A wooden sculpture of a crucified Christ that survived the Sack of Rome and 700 years of termites is due to be unveiled after being “resurrected” and newly restored in St Peter’s Basilica.
The 14th century wooden crucifix, with an arm-span of more than six foot, had languished behind an elevator shaft in a closed chapel before the restoration project began. At a Vatican news conference held on Friday, Cardinal Angelo Comastri, archpriest of St. Peter’s Basilica, said:
“Darkened and confined in a neglected spot and nearly unreachable, it was forgotten by many,” he said.
When Pope Francis called the Year of Mercy, the basilica accelerated plans to have the crucifix studied and restored. Fifteen months of difficult and delicate work followed.
Because moving it too far from where it had been abandoned was too risky, the canon’s sacristy nearby was turned into a makeshift restoration studio.
“We have discovered a hidden treasure under the dust of many centuries,” Cardinal Comastri added.
It was made by an unknown sculptor of “exceptional artistic talent” and technical skill sometime in the early 1300s, and hung in the original fourth-century basilica of St. Peter, built by the Emperor Constantine, said Bishop Vittorio Lanzani, secretary of the Fabbrica di San Pietro, the office responsible for physical care and maintenance of St. Peter’s Basilica.
Antique prints and a rich trail of archival material track the crucifix’s condition and its various locations inside the old basilica and its transfer to the new basilica when it was completed in 1620.
Termites caused considerable damage, leaving bore holes peppering the face and body and excavating large areas by the armpits.
Early restorers filled the gaping holes with wads of cloth, reinforced weakened areas with canvas wrappings and stucco, and hid dirt, discoloration and black termite burrows with dark “bronze-colored” paint, the bishop said.
Moved in 1749 to make way for Michelangelo’s marble masterpiece, the Pieta, the progressively darkening statue was gradually moved further and further away from the main area of the basilica, eventually ending up in a closed chapel.
With funding from the Knights of Columbus, restorers used thermal lasers to blast off one layer of paint at a time and “cutting-edge” solvents that dissolve specific substances like oils, lacquers and grime, leaving desired colors unaltered, said one of the lead restorers, Lorenza D’Alessandro.
Experts monitored their progress with stereomicroscopes, which are often used in microsurgery, to make sure they removed only selected areas and layers. She said they identified nine successive layers of paints, varnishes and protective coatings on the body and 15 layers on the white, gold-bordered loincloth.
The newly restored crucifix will be shown to the public for the first time on November 6 during Pope Francis’ jubilee for prisoners to be “a beautiful sign of hope and a message of mercy.”
It will then be placed back in the main part of the basilica in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and dedicated in “perpetual memory of the Jubilee of Mercy.”