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Vandalism and Art

Deliberate damage to polychrome church interiors

Tino Simon

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Introduction

1Works of art have always been exposed to anthropogenic changes and iconoclastic interventions. On April 10, 1524, the Reformation movement reached a pinnacle in Stralsund, a town of the Hanseatic League, when a mob raided the town’s parish church of St. Nikolai. [Michalski 2000] Even five hundred years later, the traces of this eventful day are to be seen on the doors of the choir screen. Today, the faces of the saints are scratched, and numerous scores and other marks are visible on the gothic panel paintings. Within the scope of a diploma thesis from 2011 they were examined for art-technological changes and augmentation in later periods. The traces of the iconoclasm were to be included in the conservation efforts and restoration concept. Vandalism of art and iconoclasm are topics well studied by the historians, but only a few descriptions of how restorers handled the damage found on these works of art are available to us, today.

2With a catalogue of damaged objects, the range of possible blemishes inflicted by deliberate damage and how to treat or restore it, can be illustrated for the field of conservation. The emphasis of this thesis is on works of art crafted in stone and wood. The research had to be limited to the eastern part of Germany for a lack of time for further investigation. Most of these deliberate changes are historical, but some of them are more recent than others.

3Iconoclastic attacks to works of art can be represented in various ways. It is difficult to explain why damage exists. Whether political or historically reasons motivated a ‘beeldenstorm’, whether the action of an individual or a group, whether hostility to saints or fear of demons, in many objects it was the intention to destroy the artwork or its statement. It is also necessary to include the graffiti, rubbing or scorings of bored worshipperers and tourists to the vandalisation of images. The registered damages are mostly historical interventions, but also younger examples are included in the research. The following forms of vandalism are often verified in church interiors.

Score marks

4Damage in the form of score marks or scratches can be found more frequently on panel paintings than on wooden sculptures. There are fewer examples for stone sculptures, because hardness of the support material is more resistant to this type of damage. Short, precisely strokes are possible, as well as long scratches trough the paint layers. They are rarely found individually. Often a dense structure has formed (Figure 1) and decreases the legibility of the image. Depending on the amount of pressure exerted and the type of tool used, slight scratches or deep score marks can occur, which can reach the support layer below the image.

Fig.1 Jüterbog, St. Nikolai

Fig.1 Jüterbog, St. Nikolai

Altarpiece of the Cranach-workshop (ca. 1518-1524), the reverse side is damaged with more than 50 cuts.

Credits: Tino Simon

Impact damage

5Traces left by tools can have a massive influence on a work of art. Depending on the used tool, such as hammers, axes or bars, different damage patterns are generated. In the case of panel paintings, roundish deformations were found during the research. These were made by the use of hammers. The compressions and deformations impacted into the support are irreversible. In the case of wooden sculptures, parts of the body could be separated by axes (Figure 2). Splitting or fracturing of wood fibers is visible. The complete destruction of a sculpture is the final damage.

Fig.2 Barth, St. Marien

Fig.2 Barth, St. Marien

Unknown gothic saint, the face is totally split of, the visible lineament is from a restoration of the 19th century.

Credits: Tino Simon

Lost components

6Sculptures often show missing noses. This alone is not enough to prove an iconoclastic attack. Once in a while other types of damage are to be found, or adjacent areas of the sculpture are also damaged. The iconoclastic traces are mostly concentrated to the face, but also on the extremities, such as hands and legs. Scratched or gouged eyes in the sense of blinding can be demonstrated on sculptures and panel paintings (Figure 3). Cutting of nipples, removal of female breasts or male sex parts for reason of prudery must be included in this damage classification.

Fig.3 Church of Sprotta

Fig.3 Church of Sprotta

Madonna (late Gothic) the eyes are blinded and gouged.

Credits: Tino Simon

Scratches

7Deep scratched names, initials or dates are often found. Ornamental or figurative scratches are rarely visible. This type of vandalism is always associated with a loss of substance in the artwork, which can reach the support (Figure 4). Depending on the tool used, a wide variety of damage can be produced with structuring by zig-zag lines or hatching. Scratches often have a documentary character and allow conclusions to the creator.

Fig.4 Naumburg, Cathedral St. Peter and Paul

Fig.4 Naumburg, Cathedral St. Peter and Paul

Deacon (ca.1260) historical graffiti at the chest of the stone sculpture.

Credits: Tino Simon

Labels

8Labeling is not a direct damage to a work of art, it is rather an aesthetic impairment. Names, initials, dates or others, executed with various writing utensils, are placed on the top of the paint layer or varnish. Fine scratches or print marks, which may have resulted from the writing instrument, are possible. In the widest sense, this group can also be used for soiling with paint, faeces, blood and something similar. [Michalski 1990]

9Fortunately less frequent damage is caused by the removal of material, bullet holes, bombardment or fire. With the development of the chemical industry in the last century, a new medium for the destruction of art has occurred.

10Just as large as the range of damages, are the possibilities for the conservation or restoration treatment. Whether vandalistic traces are preserved or reworked by completion the support, filling and retouching is often also dependent on the location of the work of art and its integration into a room interior. Similarly, the extent of the damage, its documentary nature, and the historical context are factors which must be observed. Likewise, historical restorations offer exciting approaches to solving this issue. The lecture shows the results of the research and presents selected examples. A short statistical evaluation gives an overview of how restorers managed to deal with this subject.

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Bibliography

Michalski, S. 2000. Die Ausbreitung des reformatorischen Bildersturms 1521-1527. Bildersturm Wahnsinn oder Gottes Wille?, Katalog zur Ausstellung im Bernischen Historischen Museum. Zürich: 46-48.

Michalski, S. 1990. "Das Phänomen Bildersturm. Versuch einer Übersicht. Bilder und Bildersturm im Spätmittelalter und der frühen Neuzeit". Wiesbaden. 85.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig.1 Jüterbog, St. Nikolai
Caption Altarpiece of the Cranach-workshop (ca. 1518-1524), the reverse side is damaged with more than 50 cuts.
Credits Credits: Tino Simon
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5622/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 108k
Title Fig.2 Barth, St. Marien
Caption Unknown gothic saint, the face is totally split of, the visible lineament is from a restoration of the 19th century.
Credits Credits: Tino Simon
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5622/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 108k
Title Fig.3 Church of Sprotta
Caption Madonna (late Gothic) the eyes are blinded and gouged.
Credits Credits: Tino Simon
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5622/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 104k
Title Fig.4 Naumburg, Cathedral St. Peter and Paul
Caption Deacon (ca.1260) historical graffiti at the chest of the stone sculpture.
Credits Credits: Tino Simon
URL http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/docannexe/image/5622/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 169k
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References

Electronic reference

Tino Simon, « Deliberate damage to polychrome church interiors », CeROArt [Online], HS | 2018, Online since 08 December 2018, connection on 20 May 2019. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ceroart/5622

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About the author

Tino Simon

Dipl.-Rest., University of fine Arts Dresden, Güntzstr. 34, D-01307, Dresden. simon@hfbk-dresden.de

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
CeROArt – Conservation, exposition, restauration d'objets d'arts est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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