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At the Museum of Fine Arts: Watch restoration live

David Krakow



Conservator Luis Seixas restores a 17th century carved wooden Spanish tabernacle (altar piece) at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg. Photo provided.

An alumnus of Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Seixas is a Professional Associate with the American Institute for Conservation. Photo by David Krakow.

Art conservator Luis Seixas was explaining the meticulous work involved in the restoration of part of a four-century-old Spanish tabernacle when he was interrupted by the shuffling feet and voices of a group of sixth graders in his small gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg.

But Seixas did not harrumph and tap his fingers impatiently while the students mulled around, their museum tour guide firing questions his way. In fact, the professional restorer considers it a pleasurable, even necessary part of his day.

“Fact is, I learn more from the students and visitors that come here than they learn from me,” Seixas said modestly.

A recent visitor had posited that the tabernacle might have arrived at an auction house in Sarasota due to family connections to the Ringling family, which moved the winter headquarters of the family’s circus to Sarasota in 1927.

“There is nothing to prove this hypothesis, but I like it,” Seixas said with a smile. “Time will tell if it’s true or not but, for now, it’s a good story.”

Seixas, a Portuguese native who lives and works in the Central Oak section of St. Pete, said the unveiling of new tidbits of information is one of the fascinating parts of the four-month project that he started in March.

The gilded, painted and carved tabernacle’s origins are Northern Spain in the mid 1600s. After centuries of wear and tear – from, among other sources, woodworms, environmental conditions and everyday use – the tabernacle retains much of its original surface. That said, time, dust, candle soot and other contaminants have left their mark and Seixas’ goal is to restore the various pieces to their original luster.

While explaining this, Seixas brandishes what looks like a long Q-Tip, using alcohol to remove old varnish and reveal the piece’s former pigments. The varnish, he said, was used to protect the surface because the gold leaf paint is not waterproof. Over time, however, the varnish turns into a dull film.

Siexas is restoring the tabernacle one section at a time. Photo by David Krakow.

The cleaning process will uncover the natural gold leaf, orange and pink shades.

Another facet of the restoration is chromatic integration, where acrylic paints are used to unify the polychromy after cleaning.

Seixas also pointed out several areas where small wood pieces were missing, explaining that some would be replaced if needed for structural integrity. The holes were caused by insects prevalent in Europe at the time.

Seixas used a very modern analogy to describe the tabernacle’s infrastructure. “People get a little amused by this, but this is very IKEA style,” he said with a chuckle. He was referring to the fact that there was very little iron or nails used in the original construction. “You can see that’s why it was wobbly, but that’s also why it was so easy to dismantle the entire thing.”

The rest of the tabernacle sits in display cases around the perimeter of the gallery.

An alumnus of the prestigious Universidade Nova in Lisbon, Seixas is a Professional Associate with the American Institute for Conservation. Fourteen years ago, his wife got a job at St. Jude Hospital in Memphis. Eventually they visited – and fell in love with – St. Pete, and for the past two years, Seixas has been a private art conservator here.

He has worked several times with the Museum of Fine Arts as well as private collections and institutions elsewhere in the U.S. and China.

Seixas explained that Dr. Stanton Thomas, the museum’s Curator of Collections and Exhibitions recently found the tabernacle at auction in Sarasota. He reached out to colleagues in Portugal, who told him with no hesitation that the museum should purchase the piece.

“We went to take a look, and we could not believe that something like this was in an auction house in Sarasota,” Seixas said. “I started immediately analyzing the object, conducting some tests, because I knew that behind all this varnish and all this damage, we have an incredibly high-quality tabernacle from Spain.”

“I am absolutely thrilled to see the conservation of this beautiful, evocative tabernacle move forward,” Thomas said in a prepared statement. “I am also fascinated with the work’s unbelievably complex symbolism, and trying to unravel the combined meaning of the dozens of images of holy figures, prophets and saints.” 

The identity of the tabernacle’s creator is unknown but scholars see similarities to the work of 16th century Spanish sculptor Gregorio Fernandez, especially in the scene of the interaction between Jesus Christ and St. John at the Last Supper.

Seixas pointed out a section in the tabernacle’s lower center which contains a small locking compartment that was traditionally used for storing Christian communion bread. The meticulous, crafted paintings on the tabernacle’s surface include depictions of Old Testament Prophets Elijah and Moses and a scene of The Transfiguration of Christ.

Approximately 90% of the tabernacle’s original surface of gold and tempera paint survives, despite being almost 400 years old.

Seixas feels that the stars aligned perfectly for him and the museum.

“We got extremely lucky by, first, finding something like this in the United States, second, in Sarasota, so close to home and third, in incredible condition.”

Visitors to the museum will be able to watch Seixas restore the tabernacle Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m.-2 p.m., with Saturday sessions on May 4 and June 1 (10 a.m. to noon) in the museum’s Miriam Acheson gallery.

Museum of Fine Arts website

The tabernacle, pre-restoration. Photo: Museum of Fine Arts St. Petersburg.

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