The two large oil paintings of the Crucifixion of Christ and the Descent from the Cross, which have graced St. John’s walls for the past 100 years, were rehung in the Nave after an 8-month absence for restoration. The skillfully executed work by Larry Shutts of Savant & Shutts Art Conservation in Atlanta is now complete, and the result is remarkable.
The Artwork & the Artist
In his initial evaluation, Mr. Shutts confirmed that the paintings are indeed well-executed nineteenth-century copies of two monumental works by Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1643). The original Rubens paintings are both located in Antwerp, Belgium, the Crucifixion in the collection of the Royal Museum of Fine Arts (KMSKA) and the Descent in the Cathedral of Our Lady (as the center panel of an altar triptych). Both original works are much larger than the St. John’s copies, each standing more than 14 feet tall.
Mr. Shutts could tell, from the quality of the work, that our copies were created by a classically trained artist, likely working from a position in front of the Rubens originals as he painted. Although this artist did not sign the front of the paintings, when Mr. Shutts commenced his restoration and removed the backing boards, he discovered a verso inscription on the back of each canvas, including a name, date, and city: J. Portielje, 1854, Antwerp. Jan Frederik Pieter Portielje (1829-1895) is a documented Dutch-Belgian artist, born in Amsterdam, who studied at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 1849, and then in Paris from 1851 to 1853. Afterwards, he settled in Belgium and painted primarily in Brussels and Antwerp.
From Belgium to Montgomery
The paintings were acquired in Belgium in the 1850s by John Jacob Seibels, an American diplomat from Alabama who was United States Chargé d’Affaires and Minister to Belgium, 1853-1856. When Seibels and his family returned to the United States in 1856, they brought the paintings and hung them in their home at the corner of Adams and Hull streets in Montgomery. The paintings remained there until the early 1920s when two of the Seibels’ granddaughters, Mary Seibels Ball Lanier and Philippa Ball Stratford, gave them to St. John’s. The paintings were first hung in the Chancel before being moved in 1948 to their current locations in the Nave. Since 1948, they had never been removed from the walls until they were taken down for restoration earlier this year.
As expected with 170-year-old works of art, both paintings had been significantly darkened by an accumulation of dirt and soot, as well as an aged and discolored layer of resin varnish. Some details had become all but invisible. Mr. Shutts also discovered that the Crucifixion had suffered fire damage. We believe the fire occurred more than 100 years ago, before the paintings came to St. John’s. Although there was no direct burning of the canvas, heat from the fire blistered much of the paint, especially near the top (as heat rises). The upper-right part of the canvas was the most damaged. He also found evidence of water damage, possibly from when the fire was extinguished. An unknown post-fire restorer cleaned and repaired the painting, but in some places the treatment of blistered and fractured paint was over-aggressive, and some of the repainting was “too heavy.” Also, the paint used for the old repairs had not aged well. These issues made the restoration process more complex and more time-intensive. The Descent from the Cross was in much better condition. It required little more than a thorough cleaning, repair of some small tears, and a re-tensioning of the canvas. The frames, which are probably original, were in poor condition. At some point many years ago they had been repainted with bronze radiator paint! Mr. Shutts was able to improve them greatly, stabilizing loose pieces and repainting them with a more appropriate antique gold finish.
The paintings, newly restored, are now ready for another century of providing inspiration to those who come to St. John’s.