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Cypriot wall paintings get HIV test as part of conservation strategy

Adapted antibody technique helps conservators find suitable restoration materials

A scientific technique generally used in testing for the HIV virus is being utilised for the first time in the conservation of wall paintings in a remote Cypriot monastery.

Samples of the wall paintings of the little-known Crusader period monastery of St John, in Lampadistis in the Republic of Cyprus, the ethnically Greek southern part of the island, are being sent by conservators from the Courtauld Institute to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for analysis.

The samples are then being tested with the immunological technique Enzyme-Linked Immuno­Sorbent Assay (Elisa), in which an enzyme is attached to a sample to detect the presence of an antibody.

In conservation this technique is useful in determining what type of organic binder (such as glue or egg) has been used in the painting and enables conservators to choose the most appropriate method of conservation.

The Getty Conservation Institute is a pioneer in this area of research, which is of interest to conservators because of its potentially wide application and relatively low cost (the basic equipment costs less than $10,000, whereas alternative methods and apparatus can cost up to $586,000) and for its high level of accuracy in identifying specific materials.

Lampadistis monastery, in the Troodos mountains, is one of a group of ten local religious buildings on Unesco’s world heritage list. It is richly decorated with wall paintings mainly dating from the 13th century, when Cyprus became the last Crusader outpost in the Mediterranean.

The paintings, made of traditional pigments on lime plaster, are situated in a complex of three churches, now all covered with an immense pitched roof. The vicissitudes of time and earlier interventions have left much of the enormous decorative scheme, which covers the vault, pillars and walls of the churches, in a neglected state. “The buildings have a long history with lots of interventions,” says Sharon Cather from the Courtauld. “Architectural changes were made; mid-20th-century conservation has resulted in surface bloom, and the paintings have been damaged by salts.” The scenes include more than 30 episodes from the New Testament including the entry into Jerusalem and Christ surrounded by angels, but some of these are blackened from the smoke of candles or damaged by water infiltration.

The Courtauld has a team of conservators living in the monastery and is currently focusing on stabilising the paintings. As well as Elisa, they are also using another non-invasive technique—ultra violet and infrared imaging—which the Courtauld and the Getty have developed to make it easier to transport and so take to remote locations such as Lampadistis.

The conservation programme is due to end in 2011, and is being carried out with funding from the Cyprus Department of Anti­quities and the A.G. Leventis Foundation. This foundation was created by the late Dino Leventis, Unesco’s former permanent delegate to Cyprus, who died in 2002.

The local Bishop, the Most Reverend Neophytos, Metro­politan of Morfou, has taken a keen interest in the restoration and has set up a museum within the monastery, with icons from local churches.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Cypriot wall paintings get HIV test'