Caravaggio's Crucifixion of Saint Andrew: An Update on the Treatment of a Treasure

The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio was painted in 1606–7 and is among the most important paintings in the Cleveland Museum of Art's collection. In 2014, the museum treated one of its treasures in front of museum visitors for the first time, and audiences were able to witness firsthand the skill, planning, research, and technical analysis that go in to a major conservation project. A sophisticated paintings conservation lab was constructed in the museum’s focus gallery so that visitors were able to watch the process unfold throughout the summer. Conservator of Paintings, Dean Yoder, worked in the gallery, cleaning the painting by removing deteriorated varnish layers and old retouching, until the September, when the painting went back into the museum’s conservation laboratory for further restoration.

Here, Yoder shares an update on the treatment process of the Caravaggio since the fall and what comes next.

Tell us about one of your most interesting discoveries while cleaning this work of art.

In this case, “cleaning” refers to the removal of multiple layers of discolored varnish and old restoration paint that were obscuring the original paint surface.   As these layers were being removed, nuances of Caravaggio’s painting strategy began to emerge.  

For me, the most important observation is how the outside lines (contours) of the figures transition from sharpened to blurred lines, articulating form and creating volume.   The level of scrutiny and finesse is truly amazing.  The edges of deep shadows show similar gradations of hard and soft line.  It was gratifying to see this masterful brushwork emerge as the cleaning progressed.  

Were you startled by the level of damage?

Not at all, since the extensive study before beginning the conservation provided a clear understanding of the preexisting damages.  Both the X-ray images and infrared photographs were excellent resources for diagnosing the location and extent of the old damages.

What was it like to work on a masterpiece like this one in front of the public?

In some ways, the work became a conservation treatment performance and because of this, I became more aware of my movements in front of the painting.  This self-monitoring actually helped me regulate my posture and hand positions to cause less physical stress when cleaning over long periods.

Cleaning a work of art demands intense focus and a hyper-awareness at all times.  In the beginning the presence of people watching added slightly more pressure, but after some time I was able to focus deeper and feel comfortable working in public, though it’s clearly not a comfortable situation for every conservator.  It was also really rewarding to discuss the conservation work, Caravaggio’s enigmatic life and virtuosic painting technique with so many visitors at the appointed times.

Have you seen similar restoration approaches in other paintings that you can relate back to the restoration of this work?

Yes, although each painting brings a completely different set of problems to be solved.  While I understood the parameters of the project quite well, the actual treatment process evolved as I found the most effective approach.  For instance, since the deepest varnish layer was blocking adequate saturation of the paint layer in this picture, it needed to be completely removed.  Now that the cleaning phase is complete, the paint surface will be varnished again, but this time with a varnish that is capable of providing proper saturation of the darker colors.  The result will be transformative.

What comes next?

The next phase is “inpainting,” which refers to the careful application of conservation paint within boundaries of paint loss.  In this particular case, first a base color matching the original dark brown ground will be applied over the areas that earlier restorative interventions in-filled with a white filling compound.  This will provide a foundation for the more strategic and modulated inpainting that will follow.  

In the next week, I will be traveling to Florence, Rome, and Naples with Cory Korkow, Associate Curator of European Art, to meet with conservators and Caravaggio specialists and to study key works by Caravaggio and other artists that relate to our painting. It is critical to see other paintings by Caravaggio, many of which have been recently conserved. It’s also helpful to understand how these paintings compare to Cleveland’s in terms of condition and enables me to study different treatment approaches.  Throughout the conservation process it’s important to maintain a dialogue between conservator and curator, and this kind of research trip helps the museum place the study and treatment of our Caravaggio masterpiece in an international context.   

 Follow Korkow and Yoder's trip to Italy on Instagram beginning Wednesday, February 4: @ClevelandMuseumofArt | #get2knowcaravaggio

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