Establishing a methodology for the care and conservation of the Orthodox icons collection at the British Museum

Icon of St Icon of St Nicholas, Greek 15th century 850x550cm. Detail after conservation treatment.

Project leader: Lynne Harrison

Department: Conservation and Scientific Research

Project start: September 2005
End date: End March 2007

Other British Museum staff: Chris Entwistle, Janet Ambers, Rebecca Stacey, Caroline Cartwright, Duncan Hook , Helene Delaunay, Trevor Springett, Kevin Lovelock

Other departments: Prehistory and Europe, Photography and Imaging


Description:

Icons are religious images used as tools of worship in the Orthodox Church. The British Museum holds a collection of 100 Greek and Russian wooden painted icons. A survey of their condition undertaken by the Department of Conservation, Documentation and Science found a number were structurally and visually damaged. This damage had occurred as a consequence of the ageing of the objects, together with their history of use as objects of worship and / or collectors pieces.

Icons become worn and damaged through acts of worship by kissing, handling and exposure to incense and candles. Repeated cleaning and re-painting for continued use in the church are part of their normal history. It is common to find icons structurally and visually altered. It is often unclear as to when and why these alterations occurred.

In order to develop a conservation plan for the icons it is necessary to understand their current condition and history of use. A cross-disciplinary project involving British Museum conservators, scientists and curators is currently being undertaken to achieve this. Four icons representative of the collection are currently being studied.

A range of analytical techniques is in use to identify original materials, later additions and surface deposits. Research into how icons were made and used in Orthodox worship can inform why and possibly when alterations were undertaken. Analysis and research is being used to help develop a conservation plan that considers the cultural context of icons as religious artefacts and their current role in The British Museum collection as documents of a living culture.

Objectives:

Mother of God Eleousa, Greek 17th century. Undertaking conservation treatment of the icon in the organic artefacts conservation studio.

The main aim of the project is to establish a methodology for the examination and conservation of the icon collection, which considers their physical, visual and spiritual integrity.

The project also aims to highlight the existence of the collection to the wider public.

The main objectives are to:

Identify original materials, additions, conservation residues and other surface deposits present;

Identify the cause of damage both structurally and visually;

Establish a chronology of events in the history of the icons;

Establish a conservation strategy;

Undertake the conservation of the icons supported by findings of analysis;

Highlight the existence of the collection at the British Museum and its contribution to the field of Orthodox icon collections.

Paint cross-section taken from the red painted border of the icon of St. Nicholas. Examination of the layer structure shows the presence of restoration gesso and paint on top of the original layers.

 

 

 

 

 

A range of analytical techniques is used to study each icon including:

Radiography; ultra violet and infra red examination; wood identification; paint cross-section analysis; pigment and medium analysis by optical microscopy; Raman spectroscopy; x-ray fluorescence; scanning electron microscopy and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry;

Research in to the history of manufacture and use of icons and previous conservation practices provides background information on context and possible causes of damage;

Identification of original materials and conservation residues helps to explain the physical condition of the icon and inform the likely chronology of previous treatments.

Publications:

L. Harrison, ‘Orthodox icons at the British Museum: an approach to ethical conservation practice’, with J. Ambers, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, in Icon: Approaches to research, conservation and ethical issues, [CD-ROM] (Athens, Benaki Museum, 2006)

L. Harrison, ‘Orthodox icons at the British Museum: an approach to ethical conservation practice,’ with J. Ambers, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, in S. Stassinopoulos and A.Lambraki (eds.) Icon: Approaches to research, conservation and ethical issues, Archaeology and Arts Magazine, (Athens, 2006), pp. 131-33

L. Harrison, ‘Sacred to Secular: the care and conservation of Orthodox icons at the British Museum’, with J. Ambers, C. Cartwright, R. Stacey, D. Hook and C. Entwistle, in The Object in Context:  Crossing Conservation Boundaries, ed .D. Saunders, J.H. Townsend, and S. Woodcock, (London, International Institute of Conservation, 2006), p 317


Images (from top):

  • Icon of St Nicholas, Greek 15th century 850x550cm. Detail after conservation treatment.
  • Mother of God Eleousa, Greek 17th century. Undertaking conservation treatment of the icon in the organic artefacts conservation studio.
  • Paint cross-section taken from the red painted border of the icon of St. Nicholas. Examination of the layer structure shows the presence of restoration gesso and paint on top of the original layers.