Erasmus also sets an art restorer thinking

Unveiling restoration Erasmus sculpture by Patricia Ortiz

Earlier this year Museum Gouda presented a special exhibition on Erasmus and his intellectual legacy. The relevant title of this exhibition was “Concedo Nulli”. Ik wijk voor niemand. A special exhibition that introduced the way of thinking of Erasmus to the visitors in a special way. A look-listen-talk exposition that literally set the visitors thinking and showed that even today the thought of Erasmus is utmost relevant. This got strengthened by lively debates on the “Table of Erasmus” positioned in the middle of the museum.

Every exhibition takes a long time for preparation. From the first idea and concept till opening of an exhibition usually takes several years. As an early contribution to this exhibition I restored a sculpture of Erasmus already four years ago now.

Research showed that the sculpture is more than 450 years old. The sculpture combines a wooden statue with terracotta relief. The carrier reads the text that Erasmus was conceived in Gouda. A claim used by the city of Gouda to present Erasmus as one of its citizens.

During the restoration work both wooden panel as well as relief have been restored. First, we removed the old and discolored varnish layer that obscured the original paint layer. This emerged the original colors again, especially at the relief showing that Erasmus had more white hair than anticipated before the restoration .

The wooden panel was seriously damaged. The photos below show how a treatment against woodworm was applied to prevent further deterioration of the panel. All damages have been repaired and the surface dirt has been removed using special cleaning-gels, following an innovative method developed by Richard Wolbers of Delaware University in Newark, U.S.

A similar effect came to surface on the carrier. During the restoration of the wooden panel we had clear indications that the written text in golden letters was not the original. However photographic research didn’t bring the results we wanted, and it remained unclear if there is another text-layer below the golden letters. For this reason, we decided not to (partially) remove this layer.  Although we were kind of sure it was a 19th century addition, the risk of removal was too much creating an ‘all or nothing” situation,

This clearly shows the time patina of an artwork. The head of Erasmus is not just an object from early 16th century, but has been undergoing changes all the time since then. It makes these additions part of the history of the art object. This touches an important aspect of the profession of art restorer: ethics. An art restorer always needs to comply to an ethical code during the work. Such an ethical code describes rules on the responsibility of the restorer for the art object and the relation to the client.

An art restorer always needs to respect and maintain the intentions of the artist as much as possible. This can give dilemmas like in the example above. We could have decided to restore the original text. Considering the risks mentioned we decided not to do. Ethics also require both art restorer as well as client (in this case Museum Gouda) to respect the history of the object and not only pursue the authentic state of an object. Erasmus also sets an art restorer thinking.

In the following video, I give additional insights on this special restoration process and project:

The restored sculpture was part of the Erasmus exhibition Concedo Nulli“. Although this special exhibition has finished, the sculpture can still be seen in a special “Erasmus room” in Museum Gouda. Enjoy the experience!