Rome will be skipping straight to beatification.  To my knowledge, Pope Francis has never spoken about Gaudí publicly in the way that Pope Benedict has, so we can’t assume anything one way or the other with respect to his urging the work of the Congregation forward.

That being said, the fact that the Vatican seems to be encouraging naming things after “God’s Architect”, as he is often called, seems to me to be a good sign.

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Work underway on the central towers of the Sagrada Familia, Barcelona