2018 / 8 / 28

The Fight with the Dragon: an examination of the first of two high altars created by Johann Baptist Straub

The examination of the high altar in the succursal church of St George in Munich-Bogenhausen opened the file of examinations in Bavarian churches. Starting on 1 August, Lea Rechenauer, student in the conservation and restoration program of the Stuttgart Academy of Art and Design, and Rupert Karbacher, coordinator of the Bavarian project team, looked eagerly at the work of Johann Baptist Straub and tried to discern similarities and differences in his work. They will discuss the results of the examination with the other members of the Bavarian team, Dr Martin Mannewitz and graduate restorers Andreas Müller and Judith Schekulin.

We know from archival documents that the altar was created in 1770-1773. Count August Joseph Toerring, who owned a mansion near the church, payed Straub 550fl for his work. Toerring´s father and brother were members of the Knightly Order of St George, which might be one reason why the altar is dedicated St George. The two side altars and the pulpit were created by Ignaz Günther in 1774–1777 (Günther died in 1775) who worked as a member of Straub’s workshop in 1743–1750. The priest Franz Georg Riedl payed Günther for his work. The high altar shows St George riding on a horse fighting the dragon. The architecture is constructed similar to a theatre stage. Four columns and two pillars are arranged on both sides of the main scene. Behind the sculptural group a wall with a pillar on each side and an arch in the middle shows a door with an opened curtain. A cherub is kneeling on a cloud. A huge nimbus hides the arch which connects the two pairs of columns and the pillars in front of the stage. Sculptures of St Donatus and St Irene stand above two passages to the left and right of the altar. Sculptures of God the Father and His Son sit on top of the altar. Cherubs and winged angel heads are arranged in a decorative way. The altar and its sculptures are made of wood and have a polychrome painting layer.

First of all, we tried to find out which parts are still in the original condition and why others were altered. Preparing for the most recent restoration between 1996 and 2000 the Department of Art in the Diocese of Munich ordered a collection of historical documents. These documents, together with historical photographs and combined with our examination results allowed us to establish a number of changes and losses. The altar and its components stayed in situ during the examinations, which means that technical possibilities for examination were limited. Stimulating the binding media with UV beam brought a lot of new insights. Four to five restorations were carried out in the 19th and 20th centuries. The overpainting from the 19th century was removed in the middle of the 20th century, pigmented wax was applied and then removed again. The structures of the marbling were changed with each restoration. The original varnish was removed in 1940. It is quite astonishing that after all these treatments it is still possible to see areas with the original gilding techniques and painting layers from the middle of the 18th century. Furthermore, we have to say that the craftsmen who erected the altar in situ and painted it seem to have worked in a distinctive and economic way that got lost in the minds of craftsmen from the following centuries. A further objective of this examination was to document original traces of work by Straub and his workshop, which allows us to establish his working techniques and tools. After the initial assessments were made, Professor Volker Schaible and the graduate conservator Peter Vogel, head of the restoration workshop at the academy for conservation and restoration in Stuttgart, came to Munich-Bogenhausen to get an idea about what kind of examination we were doing. On this occasion it was suggested that Miss Rechenauer might write her masters thesis on the examination of the two high altars by Johann Baptist Straub in Bichl (1752) and Bogenhausen (1773).

Rupert Karbacher and Lea Rechenauer