COVER STORY

Centuries take their toll on St. Augustine statue

Husband-wife team finishing up 7-month restoration of cathedral's Crucifix of Pamplona
2010-08-29T00:00:00Z Centuries take their toll on St. Augustine statueDan Sorenson Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 29, 2010 12:00 am  • 

Estimating the difficulty of restoring the 700-year-old wooden statue of a crucified Christ for St. Augustine Cathedral was a leap of faith for Matilde Rubio and Tim Lewis.

The statue, known as the Crucifix of Pamplona, hung in the Diocese of Tucson's cathedral, 192 S. Stone Ave., for decades after an importer brought it to the United States in the 1920s with the intent of selling it to a Chicago museum. The museum declined the offer and the statue came to Tucson and wound up in the cathedral.

Diocesan officials, as part of a recent $1 million overall project to restore the cathedral, approached Rubio and Lewis about working on the statue.

Carbon dating put the age of the original carving at between 600 and 800 years ago, Rubio said. But much work, some of it badly done by modern restoration standards, would have to be undone.

"We didn't know it was in such bad shape until we saw it. We estimated, before we really looked at it, about four months," Lewis says while sitting with Rubio in a shaded walkway behind Mission San Xavier del Bac.

They started in November and finished in June.

Looking at the surface of the 6-foot, 4-inch statue wasn't enough to reveal what was underneath the most recent of several restoration attempts.

Even so, says Rubio, "This has such a quality. . . . We went to a museum in Spain (with photos of the statue). When they saw it, even without the restoring, they said, 'Wow!' "

She said they don't mind that the job took seven months rather than the estimated four.

Pictures of the finished work show vivid yet natural-looking colors, a well-defined sculpture of the famous crucified male form. But it was a long, arduous seven months finding that inner beauty, they say. And, no, they didn't get paid more. They contracted to do the work for $43,000, Lewis said, and out of that total they paid for specialized restoration material imported from Spain and for chemical analysis of coatings from earlier restoration work on the statue.

"We're honest. That's the way we work," Lewis said of eating the three months extra work.

It was like trying to give an estimate on a remodeling job without going into the house.

In fact, it probably was more like a remodeling job than most art restorations: The statue even had termite damage.

While there wasn't any ugly wallpaper, there was some paint and other "stuff" layered over the ancient wood.

In some areas, there were as many as 10 layers of various paints and glues - from different ages - over the original painted wood surface.

"We took samples the size of a pinhead and sent it to a lab in Madrid and they analyzed it under a microscope," Lewis said of the layers of glue and paint covering the original paint. When the results came in, they used different techniques and chemicals to remove each layer.

Some of the layers were extremely thin. Others were gobbed on thickly. Each had to be removed only to its exact depth before another technique was used for the next layer.

"The cleaning was terrible," said Rubio.

They couldn't use any of the powerful modern strippers that would be available to furniture restorers.

"Strong solvents put in danger the original paint," Rubio said. And because of the delicate nature of the material underneath, removing the unwanted layers was not a matter of biceps and elbow grease, but rather painstaking, delicate work using fingertips. Rub too hard and they could take off the original layer they were trying to expose.

Lewis pointed to a small snapshot in the book documenting the restoration, roughly 3 by 4 inches, and said cleaning an area that size would have made a good day's work.

"We'd be happy" to do that much in a day, he said.

There were surprises beyond the varied layers and multiple restorations beneath the surface. For one thing, the statue was not made of one piece of wood but several. Some of the joints were covered by fabric.

Rubio said the arms of the figure had obviously been stressed, bent to fit the crucifix, opening up joints in the wood.

One hand was partly missing. They cleverly, apparently, figured the best solution would be to make the missing fingers by doing a mirror image of the fingers on the other hand.

But when Lewis finished carving a new section and tried to fit it to the damaged hand, he learned that the intact hand was smaller than the damaged hand. He had to add extra material.

Fixing the hand at all was somewhat controversial. The ethics - the rules - of art restoration not only change over time, but change depending on the situation.

The modern rule of thumb is to not replace anything that isn't there and to only use materials - glues and paint - that match the originals. Animal glues, yes. Super Glue, most certainly not.

But Rubio said in this case the client - the diocese - wanted an intact figure. A museum would most likely leave the missing section missing.

While they respect the ancient techniques, Rubio said they aren't necessarily better in all ways. One of the favorites of artists working hundreds of years ago was glue made by boiling down rabbit bones, Rubio said. And while rabbit glue might be authentic, it stinks, she said, particularly in a hot room.

Apparently concerned that they might come off as whiney, Rubio said, "We enjoy it." But then, she said, "You have to," because of the amount of patience the work requires. They said someone who didn't love the work couldn't do it for long.

Part of that enjoyment is learning.

"You never stop learning," Rubio said.

"You're never going to know all the answers," she said. "I don't like to work alone, even if just consulting. You always learn from other people."

Restoration work takes the old carpenter's adage - measure twice, cut once - to extremes.

Rubio said the painstaking decisions a restorationist makes throughout a project are deadly serious because lurking behind each choice is the knowledge that "whatever damage you do, it has no replacement. It's irreversible."

But, that responsibility, and the joy of seeing a restoration well-done - turning back time to the moment when the original artist stepped back and declared it done - is part of the pleasure.

"This is the only job I've ever had when I looked forward to Monday and hated Fridays," said Lewis.

Time in Spain and Tucson

Rubio, a university-trained restoration artist from Spain, and Lewis, a member of the Tohono O'odham Nation who apprenticed on the restoration of Mission San Xavier del Bac, met in June 1994 while Lewis was in Austria learning restoration techniques.

Later, they married and worked together on the restoration of Mission San Xavier del Bac and on art-restoration projects throughout Europe. They go between Spain and Tucson, following restoration work, but spending at least part of most years in Tucson.

Asked whether they'd rather live here or in Spain, both say they like both places. And, for the last several years, they've been able to go back and forth.

But Rubio said the recession has hit Spain so hard that there is very little restoration going on there.

"I like it as it is now, half and half," said Rubio, going back and forth between Spain, where her family lives, and their projects, friends and Lewis' family home here.

Fortunately, there may be more work to keep them coming back to Tucson. They won't say much, but they say there are other old pieces owned by the Diocese of Tucson that could be the subject of restoration work.

Their restoration work probably won't go on display until January or February, when the renovation of the entire cathedral is expected to be completed, said diocesan spokesman Fred Allison.

The statue hung in the baptistry of the cathedral until 1967 and in the vestibule from 1968 until it was taken down for restoration.

The Crucifix of Pamplona will likely replace a much larger statue, the Risen Christ, that was made in 1981, but has developed a large crack, Allison said.

Did you know?

St. Augustine Cathedral was last restored in 1968, 100 years after the completion of the original Mother Church of the Diocese of Tucson.

The cathedral's cast stone facade contains many symbolic components, including the coat of arms of Pope Pius XI, the pope at the time of the facade's construction, and the coats of arms of former diocese bishops Salpointe, Bourgade, Granjon and Gercke.

There are also images of desert plants and a desert horned toad.

The cathedral's facade also contains a representation of Mission San Xavier del Bac, which was founded in 1699.

Contact reporter Dan Sorenson at dsorenson@azstarnet.com or 573-4185.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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