International Collaboration to Conserve Medieval Mosaic, The Last Judgment, Completed at St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague
Eight-Year Project Culminates in Unveiling Ceremony on September 15, 2000
September 15, 2000
Prague, Czech Republic/Los Angeles, Calif.--An eight-year international collaboration among scientists, art historians, and conservators will culminate in Prague on September 15 with the unveiling of The Last Judgment, a major 14th-century glass mosaic that is one of the Czech Republic's most significant cultural treasures. Senior Czech authorities will join Tim Whalen, director of the Getty Conservation Institute, at St. Vitus Cathedral for the first public presentation of the mosaic following completion of conservation work.
The Last Judgment, the earliest and most important monumental exterior medieval mosaic north of the Alps, covers 904 square feet (84 square meters) of the cathedral's south facade. Since its creation more than six centuries ago, in 1371, the glass mosaic has rarely been seen in its full splendor. It has faced repeated threats, not only from wars and fires and, more recently, environmental pollutants, but also from iconoclasts in the early 17th century who, tradition says, covered the mosaic over with a layer of mortar. It has also suffered from well-meant but damaging restoration treatments over the centuries.
The current conservation effort required extensive scientific and art-historical research and the development of new conservation methods and materials, and in the process facilitated vital international exchange. The challenge was not merely to clean the fragile mosaic, but to ensure its future survival by coming up with a coating that would stabilize and protect it, preventing further deterioration and allowing it to remain visible.
"The Getty Conservation Institute's involvement with The Last Judgment mosaic has its origins within a broader Getty Trust initiative of the 1990s to help countries of the former Soviet block to re-establish exchange of information," says Whalen. "The goal was to build close collaborative relationships among individuals and institutions in Eastern and Central Europe for the benefit of the visual arts and cultural heritage. Now, a decade later, the Getty has not only helped to restore this mosaic by introducing an innovative, widely applicable conservation methodology, but we have also been privileged to support the important ongoing work of museums, libraries, and universities through our Grant Program. Most important, we have cultivated wonderful new colleagues and friends."
New Methods and Materials Required for Mosaic's Conservation
Divided by Gothic spires into three sections, The Last Judgment depicts Christ surrounded by angels in the central panel, and scenes of heaven and of hell in the two side panels. The brilliantly colored mosaic comprises more than a million small glass and stone pebbles, or tesserae, in more than 30 different hues. Until now, conservators have been unable to prevent the recurrence of a grayish layer of corrosion that obscures the mosaic.
Getty scientists began by analyzing the mosaic's material and decay products to understand the process of deterioration. Over the course of several years they then tested numerous approaches to cleaning and protecting the mosaic. Actual treatment of the three-panel mosaic got underway two and half years ago, with the central panel completed in the summer of 1998, the right panel completed in the summer of 1999, and the final, left panel completed just a few weeks ago. A team of Getty and Czech conservators cleaned the mosaic using special micro-sandblasters, and painstakingly applied to each tessera a multilayer protective polymer coating adapted from the aerospace and medical industries. This is the first time that the high-tech coating--developed in collaboration with the Department of Material Science Engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles--has been applied for art-conservation purposes.
The project also contributed to major advancements in the art-historical analysis of The Last Judgment mosaic. Archival holdings related to the mosaic have expanded with the discovery of a number of historical documents and photographs as well as extensive new documentation. Some 30 different archives in Prague house documents and photographs related to the mosaic, and the Conservation Institute's own holdings of related material now exceed 5,500 items. Conservators who had worked on earlier restorations of the mosaic, in the 1950s and the 1980s, were also brought into the process, giving the project not only a multinational but also a multigenerational character.
The results of the project team's findings will be shared as a service to the field through publications and a symposium in June 2001. Additionally, the team has developed a mosaic maintenance protocol, to be carried out under the supervision of Prague Castle to help ensure the long-term preservation of the stunning results of the conservation work.
St. Vitus Cathedral, part of the vast Prague Castle complex, receives over six million visitors a year and remains an active religious center containing important medieval reliquia of the body of St. Vitus. The cathedral is filled with important examples of Czech art from the 14th through 20th centuries, as well as the former kingdom's Crown Jewels.
Other Getty Projects in Central and Eastern Europe
In addition to its work on The Last Judgment mosaic, the Getty supports other projects in Central and Eastern Europe which will have a lasting impact in the region. In a recently concluded initiative (1991 to 1997), the Getty Grant Program provided acquisition funding for libraries in the region and fellowships for individual scholars to conduct art- historical research outside their home countries. More recently, a major grant to the National Gallery of Prague was awarded to support an interactive computer system to interpret the Gallery's collection for visitors. To date, the Grant Program has provided grants totaling over $7 million for projects in Central and Eastern European countries, including nearly $1.8 million within the Czech Republic.
Note to Editors: Color slides, digital images, and b-roll video footage depicting The Last Judgment and its conservation are available on request.
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