Trinity College Chapel Restoration

We are accustomed to seeing art from predetermined positions. As museum visitors, we diligently stand in front of paintings and read the small didactics placed adjacent to them. As worshippers, we contemplate religious imagery in the vaults above from our place on the ground. As visitors in these same spaces, we gaze up at ceilings and stucco work far beyond our eyes’ capacity to distinguish detail. On Tuesday November 10th, a group of Ertegun scholars had the singular opportunity to step outside of these traditional roles, climbing the scaffolding installed in Trinity College’s 17th -century Chapel during its restoration, in order to consider this amazing architectural space from a very different perspective, with its ceiling painting of the Ascension of Christ, its elaborate plaster work, and its stained glass windows.

Arriving at the top of the scaffolding, which offers barely enough room to stand without brushing the plaster work with one’s head, the physical difficulties the ceiling presented to its painter, Pierre Berchet, are intimately felt. Would he have had to paint standing up, with his head extended back at a painful, awkward angle? Would he have perhaps lain on a bench and reached up to the ceiling with a lengthy brush? How would he have judged the ceiling’s visual effect from the floor? How many times did he have to trudge up and down rickety 17th-century scaffolding only to see that the putti’s faces were still too obscure, or the swirl of Christ’s ascension was not sufficiently dramatic? Inhabiting the space in which the 17th-century artists worked — though they undoubtedly went without the hardhats and reflective vests which we donned — fosters a special appreciation for the physical work and skill that constructed this space. That skill is uniquely visible from such proximity. Witnessing the sweeping brushstrokes of the clouds, the technique with which the bodies are modeled, and the judicious application of paint to construct faces which are still expressive from three stories below, transforms the ceiling from the simple decoration of an architectural space into a carefully crafted material object.

Our climbing adventure offered not only a new perspective on the Chapel’s artworks, but also a unique opportunity to see how these objects are preserved for posterity. The conservation of Berchet’s ceiling painting is being led by Jenny Granville. The treatment generally involves cleaning the painting’s surface with a water and ammonia solution to remove the surface grime currently obscuring the painting. The conservators will not attempt to remove the layers of previous varnish which have yellowed over time, as this discoloration largely does not disrupt the painting’s visual effect. Rather, they have chosen to apply a matt varnish in order to reduce the previous coatings’ glossy effect, which is distractingly reflective especially when illuminated from below. While the majority of the surrounding plaster work was repainted entirely white, as it was originally, the molding band between the plaster work and the painting will be re-gilded. One can imagine how this strip of gold will brilliantly frame the now cleaned and luminous, yellow and golden-brown image of Christ’s ascension into Heaven.

Coming back down a bit closer to earth, we then spoke with a conservator from York Glaziers Trust, which is responsible for the treatment of the Chapel’s stained glass windows. The windows currently displayed were crafted between 1885 and 1886 by James Powell and Sons, also known as Whitefriars Glass. (Incidentally, the grandson of the founder, who later joined the studio, studied chemistry at Oxford.) These lovely examples of English 19th-century stained glass are being cleaned with a mixture of deionized water and ethanol. The use of ethanol is especially important, for, as a less polar solvent, it can help break up the greasy deposits left by years of candle burning in the Chapel’s interior. As we saw with a finished window, the cleaning process produces a striking visual difference. The subtly of the modeling and the full range of stained glass techniques used to achieve the different visual effects, such as the beautiful painted design on Mary’s blue robe, are now all clearly visible. The cleaning offers the first opportunity since the windows’ last restoration in the early 20th century to appreciate fully the technical mastery that produced these painting-esque images in stained glass.

With our feet firmly on the ground and our hard hats removed, the works of art we had just been close enough to touch were once again fully obscured from view by their veil of scaffolding. Having seen the Chapel in the middle of the conservation process, we greatly look forward to returning  upon the completion of its restoration. And, while we will once again adopt our positions as earth-bound admirers, this time it will be with a perspective colored by the experience of walking among the artworks far above our heads.

Thea Goldring