When repairs were carried out in St Mary’s Church of Rõuge in 2012, the parish people found a rather large rolled-up drawing in the attic. Unrolled, a portrait of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns was discovered. The drawing was brought to the SA EVM Conservation Centre Kanut in 2015, where it was conserved and prepared for displaying in the church.[fig.1]
The author of the portrait has remained unknown. As the signature in the right-hand lower corner has preserved only partly the artist’s name cannot be deciphered. The motive in the drawing, however, is the widely spread and much reproduced Ecce Homo by Guido Reni. Another drawing on the same motive though smaller in size – a charcoal drawing by I. Wessart – can be seen in Pindi church, near Rõuge. We do not know whether both drawings are in any way connected or not. We can only speculate that the Rõuge drawing was completed in the 1930s. The only record is a photo from 1960 on which the framed drawing can be seen displayed in a niche behind the pulpit.
The portrait has been drawn on cardboard of 2.5x3.7m. The portrait of Jesus has been depicted on a white-grounded lazure background. The face has been drawn in greater detail, whereas the figure that is in-proportionally big has been only sketched. Sanguine, charcoal, white oil-pastel and pinkish crayon have been used for drawing. The copying-grid, drawn in an ordinary pencil-line around the face gives the work an unfinished visage.[fig.2]
The parish wanted to display the drawing again in the church but it needed to be conserved first. It had become dirty on the outer side and moisture had made flow-lines in the paper. Rolling up and unrolling had damaged the cardboard, leaving breach-lines both cross- and length-wise. The only bigger loss of material was in the lower part of the right-hand edge, where it had also harmed the signature.
Conservation started with cleaning. Depending on the size of the object and the measure of its soiling, dry-cleaning was carried out in the basement hall of the Kanut that provides enough space and good ventilation. First of all loose dust was removed from the surface with a brush and a vacuum cleaner. Then a scalpel was used for removing the particles of dirt that had stuck to the surface. The last stage involved cleaning sponges for the whole surface.[fig.3], [fig.4], [fig.5]
Work continued in the conservation-laboratory, where a large work-surface was arranged for spreading the whole object and leave it stretching for some time. When the conservation plan was being discussed different kinds of wet processing were considered as well but some of them were quickly given up. The object could not be washed as a whole, there were no means for washing and drying such a big thing. As an alternative, local wet processing of the breach lines was tested, using a solution of water and ethanol with an additional small quantity of surface active Triton XL-80N.
The drawing was being glued step by step, in 50cm-wide strips and by two conservators simultaneously, moving from the centre towards the edges. Together with gluing the drawing was straightened. The glued surface was first dried with felts under local slight weights. In a few hours the wet felts were exchanged for dry ones and weights were placed only on the edges of the drawing to enable the paper fibres constrict and straighten when drying.[fig.7] Thanks to gluing and straightening the earlier paper deformations were considerably diminished. After a 24-hour straightening the drawing was left in between press-plates and felts for a fortnight. The next stage included supporting the breach-lines that had resulted from rolling and unrolling. 1-2cm wide 17g/m2 Japanese paper strips were glued on the backside of the breach-lines. Both, horizontal and vertical breach-lines as well as the tears on the edges were supported.[fig.9] The material losses of the drawing were filled with repair-paper in several layers in order to get the same thickness of paper as the original had.[fig.8] The special repair paper was made at the Restoration Centre of the National Library. Lengthening strips of durable Nepal paper were glued onto the edges to make attaching the drawing to the base possible. Methylcellulose glue was used for all the repairs and supports.
Again, considering the size and format of the drawing the conservation work was continued in the church and school-building of Rõuge, as it would have been impossible to take the framed object out of the doors or windows of the Conservation Centre Kanut. For the trip of 250km, the drawing was rolled on a big-calibre cardboard tube, using also protective Tyvek and bubble-wrap for covering and spacing.[fig.10] Everything needed for the conservation was taken along, among other things also four 45kg-weights and a lot of smaller items to carry out stretching when already in Rõuge.[fig.11]
As the drawing had earlier been displayed in a frame and the sizeable paper-material had become loose in the centre due to its own weight, it was decided to back the whole piece up on a synthetic fibre fabric to prevent further deformation.[fig.12] Instead of synthetic Hollytex and Reemay that are generally used in conservation, it was decided to use 140g/m2 Geotextile
Considering the size and weight of the object a mixture of glue was used – one part of PVA glue and two parts of 5% Methylcellulose liquor. For backing the Geotextile was spread on a carefully cleaned floor and covered with an even layer of glue. Then the backing was turned over and lifted onto the backside of the original piece. The floor was cleansed of the glue and a layer of felt was spread on it. The backed original was carefully overturned and placed on the layer of felt with its front-side up. Then it was covered with felt. Sizeable wooden plates were placed on the felt, covering the original piece. As the so-called press was made up of several plates, squared timbers were placed crosswise on them and metal weights set on these balks. The drawing was left drying overnight. The felts were changed twice the next day. The day after, the felts still remained. Weights on the edges of the original were supposed to enable the drawing dry and stretch due to contraction. The drying process was rather slow – the conservation took place in June that happened to be a rainy month with high humidity even in the rooms. Thus the drawing was left drying in the workroom of the school for a whole week.
A week later when the conservators returned to Rõuge the object had dried and the adherence was good. The drawing was transported from the school building into the neighbouring church, where a wooden base frame had already been prepared. The frame was made by wood conservators of the Kanut, considering the condition of the drawing after conservation – i.e. its weight and the need to fix it on the frame on its edges, so making it possible to display the large drawing on the church wall. That is why it was necessary to make the wooden details separately for the drawing’s base and the decorative frame. In order to protect the back of the drawing Makrolon
The lower repaired corner of the drawing was toned after the piece had been framed in the church and the light allowed proper shades to be used. Some flow-lines were softened.
The local smith made new metal hangers and supports and mounted them into the wall where the drawing had been before.[fig.16] In the summer of 2016 ten men joined forces to lift the piece back to its place.[fig.17],[fig.18]
The unusually big size of the drawing was a challenge indeed for the conservators. The process that lasted for several months was experimental to some extent and the proof of the right choices will become clear somewhat later.
The conservation team included Maris Allik, Tea Shumanov, Grete Ots, Helen Lennuk, Kristina Aas, Viljar Talima, Mart Verevmägi, Ahti Lind (the smith of Rõuge)