Conservation in Focus: #Get2KnowCaravaggio

For the first time, the Cleveland Museum of Art will conserve one of its treasures in front of museum visitors. The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was painted in 1606–7 and is among the most important paintings in the museum’s collection. Starting today, audiences will be able to witness firsthand the skill, planning, research, and technical analysis that go in to a major conservation project. A sophisticated paintings conservation lab will be constructed in the museum’s focus gallery so that visitors can watch the process unfold. Conservator of Paintings Dean Yoder will be in the gallery on weekdays working on the first phase: cleaning the painting by removing deteriorated varnish layers and old retouching. 

Bringing the traditionally unseen work of conservation to the public eye will draw attention to the museum’s sustained investment in caring for its renowned collection. Caravaggio’s painting, which is both a masterpiece and a visitor favorite, has long been identified as a candidate for a comprehensive treatment. The conservation process includes in-depth research into the materials and techniques used by Caravaggio. Cleveland’s discoveries will contribute to the international scholarly community’s better understanding of the artist’s mysterious working methods.

A recent in-depth examination of the painting identified some problems stemming from an aged restoration before the painting entered the museum's collection. The old varnish has a pronounced yellow discoloration that is obscuring the underlying color relationships. The effects of age and environmental fluctuations have also caused micro fissures that create the appearance of a whitish haze over large areas of the painting. In addition, two varnish layers applied during an earlier restoration have proven to be incompatible, causing widespread cracking. Cleaning tests also found that the first layer of synthetic varnish was not providing adequate saturation of the paint later. Fortunately, both varnishes can removed with a mild solvent mixture. Once the old varnish layers are removed, a stable synthetic varnish will be applied to properly saturate the paint surface, restoring the vibrancy of the colors.

This focus exhibition will draw audiences into the process with high-resolution technical photography including infrared imaging, digitized X-rays, and photomicroscopy. These help us to document and study the materials and techniques used by Caravaggio in this painting. Technical images provide insight into the painting’s construction, showing how the painting’s appearance has been compromised in the 400 years since it was created. 

Above: Conservator of Paintings Dean Yoder works on the Caravaggio painting on the exhibition's opening day.

The entire cleaning and restoration project will take about 18 months, and this work of art will then be ready for the Cleveland Museum of Art's centennial celebration in 2016. In the meantime, you can see this conservation process is progress in Conservation in Focus: Caravaggio's Crucifixion of Saint Andrewopen through September 14 at the CMA!
> Have a question about the conservation process or this work of art? Tweet with the hashtag #Get2KnowCaravaggio, and follow @ClevelandArt for the answer!

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