OLB conserves one of five of its oil paintings
“It feels like Christmas,” said Rev. Stephen Schultz, pastor of Our Lady of Belen Catholic Church, when one of five oil paintings the church owns was revealed Friday after being conserved for an upcoming exhibit.
For the past several decades, Our Lady of Belen has been storing a collection of large oil paintings in the rectory, too damaged and too fragile to display. But with the help of the New Mexico History Museum and a conservationist in Colorado, one of the paintings has been brought back to its glory.
Josef Diaz, curator of Southwest and Mexican Colonial Art and History Collections at the museum, will include the painting, “The Visitation,” in its exhibit, “Painting the Divine: Images of Mary in the New World,” this summer.
The paintings, Diaz says, are thought to have been done by an unknown Mexican artist in the late 1700s, more than 200 years old. Schultz says the 18th century paintings, which depict the Virgin Mary’s journey, were painted around the date of the founding of the parish in 1793.
“These are the exact types of paintings that were coming up the Camino Rael from Mexico City to adorn various churches, missions and pueblo churches,” Diaz said. “And with the exhibit we’re having, this fits in perfectly with academic paintings.”
Diaz said while he isn’t sure who the painter is, he believes with further research he will be able to attribute it to at least a school in Mexico. He is able to date the paintings by their style, comparing them to other images produced around the same time, 1750 to 1775.
Another telling aspect of the paintings is that local artists usually used Ponderosa pine or animal hide as their canvas, while these paintings are clearly oil on canvas, which was typically used by Mexican artists.
The four other paintings are titled “Circumcision,” “The Flight to Egypt,” “The Assumption” and “The Magi.”
Diaz said he chose “The Visitation” for the exhibit because he liked the European influences in the painting, such as the landscape in the background. He also said it was one of two in the collection that was the best preserved.
“I decided to use “The Visitation” because we have another piece by a local artist dated around the same time on canvas, which is one of very few that was done on canvas, also titled, ‘The Visitation,’ Diaz said.
When Diaz first saw the painting, it was dusty, the stretcher was unstable and there were several tears, some of which had been repaired at least 100 years ago. There was also lots of grime and drip marks on the painting and it looked like someone had put varnish on it at one time, to bring out the colors, but over time, it darkened the painting.
“Paintings like this were on altars, side chapels and if the church fell into disrepair, walls and ceilings cave in, it could really damage these paintings,” Diaz said.
Schultz said he does believe that paintings were on display at the first and second churches. He’s not sure how or when the paintings were damaged, saying they were darkened and damaged with age and soot from burning votive candles over the years.
After receiving permission from the director of patrimony and the Arch Diocese of Santa Fe, Schultz said he was very excited about the project that would help conserve the painting as well as the history of the parish.
“This is an opportunity for people outside our area to see the painting,” Schultz said.
Diaz picked up the painting in October and took it to Mountain States Art Conservation in Colorado, where Cynthia Lawrence works as an art conservationist.
In art conservation, preservation of the original work is the key, while improvement to its appearance isn’t as important. It may include cleaning, repairing damage, re-shaping, reassembling as well as toning in repairs to blend with the original object. Conservation can also involve removing old restorations.
Diaz said Lawrence, who has worked on several of the New Mexico History Museum’s paintings, knows when to stop and doesn’t “over do it.”
Conserving “The Visitation” took Lawrence about four months to complete, about six weeks longer than initially estimated. The painting will also receive a new, simple frame prior to the exhibition in Santa Fe.
It was with the help of a private donor that the conservation of the painting was possible, Diaz said. The cost a little more than $1,400.
“I think it’s important to keep in mind why the painting was made in the first place,” Father Schultz said. “One of the purposes was catechetical, to teach children and adults their faith because a vast majority of people were illiterate at the time. They couldn’t read the Bible, so paintings like this and stained-glass windows were created so people could see the Bible stories.” Schultz said the “The Visitation” is from the Gospel of Luke, telling the story of Mary going into the hill country after she conceived the Child Jesus through the Holy Spirit.
“She went to go visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth, who was much older,” he said. “Elizabeth was also pregnant at the time with the one who would be John the Baptist. It appears they were greeting for the first time, and John the Baptist, as it’s said in Scripture, that within the womb of his mother, he leapt with joy, recognizing the unborn Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah.”
Father Schultz said he’s planning to have conservation work performed on the other four paintings from this collection, along with two other paintings from about the same time period that belongs to the parish.
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