Restoration of St Dominic Statue in Valletta, Malta

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Restoration of St Dominic Statue in Valletta, Malta
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The feast of our holy Father St Dominic in the Parish Basilica of Our Lady of Safe Haven and St Dominic began with the unveiling of the restored processional statue of the saint on Sunday, July 30, 2017.

This statue of St Dominic is a masterpiece of 17th century art. The conservator Agatha Grima who was entrusted to carry out the restoration and conservation told The Sunday Times that: “Just one look at the statue’s face reveals that it is a great work in polychromed wood of the seventeenth century having glass eyes showing tiny bubbles of air (typical of the period). The proportions and carved details are impeccable. And the polychromy at the face leaves one in awe. As an example, the sideburns have been interpreted by the application of a greenish paint (probably terre verte) underneath the somewhat transparent flesh tone.”

Grima continues to explain that, “The polychromy at the hands however leaves a lot to be desired. It is obvious that the hands still have a number of overpaintings on them that happened during ‘previous restorations’. It is known that in the 1960’s the statue was restored by Professor Oscar Testa. Although not officially documented, it has been said that Testa was seen removing paint from the face of the statue using cotton wool dipped in a mixture. This fits in place with a saying that the statue had a darker look and a darker moustache pre 1960s, in contrast to the current fine lighter flesh tone, moustache and beard. With the hands currently darker, it is possible that Profs. Testa cleaned just the face, something that Testa would have been well capable of doing considering that; Testa had worked in Rome ‘as assistant professor to professor Ridolfi in the execution of arduous and delicate work in restoring paintings of world famed artists’.

Unfortunately, no documentation has so far been found as to who made the statue and when it was made. The only indications that exist for sure are the accounts of the Valletta Convent which document all expenses related to the day to day running of the priory as well extraordinary expenses related, for example, to the organization of the feast. The late Fr Philip Mallia OP, wrote an article in the 1991 annual commemorative programme of the Valletta feast in which he points out that entries relating to the carrying of the statue of St Dominic appear for the first time on August 16, 1687 on folio 322v of the Libro Straordinario 1673 – 1708. Similar entries are made in August 21, 1688, August 6,1695 and August 20, 1701. (Vide Mallia Filipp, L-Istatwa tal-Patrijarka San Duminku tal-Belt in Programm tal-Festa ta’ San Duminku ta’ Guzman, Valletta 1991 pp. 19 – 21).

Fr Mallia further points out that the Valletta statue is practically identical to that of the Vatican sculpted in white marble by Pierre Le Gros the Younger in 1706 during the tenure of Master General Frere Antonin Cloche at the request of Pope Clement XI. Fr Mallia, points out that both statues were based on a design made by a certain Cooperator Brother Fra Monoyer OP. Mallia also states that the only other known intervention on this processional statue of St Dominic was when the friars commissioned the sculptor Sigismondo Dimech to carve four wooden putti to adorn the pedestal and the painter Giuseppe Thew to repaint the statue in 1823. (Mallia Filipp, ibid).

This insight by Fr Mallia supports the observation of restorer Agatha Grima who points out in her report on the conservation project that: “The type of finish of the current layer at the face is so finely finished that any layers applied after would not have been able to bond and adhere well thus making it easy to remove later. This has been proven with tests executed at the hands where the upper layers although oil-based, hard and brittle, are not well adhered to the possibly original under layers.

The statue has been documented and representative samples have been taken for investigation to possibly support the above and give further insight into the original technique.” (Grima ibid)

What is certain is that this conservation exercise has restored this magnificent masterpiece so much loved by the Valletta devotees of St Dominic and so much admired by all those who love and appreciate sacred art to its full pristine glory. This will be on full display when the statue is carried in procession on Sunday, August 6, 2017 to conclude the annual week of religious celebrations in honour of our patron saint.

Alfred Grixti, Lay Dominican,
Parish Basilica of Of Lady of Safe Haven and St Dominic, Valletta, Malta.

 

​(3 August 2017)