The high altar of St Henry in the Church of St Henry in Pohorje, Frajhajm
Members of the Slovenian team (V. Pavlič, S. Dolinšek, V. Benedik) visited the Succursal Church of St Henry for the first time in April 2018. Our focus was the high altar, attributed to Joseph Straub. We documented the altar and made a small on-site study for the purpose of collecting and documenting the artworks made by the members of the Straub family. We were shocked by the condition of the altar, and especially the poor condition of the polychromy of the altar. Because of the unusually high moisture and extremely low temperature in the church the chalk ground was lifting, chalking, tenting, cracking and flaking, and there were paint losses. Two weeks later we went back to the church of St Henry to make a facing to prevent the paint layers from falling off the wooden carrier. The traditional use of fish or rabbit skin lime in a case where too much moisture was present on and around the altar did not make sense. At that time we did not know when the conservation-restoration work on the high altar would start in the future. We decided to use acrylic consolidant (Medium for Consolidation, Lascaux) to stick Japanese tissues on the critical areas.
When mass was held on the celebration of St Henry, on 15 July 2018, we spoke to various people about the importance of the high altar and the TrArS project and about the need for restoration works on the altar.
In November 2018 we went back to the church to dismantle the statues and the ornaments from the high altar and take them to the Restoration Centre in Ljubljana. Soon we decided that the best possible conservation-restoration work would be done if we dismantled the whole altar and took it to the workshop in Ljubljana. By the time the conservation-restoration works on the dismantled altar were finished, the church would slowly have dried because drainage outside the building was carried out in the second half of 2018. Some work on the walls and floor is also part of the future plans for further restoration of the church.
The first thing that we did on the dismantled pieces of the altar was consolidation of the paint layers and disinfection. The backside of the altar was covered with algae. We also found traces of a few different sorts of fungi and some parts on the wooden carrier were decayed due to brown rot.
We brushed the algae off the wood with hard brushes, then we washed the wooden carrier on the backside and finally we sprayed all the wooden areas on the backside with disinfectant and disinfestation coating.
After the disinfection we made several probes on the polychromy and found out that the altar had been completely renovated at least four times in the past. Fragments of the original layer which are preserved under several paint layers are very fragile and delicate, but they give us enough information about the original appearance of the painted areas, silvering and gilding. Luckily, at least the marbling in the middle of the altar´s architecture is well preserved. The polychromy that is visible today and is probably the work of A. Zoratti from 1895 is historical, but it also gives us completely different information about the original appearance of the altar. Dr Katja Kavkler took samples of the paint layers to analyse these and the materials used, especially the original ones. On the backside of the altar there are three signatures of the restorers. The oldest signature was found on the backside of the niche: Thomas Kotnig…Ignac Holc…1861. The next two renovators signed themselves on the backside of the predella: RENOV….1895….´´Anton´´ a. Zoratti….Podkrižnik
The original polychromy, gilding and silvering with glazes is preserved only in fragments. Therefore a group of experts will be gathered in order to discuss and decide upon the future presentation of the altar´s polychromy. Members of the TrArS project from the participating countries will be invited to collaborate with the group of experts and contribute their rich experience and wide knowledge. In this way the project is producing some tangible results and is contributing to the preservation and restoration of the artworks.
The conservation-restoration works are proceeding in the department for wood in the Restoration Centre in Ljubljana.
Saša Dolinšek, restorer and Valentina Pavlič, art historian