Chief of the icon restoration studio on the work of an icon restorer

The icon restoration studio: giving a new life to an icon

icon restoration studio

The icon restoration studio branched off from the icon-painting workshop of Saint Elisabeth Convent eleven years ago. Its artisans return the icon to its original brilliance and glow. Natalya Zenkova, the person in charge of the studio, shows us a stack of forty photos of the studio's projects before and after completion. The photos taken before the restoration show damaged frames, cracks in the board and missing paint. In some icons, the depiction is so dim that it is almost invisible. In the photos taken after restoration, the same icons look strikingly different, with a colourful image of the saint and the fine details of his face. Today, we interview Natalya about her work.

Describe the work of an icon restoration artist and your role in the studio.

Icon restoration is meticulous work. The typical icon project consists of two stages - conservation and recovery. At the conservation stage, we restore the integrity of the image base, augment the paint layer, even out the surface and uncover the original image. At the recovery stage, we identify and select the colours and hues and renew the paint layer of the icon. In most cases, we complete the process by applying a lacquered layer and placing the icon in a kiot or casing.

Our work resembles that of an artwork restoration expert in a secular museum. We rely on the same set of techniques and apply similar principles. However, the fundamental objective of our work is to restore the integrity of the icon image for prayer. For museum art restorers, the task is to show the viewer where their work supplements the original by using different colours and textures.

creator of icon restoration studio

The profession of an art restorer is unique and exciting. Every icon is a mystery to be solved. Our work involves extensive research and investigation into the historical period, the techniques and the type of paint used. We use oil-based paint for icons painted in oil, but for tempera-painted icons, we use water-based paints with cohesive agents.

Unlike icon painters, icon restorers express their individuality by finding the best ways to save an icon. We rejoice when our energies, talent and spiritual zeal have been put to their best use. To give an icon a second life brings us untold joy and self-fulfilment.

Every artisan in our team has a preference for some particular work. Some enjoy working with foil-based icons - they love the meticulous process of selecting the exact type of foil that matches the original material, preparing an outline image and transferring it to the surface. Others prefer to work with tempera icons. A few of our team members are good at polishing the metal casings and making kiots. I use my intuition to assign the restoration projects to the right people. I enjoy cleaning out the original paint layer, revealing the underlying beautiful image. The darker the icon, the more interested I am. I find this work exhilarating, and I take pleasure in sharing my discoveries with the rest of the team when we come together.

restoration of an old icon

The work of an art restorer has a notable spiritual component. Tell me more about it. How important are prayer and a pious mood to the success of a restoration project?

To an extent, the work of an icon restorer is similar to that of a bomb technician - one false move can bring tragic results. Prayer helps us deal with the sense of fear that is present throughout all our projects and has become an indispensable part of our work. Every day, we serve an Akathist to Saint Nicholas the Wonderworker and read a chapter from the Acts of the Apostles and the Gospel.

As long as we put our love and faith in our work, we can count on God's help. We should not rely on our capabilities alone; instead, we must put all our trust in the Lord. We must believe that He is in our midst and that He hears our needs and supplications. The Lord has brought us together, with all our infirmities, and He nourishes us with His love by letting us work on the icons. He gives us His great mercy by letting us work here.

My daughter's godmother once wished to my daughter, "May the Lord always lead you by your hand, and you let him do it and do not resist." What a nice wish, and an accurate observation! God leads us by the hand throughout our lives, and all we must do is give him our and follow humbly. Without Him, we cannot do anything. We are like a paintbrush in His hands.

restoration of an ancient icon

How did you become an icon restorer, and how did your work change your life?

To begin to work with icons was to me like climbing to some dizzying height. For a long time, I thought that only monks could do it. So I began with porcelain until I finally realised that my real desire was to work with icons. I went to the Cathedral of the Holy Spirit, approached a priest and asked him for his blessing to restore porcelain. After that, I paused for a second and added, "and icons, too." The icons at the church impressed me greatly, as did the chanting, the service and the smell of the incense. The priest gave me the blessing. From that point onwards, my love for the icons grew stronger. My desire to become an icon restorer increased.

On my occasional visits to Saint Elisabeth Convent, I thought to myself, "People must be very happy to be working here." I talked with Father Sergius Nezhbort and knew that I could also be useful here. I thanked God for letting me work at Saint Elisabeth Convent. When I came to the icon restoration studio, my personal and spiritual life was in disorder. I put my whole heart and hope into my work. I knew I always wanted to do it, and that it would bring me peace.

Today, I am working with five other people. To them, icon restoration is a calling, and nearly all of them had learned icon painting from Father Sergius. Father Sergius is our teacher and guide in artistic matters and matters of faith. We ask his advice on many work questions.

ancient icon

Tell me about your most memorable restoration projects.

Every icon has a history. Some of these histories are so instructive, that I even thought about recording them and making them public. Several icons have shared with their owners the hardships of the war. For some, even a printed icon is more meaningful than a painted one, and they bring it to us to be restored. Some of our oldest icons were painted in the 17th century, but most of our projects are 19th-century icons. However, the age of an icon is not the most important question for us. We work to bring it back to life. Nevertheless, we cannot be indifferent to the histories of our icons, and so we study the iconographic schools and techniques of its era and find out details such as the thickness board or gesso thickness. We are always keen to find out these details.

One of our projects was the icon "Saviour of the World". Its owners carried it around their house during a fire that destroyed their village. Their house was the only one that was not affected. Some owners shared with us their childhood memories. They brought us icons from the red corner of their grandmother's house and told us about their grandparents who prayed in front of it. These stories touch our hearts and motivate us to do our best.

ancient frame

We heard about the parishioners of village churches who kept the church icons in their homes to save them from destruction by iconoclasts. Sometimes, they had to put dark paint on them to hide the sacred images. I remember working on one such icon. When I received it, I could not even make out what was painted on it. We cleaned it, fragment after fragment, under a magnifying glass and a microscope. It took us a lot of time, but it was an exciting job. When we finished, we saw the beautiful depiction of the Holy Virgin in the icon "Joy of All Who Sorrow". We were struck by its fine detail and exquisite techniques.

One client brought us an icon that they had long been using as a cutting board before they noticed a fragment of the image coming out in the middle. Here is another icon, it was shipped to us from as far as New Zealand. On its way, the paint layer was destroyed. We received a board with a bag full of fragments that we put together like pieces of a puzzle.

This icon is of Saint Paraskeva of Iconium. Believers invoke her name in childbirth and in prayers for the well-being of their families. I worked on it day in and day out right until my maternity leave. Everyone was joking that I would keep working right until delivery. - They were right. I finished the icon, and soon my little daughter Elisabeth was born.

icon restoration workshop

Let me show you this photo. It is of a seventeenth-century icon from Belarus. A parishioner who kept it in his home brought it to his church, afraid that it might be destroyed. The priest of that church sent it to us. It was a long project. The icon had been cut out from the Iconostasis and had an irregular shape. We made a frame that matched the line of the cut, leaving a small space to flatten the icon canvas. We decorated the frame with pearls according to the 17th-century tradition. It was magnificent work!

How can we protect an icon from damage? What advice would you give an owner?

Nothing can be more damaging than wide variations in temperature a humidity. If you keep an icon in a cold and humid cellar, nothing will happen to it for 300 years. But placing it from the cellar and into a dry room, taking it from a warm space into the cold will cause it damage. An icon is a living object; it needs time and space to adjust to changes in the storage conditions.

reconstruction of an icon

Most icons are brought to us from unheated churches where they had been kept for many years. Many have signs of extensive damage - a sagging canvas, flaking paint, or cracks in the board.

We always recommend owners keep their icons away from direct sunlight and sources of heat. After restoration, we also recommend placing the icon in a kiot for protection.

To find out more about our projects, or to have your icon restored, please visit our web page.

February 03, 2022
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