Which angel do these wing pieces belong to? And what shape are the fingers in this box? When were these little angel heads added to the set? Questions like these, some of which remain unanswered, have been surfacing in recent weeks in the large room dedicated to restoration work in the basement of the future Royal Collections Gallery, the new national heritage museum that will open in Madrid in the second half of this year. Some questions addressed to a large wooden monument in shades of green and red, about nine meters high, six meters wide and weighing about 1,500 kilograms. It is an ephemeral work, used only during Holy Week, in particular it was assembled for Maundy Thursday. It was then cut up again and stored until the following year in the Royal Monastery of La Encarnación, just a few meters from the Royal Palace. The memorial had been useless and purposeless for more than half a century until a few months ago, the nuns of the convent themselves approached the Royal Collections officials: “Why don’t you take that thing that’s been here so long over there?”.
General view of the Royal Collections Gallery room on December 15th, where a large Holy Week altar located in a basement of the La Encarnación convent in Madrid is being restored. Andrea ComasDetail of one of the two Sibyls decorating the Eucharistic altar of La Encarnación Monastery. Andrea Comas (AP)The restorer Beatriz Burreros is working on some putti in the monument, designed by the architect Ventura Rodríguez, the best Spanish builder of the 18th century, Andrea ComasPlans for the restoration of the altar based on the drawing of the original design by Ventura Rodríguez (in the middle) Andrea ComasRestorer Marta Fernández de los Ríos is working on a frame for the restoration of the short-lived Holy Week memorial of La Encarnación Monastery, where it has been kept for the last half century. Andrea ComasCarpenter Miguel Ángel Ortega and restorer Marta Fernández de los Ríos move a Sibyl to the restoration room of the Royal Collections Gallery. Andrea ComasRestorer Marta Fernández de los Ríos opens the monument’s urn to reveal the interior decorations. Andrea ComasMarta Fernández de los Ríos, left, Beatriz Burreros, carpenter Miguel Ángel Ortega, right, and Juan Andrés Martínez prepare to set up one of the altarpieces. Andrea ComasHistorian José Luis Sancho talks to restorer Marta Fernández de los Ríos about the possible placement of a piece in the Easter Monument. When finished, it will be exhibited in the future Royal Collections Gallery in Madrid. Andrea Comas
To fully understand this enigma, one must go back to the 18th century, when the church of Felipe III. founded monastery was magnificently decorated. While examining this forgotten great Eucharistic altar, the historian of national heritage José Luis Sancho Gaspar has identified, signed but not dated, the drawing of the original project for this monument: “It was designed by the architect Ventura Rodríguez, who had been responsible for the entire decoration of the church from 1755. Regarding the project, some changes were made in the original execution, but there were others in the following two centuries,” he said on December 15, while inspecting the restored pieces in disassembled form from the Set and numbered as if they were one giant Lego set.
The fact that Ventura Rodríguez (1717-1785) is the author is a surprising finding. “He is the best Spanish architect of the 18th century, second only to Juan Bautista Sacchetti to work on the execution of the Royal Palace”. When Rodríguez designed the now-saved monument, “professionally, he was going through a great time; until King Carlos III arrived in Madrid [su reinado comienza en 1759] and he kicks him and his boss Sacchetti and puts Sabatini in his place,” he adds. “Rodríguez will then work all over Spain, including the capital, but he will no longer do anything on behalf of the king.”
Original drawing by the architect Ventura Rodríguez of the Eucharistic Altar of the Royal Convent of La Encarnación NATIONAL HERITAGE
“This monument is of excellent quality and practically intact,” says the convent’s conservator, Leticia Sánchez, over the phone about a job probably done “between 1765 and 1775 by the hands of plasterers, carvers…”. All belong to the Royal Workshops.
This work was only brought into being on Maundy Thursday, the day of the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, when the minister presided over the liturgy of the sacrament of the Eucharist. “The priest would climb a ladder and put the holy sacrament in the monument’s chest,” says Sancho. “It is rare that a scenic monument of this kind has survived, and even more extraordinary that it was the work of such an important architect.” Works of this kind had their splendor in the Baroque period. In the case of the Church of the Incarnation, it was used for two centuries, until the late 1960s, when, due to the reform approved by the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), “these monuments fell into disuse,” adds the historian.
Restorer Beatriz Burreros holds an angel from the Holy Week altar of La Encarnación Convent in a nave of the Gallery of the Royal Collections in Madrid. Around it other parts of the Andrea Comas monument
It has also been noted that “pieces have been added to Ventura Rodríguez’s original project, like little angel heads” held in place with coarse nails that don’t seem very consistent with the rest of the work where they are placed. The investigations indicate that they probably came from other assemblies and that it was decided to reuse them in that of the Encarnación. Were they added during the execution of Rodríguez’s project? Did the nuns ever do it on their own? “It was common practice, these are monuments that were never erected in the way that happens with cribs and their figures,” emphasizes the conservator of the monastery.
In the last half century it was kept in the monastery. “It was properly installed in a basement, without moisture, but what is not used deteriorates,” says Sánchez, who highlights the artistic quality of the figures of the two Sibyls (wise women): “Their silver is wonderful.” the angels from above. It is more or less known how the set was assembled from the drawing of the original design and from a 1964 photograph kept by the nuns, although the image is black and white and of poor quality. “The monument was arranged in four levels, flanked by the two sibyls and two young angels. On the steps, the urn intended to house the Blessed Sacrament, surrounded by other angels and a luster of golden wood, all topped by a large cross held by two other angels,” explains Sánchez. The sculptures are made of silver lacquered solid wood.
“The state of conservation of the structure was poor every year, due to the manipulations during assembly and dismantling,” emphasizes the carpenter Miguel Ángel Ortega, highlighting the quality of the materials and the polychromy. “The xylophagous attack meant that the whole thing had to be disinfected in a special chamber, and the fact that the work was in its original enclave, probably nestled in an area with stairs, had meant that it became less stable was missing. So we had to carry out consolidation work, work that took almost half a year. It must be taken into account that 14 people were needed to move it”.
The restorer Marta Fernández de los Ríos is working on a frame for the restoration of the Holy Week monument of the Monastery of La Encarnación, in a nave of the Gallery of the Royal Collections. Andrea Comas
The restorers Marta Fernández de los Ríos and Beatriz Burreros have “developed more of a conservation task than a comprehensive restoration,” says the former. “We cleaned the figures and glued anything that was cracked or loose, like fingers, parts of angel wings or legs that came in boxes, almost like a puzzle. The polychromy has also been corrected,” he adds. Luckily, the silver of the figures was “treated with a yellow varnish which over the years has prevented it from acquiring the distinctive black color of oxidized silver”.
With all of the pieces healed and placed in place, it will be time to move the memorial to the area of the Royal Collections Gallery dedicated to Bourbon-sponsored art. Their location is under a large skylight of the building designed by architects Tuñón y Mansilla. For Leticia Sánchez, “It will be a way of recovering the memory of something that happened back then.”
All the culture that suits you awaits you here.
The literary novelties analyzed by our best critics in our weekly bulletin
Subscribe to continue reading
Read without limits