P. Antunes, L. Loureiro, Decorative Practice and Artistic Traditions, ICOM-CC Working Group Interim Meeting - Sculpture, Polychromy, and Architectural Decorations (SPAD), e-conservation Journal 1, 2013, pp. 6-9
Available online 22 November 2013
doi: 10.18236/econs1.201302

Decorative Practice and Artistic Traditions

ICOM-CC Working Group Interim Meeting - Sculpture, Polychromy, and Architectural Decorations (SPAD)

Review by Pedro Antunes and Leonor Loureiro

May 28-29, 2013
Tomar, Portugal

Organised by:
ICOM-CC Working Group - Sculpture, Polychromy, and Architectural Decorations (SPAD)

On the past 28th and 29th of May, the Polytechnic Institute of Tomar (IPT), Portugal, hosted the third and latest interim meeting of the triennium of the ICOM-CC Working Group Sculpture, Polychromy, and Architectural Decorations (SPAD), under the theme of “Polychrome Sculpture: Decorative Practice and Artistic Tradition”.

The two day symposium focused on the “artistic tradition within the field of polychrome sculpture relating to decorative practice”, from painting materials and techniques, to varnishes, gilding, estofado, incised and punched patterns, lacquers or metal leaf applications. In a way to promote a broader and more practical discussion period, the questions to the speakers were only posted after two or three presentations, giving a 20 minutes window to change ideas between the audience and the speakers. This allowed a more fluid and profitable interaction between the two parts. The four poster sessions were preceded by a five minutes oral presentation from the authors, with a very short resume and with an invitation to the audience to see their work with more detail. The symposium was attended by almost 100 participants from 9 different countries: Portugal, Spain, Italy, United Kingdom, The Netherlands, Belgium, Finland, The Czech Republic and Australia.

Conference poster (left) and poster session (right).

During the symposium, participants were able to visit the Conservation Department at the Polytechnic and to enjoy the wonderful Templar city of Tomar. Technical visits to the conservation laboratories and to the analytical department were booked for Tuesday and Wednesday after lunch, when the participants were able to see and discuss the works in course with the conservation teachers and colleagues – paper, ceramics, painting, sculpture, stone and wood – and exchange points of view.

The organization members and the first participants that arrived on Monday had the possibility to attend a pre-conference dinner at Tasquinha da Mitas, a lovely and cosy typical restaurant with a beautiful view to the Mouchão garden and the river Nabão. There, were able to taste different Portuguese food and, in the end, enjoy the special songs of the Tuna Templária of Tomar (a typical musical group composed only by IPT students).

The conference was organized in three days, two of them with specific themes (Inorganic Supports, Workshop Practice and Technical Studies) and the third and last day was dedicated to visits.

The first conference day was reserved for seven presentations under the themes of “Inorganic Supports” and “Workshop Practice”. Professor João Coroado (Director IPT’s School of Technology, Portugal) welcomed everyone and opened the works with a very interesting subject on the application of geopolymers and their potential use in sculpture restoration, showing some samples for participants’ observation.

The following presentations were also very interesting, knowledgeable, colourful and professional. Patrícia Monteiro (University of Lisbon, Portugal) presented a very interesting communication on polychrome coatings on a lime plaster altarpiece - a rather unknown form of art mainly located in Alentejo (Portugal) dated from the 16th century. The few exemplars that still remain are rather altered either on its decoration but also on the construction techniques, revealing several losses. Elena Aguado-Guardiola (College of Aragón, Spain) presentation on “Materials, techniques and degradation products of the 15th Century Burgundian polychrome-stone sculpture in Aragon and Navarra (Spain)” focused on the development of cleaning protocols for polychrome-stone sculptures. The presentation focused on key aspects such as the materials and painting techniques but also aging effects of the materials applied in the cleaning processes - on stone, the same aging process can originate new and sometimes unexpected products of inorganic, organic or mixed nature. The last morning presentation was held by Francesca Paba (IPT, Portugal), on a case-study of a polychrome terracotta sculpture, a contribution to the identification and characterisation of “Barros de Portalegre” (clay sculptures from Portalegre).

The afternoon session, was dedicated to the “Workshop Practice” theme, and started with the work of Agnès Le Gac (New University of Lisbon, UNL, Portugal) on the “Interpretation of the exuberant finishing touches applied to two sets of Portuguese small high-reliefs” and its amazing images. The investigative approach revealed a set of different materials applied to the making of these very small polychrome terracotta high-reliefs, dated from the 18th century, such as: textiles, threads, animal fibres, paper and cardboard, metallic flakes and wires, glass fragments and sand. Focusing on a particular decoration technique applied to altarpieces, Carlos Nodal (private restorer, Spain) spoke on the use of Vermeilloner, an original 17th century French gilding technique, also used in Spain (Bronceado) and Portugal (Foscado) in the 18th century. This technique consists of applying a reddish-coloured orange hue to certain areas of water gilding contrasting with the burnished gold. The day ended with Helen Hughes’ (Historic Interiors Research & Conservation, UK) extremely interesting English stories and her attempt to end the “myth” that dressed stone and hard wood panelling of the 16th and 17th British interiors were never painted. Helen also focused on the “discovery” of a brown translucent pigment made from a fungus – Witches’ Butter or Fallen Star - used to tint glazing varnishes.

The conference dinner, on Tuesday night, had a strong medieval ambience. It took place at Taverna Antiqua, right near the City Hall square. The Taverna Antiqua has character: the stone and woody walls resulted in a “darker” medieval atmosphere, beautifully illuminated by candle lights and wrought iron torches. The skilfully carved wooden seats and tables, the terracotta tableware and the “servants” and their songs gave the final medieval touch to this dinner.

The second day was reserved for presentations under the theme of Technical Studies. The morning started with Lia Jorge (UNL, Portugal) and her work on the study of techniques, materials and decoration processes of Portuguese gilded wood, focusing on the difficulties and advances for collecting and analysing this type of documentation. Since the information is rather scarce and dispersed, contracts are often vague and more detailed procedures are only available after the 19th century. This suggests that gilding knowledge was mostly empirical and passed on from master to apprentice in the workshop context. The presentation of Alexandre Maniés (Catholic University of Portugal, Portugal) on the Crucified Bom Jesus de Matosinhos, explained the rather meticulous and exhaustive studies performed to one of the oldest sculptures of crucifixions in Portugal, dating back to the 12th century. Elsbeth Geldhof’s (private conservator, UK) “Four Colours and a Rush Pen” brought us even far away to Ancient Egypt and the painting investigation of four mummy coffins that has been carried out as part of their conservation treatment. As the title points, a basic palette of four colours over a yellow background was applied using a rush pen and basic brushes. Stefanie Litjens (private conservator, The Netherlands) presentation, focused on the investigation and treatment of an 18th century tabernacle that was thought to be French in origin. After the study, it was possible to prove that the initial assumptions were wrong. The following presentation, by Maria Oliveira (José de Figueiredo Laboratory [LJF], Portugal), was on Estofado materials and techniques, focusing on two 18th century wood sculptures from Nossa Senhora das Mercês convent in Évora, in order to bring new data that may lead to a possible attribution to the same workshop or partnership sculptor/ painter-gilder. The morning ended with the work “On the role of incisions, high relief decoration and polychromy” of a gothic altar frontal from the 14th century presented by Rosa Senserrich-Espuñes and Anna Nualart-Torroja (University of Barcelona, Spain).

The afternoon started with two presentations focusing on specific techniques applied to the decoration of altarpieces: applied brocade and marble and stone-like decoration, by Maite Olano (Private restorer, Spain) and Rita Veiga (UNL, Portugal). The applied brocades were produced in tin foil sheets glued to the support, using wax with minium as filling material. The marble and stone-like polychromy aimed to imitate the rich decoration of Italian churches, but with lower cost and was widely used in the decoration of  altarpieces. This technique used several layers  of colours, usually with an oil binder, not entirely superposed and polished in the end.

The last presentation was a wonderful way to end the conference. Elsa Murta (LJF, Portugal) brought us an overview of the different, countless and sometimes very strange decorative techniques and materials that were used in baroque sculptures such as: human hair, jewels, glass-eyes, human finger nails or animal teeth. The presentation had the suggestive title “Decorative techniques: many ways to embellish and worship God”.  

There was a very good equilibrium in type, information, origin of speakers, variety of themes, conservation problems and restoration solutions presented, either of finished or ongoing projects. This also reflected on the astonishing number of participants (80), which broke all interim meeting group records.
The third and last day of the conference was entirely dedicated to visits and sightseeing. The day began with a visit to Almourol Contemporary Sculpture Park at Vila Nova da Barquinha. This outdoor sculpture museum helds 11 works by 11 Portuguese artists. After this first stop, the group headed to the castle of Almourol, which can only be reached by boat. This castle is one of the more emblematic and cenographic medieval military monument of the Reconquista and one of the finest exemplars of the Knights Templar in Portugal. The visit was conducted by Professor Teresa Desterro (IPT). After a wonderful lunch with regional food, the day ended with an afternoon visit to Convento de Cristo (Convent of the Order of Christ). This monumental complex began with the construction in 1160 of the Castle of the Knights Templar. The complex, built over several centuries, was recognised by UNESCO in 1983 as a World Heritage Site.

In the end, the remaining feeling was that IPT and Tomar provided a wonderful setting for the presentations, along with everyone taking both professional and personal pleasure in their time there. The papers of the three Interim Meetings will soon be available on book.

Pedro Antunes
Conservator-restorer, founder of Cinábrio - Conservação e Restauro
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Leonor Loureiro
Paper Conservator-restorer, Lecturer at Instituto Politécnico de Tomar
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