The gold reliquary cross.

Revealing the skills of master craftsmen

ECHO No. 03/2003 – Behind the scenes with Olympus

The work of a restorer often requires mastering old techniques honed by craftsmen and artists in years gone by. Here, two worlds meet in a most interesting way. Some of the artisans' techniques have long been forgotten and their re-discovery requires using the latest tools available. In 1998, the sculptor and restorer Andrej Sumbera completed research work on the Bohemian Crown Jewels. A short time later, with the reconstruction of the unique St Maurus Shrine, he was able to bring a further challenging project to a glittering end. These fascinating pieces form a part of the most treasured cultural legacy in the Czech Republic, with significant elements dating back to the reign of Charles IV (born 1316 in Prague, where he also died in 1378) - and in the case of the St Maurus Shrine, even earlier. Despite experts having studied the jewels for more than 1SO years, many questions still remain unanswered.

The most up-to-date research and documentation technology, including cameras and microscopes supplied by Olympus, have enabled researchers to obtain new information on the enigmatic techniques involved in finishing the jewels. In the following report for ECHO, Mr Sumbera gave us further details about his work:

Modern technology for the Czech cultural heritage

Text and photos: Andrej Šumbera

My fruitful co-operation with Olympus started in 1998 when the company supplied microscopes and photographic technology for my work. Since then, technology provided by Olympus has repeatedly and significantly helped me in my restoration of precious historical objects.

More recently, it was the advent and sudden expansion of digital photography that affected my work as a restorer, opening, up a whole new world of opportunities. I find digital photography useful on several levels. The high quality of the photography makes the process of determining suitable restoration methods easier. For example, a close examination of photographs on a computer can reveal even the smallest of cracks or the faintest indication of corrosion. Data thus obtained and indexed in a clearly organised and classified database can help me assess the historical techniques and artistic practices needed for the restoration of a work of art.

Digital photography has enabled me to take an unlimited quantity of photographs at a very low cost and, what is more, in numerous variations. I have been able to experiment with exposure combinations, various ways of lighting and the use of numerous background types and colours.

Photographic documentation has allowed me access to fine craftsmanship and technological details which previously had been a mystery to everyone involved.

It was only thanks to the examination of highly-enlarged photos, made possible by breakthroughs in recent technology, that we could obtain valuable information. For example, we have been able to study in detail a range of techniques used by goldsmiths in times gone by. This has allowed us to determine the technique used for carving the sapphire cross on the St Wenceslas Crown.

The restoration of the St Maurus Shrine (as reported in ECHO 2-2001), a precious Romanesque artefact from around 1200, can be used as an example to better understand the benefits of digital photography.

This relicconsists of more than three thousand parts that had to be disassembled, repaired and then put back together again. In 1985, when the shrine was discovered extensively damaged in its hiding place, all we had at our disposal was an analogue camera and black-and-white film.

During the last stages of the restoration process, I used a digital camera to take around 10,000 photo. graphs, documenting in detail the individual elements of decoration and recording the phases of the restoration. The results are so good that the photos have been used to create an interactive CDROM containing more than 1200 photographs and texts, providing extensive inforillation about this important historical object. A series of photographs that allow a 3600 three-dimensional presentation of the shrine's statuettes was also taken.

During the restoration of the St Maurus Shrine, unique sets of photographs were taken. One such set of photographs completely documents the collection of 68 gemstones. These arc particularly astonishing due to the miniature carvings in the gems, often only a few millimetres in size and with brilliant details. Only through photograph ic documentation could the masterly workmanship and the extraordinarily life-like quality of the statuettes and reliefs decorating the shrine be revealed.

In essence, a restorer needs the heart of an artist.

The most interesting presentation of the actual work is achieved using photographs that show various points of view. In this way, the details of a documented work of art become aesthetic photographs which are capable of reaching a broader public audience. For restorers, this presentation of historical objects leads to a popularisation of the branch which is very gratifying.

The Bohemian Crown Jewels

Stored in the Crown Chamber of St Vitus' Cathedral in Prague, the Bohemian Crown Jewels date back to the late medieval period. The crown, known as the St Wenceslas Crown, was made exclusively for the coronation of Charles IV as King of Bohemia in 1347. Since then, a total of 22 Bohemian kings have been crowned with the jewels, the last being Ferdinand V in 1836. After 1918 and the establishment of the Czechoslovak Republic, the Crown Jewels ceased to serve their original function, but have remained important as symbols of national independence and statehood. The jewels have a long and vivid past, including attempted thefts at several points throughout history and secret hiding by the Nazis in 1944 - the jewels were later found buried in the cellar of the Prague Castle in 1945. According to the ancient tradition laid down by Charles IV, the jewels are exhibited only to mark special occasions, and only within the precincts of Prague Castle. Charles IV also forbade the alteration of the crown, so that it has remained practically unchanged since the 14th century. This makes it a very valuable object for the study of historical cutting. The 20 pearls and 96 precious stones that decorate the gold crown frame reflect the ancient crafts, trades, and deep beliefs of people in the Middle Ages. The jewels were last shown to the public in July 2003 on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the foundation of the Czech Republic.

For further information on the Bohemian Crown Jewels, please refer to the report "The secrets of St Wenceslas Crown" under http://www.radio.cz/en/article/42764

St Maurus Shrine

A unique example of Romanesque goldsmithing, the St Maurus Shrine dates from the first quarter of the 13th century. With dimensions of 138 cm × 64.5 cm × 42 cm, it has a wooden core said to contain the sacred remains of St Maurus as well as relics dating from the 8th to 13th centuries. Little is known about this saint, except that he was a Benedictine monk, martyred in the first or third century AD.

The shrine is decorated with gold-plated silver statues of Christ, St Maurus and the twelve apostles, and its lid features twelve large reliefs depicting scenes from the lives of St Maurus and St John the Baptist. Filigree decoration including glass and precious gemstones also contributes to the shrine's sumptuous appearance.

The history of the shrine is no less colourful. Originally, it belonged to a Benedictine abbey in Florennes, Belgium, which over the centuries was subject to the devastating effects of attack, arson and pillage. Following the turmoil of the French Revolution, the shrine was sold to the aristocratic Beaufort-Spontin family in 1838, which transported it to their castle in Bečov, West Bohemia. Forced to flee the Communists in 1945, members of the Beaufort family were convinced that they would return to the area in due course. Therefore, they hastily buried the shrine in a secluded corner of the chapel of their castle. There it rested for 40 years until it was excavated in November 1985, when reports of a foreign businessman offering $50,000 for a mysterious antique alerted the Czech criminal police. The precious reliquilry had suffered considerable damage over the course of centuries, including a rotted base as well as missing or corroded figures. Following a long, painstaking restoration process by the Czech Institute of  Historic Monuments, in 2002 the St Maurus Shrine was placed for public viewing in Bečov Castle.


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