The task of restoring historical artefacts and paintings has always been a meticulous one in which the materials used in restoration is pivotal. It would be no exaggeration to say that the choice of proper material makes all the difference between good and poor restoration work.
Amany Magdy Kaisar, a young researcher and restorer, ventured into the field of using untraditional material in restoration, and in the process earned a Masters Degree from Cairo University’s Faculty of Archaeology. Her dissertation, titled “An experimental study to evaluate some nanomaterials used to reinforce Coptic icons, as applied to a selected model” won her the jury remark: “The research has perfectly fruited in using non-traditional innovative materials on permanent colour and reinforcement of Coptic icons. It laid research foundations for those who wish to delve into this field.”
Watani met Ms Kaisar, a specialist in archaeological restoration at the wood laboratory of the Grand Egyptian Museum, scheduled to open this year.
The young restorer started by saying that her persistent efforts and steadiness in the face of challenges had culminated in earning her Masters Degree, which gave her “indescribable joy and pride”.
What motivated you in the first place? Watani asked.
“The real motive was when I found an innovative material that would help preserve the icon or archaeological artefact, and make it stronger and longer lasting, which led me to think I should research and document it. I thank God and my family for their support; I got my Masters Degree.”
In general, what is the significance of an icon?
“Icon” is a Greek word that means “likeness”. The Coptic icon is a development of the funerary portraits placed on coffins in Egypt during the Greco-Roman period; the famous Fayoum portraits are excellent examples. Given that Coptic icons play an important spiritual role, they are made according to specific prayerful rituals. They are a worshipper’s window into Heaven.
Egypt boasts a huge number of icons drawn over a long history. All these icons have not been collected into a single museum—even though the Coptic Museum possesses an enviable collection—but are spread over old churches and monasteries throughout Egypt.
What do you mean by ‘reinforcing’ icons, the topic of your dissertation?
Reinforcement is the most important step in the restoration and maintenance of coloured wood in general, and icons in specific where the colour layer represents the topic of the icon. But icons are damaged by weather elements such as humidity, heat, and pollution. In the long run, this leads the icon to lose its physicochemical and mechanical properties, which in turn leads to weakness, flaking, and separation of the heterogeneous layers of the icon, especially the colour. A typical icon consists of the wooden frame, a fabric layer—mostly linen, a preparation layer, the colour layer, and finally the varnish.
Nanomaterials have proved highly effective in treating various damages; the varnish layer could be removed and the colour layer fortified.
What are the causes of icon damage?
Mainly, it is the poor environmental conditions icons are exposed to during display or storage, especially pollution, smoke, incense, heat, light, and humidity which may lead to infestation by fungi and insects; and of course by the natural passage of time. All that causes decomposition of the preparation layer and disintegration of the binding material, which causes gaps and cracks.
Traditions such as lighting candles in front of icons weakens the colour layer and yellows the varnish. The original colours gradually change.
This is why it is recommended that icons be displayed in glass showcases not adhering to the wall. The showcases should be sealed so as not allow dust or insects to enter. They should have as well an indirect lighting system, and have devices installed to monitor the temperature and humidity.
What are the phases of restoration an icon goes through? How was this applied in your research?
The treatment of any icon goes through successive phases: initial strengthening, mechanical and chemical cleaning, firming up the colouring layer, colour touches (frills), and finally applying a varnish layer.
We applied this in an experiment on a Coptic icon at the convent of Mar-Girgis (St George) in Old Cairo. Tests and analyses were made to study the aspects of damage using the electron microscope SEM-EDAX, X-ray diffraction analysis and matching with elemental analysis by scanning electron microscope SEM-EDAX, examination of the wooden frame through the pH analysis, also examination with the digital and stereo microscopes.
To treat the damage, the varnish layer was removed, while the colouring layer was fortified using the materials that realised the best results in the experimental study, the missing parts of the preparation layer were completed, the icon frame was strengthened, colour retouches were made, and a new varnish layer was applied.
Please tell us about the icon of Mar-Girgis (St George), the topic of your dissertation.
The icon of St George is not signed. It most probably belongs to the school of the Greek iconographer Anastasi al-Rumi (1832 – 1871), who lived for many years in Egypt. Like many other artists who resided and worked in Egypt, we do not know more about al-Rumi except that he came from Jerusalem and lived in the Greek quarter near the 12th-century Saladin Citadel in Cairo. He was Greek Orthodox.
The artist who created the Mar-Girgis icon used multiple colours, light and dark, in a harmony which helped through shade-and-light to highlight the details, as clearly seen in the face of St George. The iconographer also used a brush for painting the colours, and a quill pen to write the Arabic script; the name of Mar-Girgis is written in Arabic on the right and left of the saint’s head.
Who pays the bill for restoring icons? The Church or the government?
The Church pays for the restoration of icons in churches or monasteries. The Ministry of Antiquities foots the bill for restoring icons in museums.
The Coptic icon is a heritage for all humanity; what are your recommendations for creating an awareness of the icon restoration and preservation?
First of all, it is very important to document the icons through using modern scientific methods, such as digital photography, multi-spectral shooting, and RTI photography. It is important as well to use UV and IR lamps, and using cameras equipped with special filters to facilitate monitoring any sign of damage, especially biological damage that cannot be seen by the naked eye.
Preferably, those who are in charge of the restoration of icons should be aware of the history of the icon that needs restoration such as whether or not it is an overpainting, and should have experience in the field.
I recommend making a database for all icons in museums, churches or monasteries all over Egypt, and linking the database to a mobile phone application with a tracing number or QR code for each icon.
I also recommend holding training courses for workers in churches and monasteries to raise awareness of the importance of Coptic heritage and its preservation. It has to provide advanced display methods of icons in order to ensure its protection from direct exposure to lighting or any damage factors; to develop museum stores or inside churches, and to provide appropriate drawers for storage to cope with the features of the icons.
Finally, I recommend more research on the use of nanomaterials in restoring and fortifying icons, also establishing centres for their preparation and production in order for them to be more accessible to restorers.
Let us move on to your restoration work at the Grand Egyptian Museum (GEM). What works are closest to your heart?
Almost all the restoration works I did in the GEM are very dear to me, especially those related to new finds, or those works that needed restoration to the original form.
That is exactly what happened with Tutankhamun’s military chariot. That is why I am proud of the Tutankhamun collection, which is considered the most distinguished in restoration effort.
My colleague, Ahmed Abd-Rabbu, and I, found out that there was a misplacement of inlaid-work in the Tutankhamun chariot which was discovered in 1922 by Howard Carter. The person responsible for restoration at the time was Alfred Lucas, who took ten years to restore Tutankhamun’s collection. Of course, it was impossible to return the inlaid pieces to their correct places without referring to London’s Griffith Institute, which had all the documents of Carter’s works. They were very cooperative, and sent me high-resolution pictures of the chariots and inlaid-works.
Thank God, we managed to have the collection restored to its original form within a month.
What is the relation between your job at the GEM and your work on Coptic icons? How did you apply your restoration experience to the icons?
I work at a wood lab in the GEM as an expert in antiquities restoration. The iconostases of churches are made of wood, and the anatomical structure of the icon is the same as most Pharaonic coloured wooden antiquities at the GEM. The restoration materials are the same, the difference is the restoration school.
3 January 2022