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The altarpiece

Written by  yvette fts filipa abrantes e cora teixeira


The chancel of Funchal, from the sixteenth century, is the daunting target of an intervention for conservation and restoration done by a multidisciplinary team of professionals from various quarters, notably in terms of history and archives by Isabel de Santa Clara and Rita Rodrigues in partnership with the Laboratory José Fernandes, via experts Mercês Lorena, in the paint and Elsa Murta in the area of sculpture and carving, which coordinate a young team of conservationists and restorers of Madeira. A journey that would I like you to accompany me from the ground floor to the ceiling of the chancel.

" The intervention began on April 1st, 2013 and ends on March 30th, 2014 , is then extended by two months, until May, because the church has to be ready for the festivities that begin between 8th to 15th of June of 2014 "says Elsa Murta , an expert restorer in the area of sculpture and carving.

There are three elements of the altarpiece that will be presented:

The Passion of Christ follows the lives of the apostles and this piece is one of them, has some iconographic elements that we can perceive which one it is by the cross on crux, we know that is the Saint Andrew. Then we have Zechariah and the third is an angel of music.
The apostle would be placed on the top floor , in the row of the passion of Christ , Zechariah in the Old Testament and I think he Iconographically accompanied the life of the Virgin Mary due to his background of the house of David, on the second level.
The musician angel was around the tabernacle, does not mean it is a figure of the Old Testament, or in connection with the paintings, but is placed on the first level and it is a different figure, is the eighteenth century, it also has value, but is baroque, does not follow the aesthetics of the whole altarpiece . However, it is one of the issues under discussion, whether to stay or be replaced by a figure of the same period, but will be things that will be evaluated with a great team to whom the church belongs .

The third element is a míni baldachin, is a superior element in the painting usually called baldachin seen here in this altarpiece, in which all levels should have these elements with different dimensions . The paintings have some marks of its existence, but at this time are now nonexistent. There is much documentation that says that during the early years, there was always attacks on the churches, Buccaneers assaulted often these sacred spaces and were certainly very easy gripping elements to climb and that left and those that exist are damaged and items were placed by new ones.


After working hard on the material and spend too much time on the hands, because deep actions are repeated in the same place, one begins by cleaning the dust in every spot of the details, and here in Madeira is very specific, because it comes from the basalt, is very dark, black .

The first cleanning is made with an organic element that is widely used "white spirit" , is not a vegetable, it is a petroleum distillate, but it is completely harmless, it poses no problem the structures, even the stones and is widely used as a solvent for surface cleaning for dark spots and always we used in recuperation and restoration. Nowadays it is very difficult for our trainees and new professionals to join, which is to clean with saliva, because it has enzymes, and these do the cleaning, as this type of stains are fats, natural soils. So to avoid this type of situation, the Italians developed a synthetic saliva, which is also used in medicine in people with salivary gland problems, is to gargle. In our case very well clean tones of darkness in English is spit cleaning .

The materials used are all natural, have a natural resin extracted from a tree is dissolved with a small amount of bleached bee wax , that are melted after in these plates forms of resin wax that are diluted and applied over the elements. If you look at both already have this resi , this layer is applied only after they are cleaned. The aim is to highlight the brilliance of the gold.

The papier marché is to plug the holes that were drilled for fixing the elements at the altarpiece, but are late, because they have no way of fixing and some holes suggest the placement of wings, but this element is an apostle and not an angel .

We will not recover because the sculptures has virtually no additions , many have missing fragments, and are at altitude and will not make big difference in the element , there are some that have very coarse additions to the base to be placed in niches and quite possibly not belong there, because we know who conceived this altarpiece knew where to placed where the sculptures. Who came back, who did extensive restoration in the eighteenth century , at the beginning, made the decorative piece, made improvements, but surely removed them and not put them in the same place and does who did not fit in a particular place they put up a piece of wood painted blue and these elements have been withdrawn.

There were many repintes and regoldings that were easy to remove, because they were made on the dust and we managed to do the posting. Then there is the integration phase with gold leaf, only in the points that were made again and they were very dark, which was to paint the tone, not to do all gold, we did not regold parts. It is also applied this wax layer on the same site, is later removed and only then is ready. Many phases are always in the same place and then we finally discover many elements, many things that at first glance would not find, or at least with a view could not see .


The iconographic reading of the altarpiece can be done in several points , several times, does not mean it is top-down or bottom-up , we know this is from left to right .

"On the first level are the paintings connected to scenes of the Eucharist", explains restorative, Carolina Ferreira. " The two works are the tip of the Old Testament , the gathering of manna is ready for intervention only lacking the implementation of an end protection layer and the scene of Abraham and Abimelech is at this stage of refinishing. The plants are from the New Testament, in Ithe scenes of this supper during the time pf the repaint we could verify that there is a difference in the cloth of honor, the original red is different. There were surprises, both paintings were completely repainted and have the taste of the time and then when you end this survey there are always differences in rags, in the garments, and even the colors, the originals are more vivid. There also burns made by candles, since this is the lowest level, and even charred wood, were paintings with large gaps, hence the repintes have been made .

The full survey was carried out, because it was made on the basis of all analyzes and tests that have been done previously. We did not come here and decided to start lifting was done a lifting of the stylegraphy and the layers that exist and all this was done layer by layer to be sure of what was up",


"Radiographs were other instruments used in the survey and were important to determine whether there was some paint underneath, what is visible and see if there is repaint or not", explains Mercês Lorena, coordinator of the painting. " It is oil painting on wood , the equipment ome here, we did not retired the cadres. Digital x-ray was taken, the plate is placed behind, but could be done because there was space. In both repaint a comprehensive picture was taken, not in the remaining because repainted only happen in some details, there was no such need. It was at the time a consuming task, difficult and required a large logistics. In the painting there are four restorers coordinators and each is responsible to one of three paintings each floor. It is a year to every three paintings . "

"The second level is the story of the Virgin, the Annunciation, the Nativity where we coulf not see the details, the animals, nor the architecture , Pentecost and the Assumption of the Virgin into heaven, are paintings that have undergone restoration" as clarified young restorer, Joana Julio.


"The third level is Christ in the garden , the passion , the way to Calvary and the resurrection has already completed the restoration and the Descent from the Cross in this final phase. The paintings were too dark. In the central panel is a painting on canvas which is not part of the original set , but was placed where it can see the marks found. The painting has the dimensions of space, but we know the sides made a frame and they put up the painting to the center , before it was the ordeal, we realize that there were three niches, the central figure who would be jesus, in the flank the Virgin Mary and St. John, had lavish décor, note the marks and cavities would be a beautiful carving, it was circular and everything was painted with azurite blue element was an expensive pigment and when there was repintes used, which is a lighter blue. We found a box hoist with some elements that may be this niche, we thought that over time were braking and due to shortages the solution was to took everything and put the painting up and solve the problem. The painting is unsigned and nothing appears on radiographs , some say it may be Martim Conrado, we know there will be similarities in style, " explains the conservative restuarador Paulo Olim.


Elsa Murça accompany us back on top informing the present that " the woods are not warped , which happens a lot in altarpieces of a certain age, it does not have this problem . Diseases of the wood itself is to us, not having quite right dusk and crack easily. These woods are of the utmost quality and may indicate that came from those areas where the Flemings went to get their trees in areas where there was a guarantee of adequate growth without major storms, called Baltic oak. After the trees were marked with special symbols and this is been studied , if the ones find here will be the same or not . Have insect attacks, but as our biologist says, is wood is all biology, we must fight and made a desinfestation, cannot maintain watertight and stagnant areas should be clean, open and shaken, a part of prevention.

The difference arises from the kind of background , some are stone and other wood, but the oak was the wood used . All these elements have characteristics of Flemish sculpture, although no marks, then the artists were very demanding with his work and marked with very specific symbols as the city in which they were made Brussels , Antwerp and Ghent . I think this is the type of school Malim, but has no marks , because they probably were not done there, we have the interpretation of the artists . At that time they all came into Portugal by sea as by land from Spain and as the orders wnet they went from one side to the other. Can be an artist who learned in Malim and came here to do this work. Has yet to be determine if this work was done here on the island or was assembled here, or if it came already painted, or has been made out . The paintings reveal evidence of a different implementation, the sculptures are all contemporary .

Really on top are noted two hands , there is a person who makes a finer thing and there is another that makes the same scale, but it is different.
This side elements have thin stems, have elements with marine algae balls and then have another coarser side lacks these elements. It is all carved in wood, there are elements that have been relocated and found on a box , then there are darker touches here that we will not restore because at distance you cannot see the black spot, we did not remade forms or regolds, we just gilding the darker elements. We do not restaure. The iron bolts were never scrambled, the structure is well thought out , you see, there was never any movement, the altarpieces that is known of this time or are too golden, or have changed in decor, or were removed and placed in other sites, usually survives the painting and not the frame.

The shield of Portugal does not have the same size than this below, we see that there is continuity in the wood there is a block that was carved in the shape, everything is unique and also we see a brand. This is a Flemish work which was then mounted here, and when they saw the shield was not equal and forced them to do another one . "

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