The two basic methods of icon restoration differ in the degree
of restorers' intervention into the material structure of
the work. The first method, a simple "renewal" of
the icon, is non-destructive and is most often used on lightly
damaged icons. The losses in the ground are filled and the
surface of the icon is partially or completely repainted over
the old varnish. Sometimes, the entire surface of the old
icon is covered with the new ground. The new ground covers
the original composition so well that sometimes a completely
different composition is painted over it. After several centuries,
such an icon becomes a "carrier" of many clearly
distinguishable layers which can be separated and removed.
The second method of "restoration" is much more
destructive because it is used whenever the icon has considerable
losses of the ground and the color layer or when the varnish
is too dark and needs to be removed. The bumps in the ground
are cut out with a knife, and the painted surface is cleaned;
sometimes, to make it smooth, the restorer rubs it with pumice.
Then, the icon is repainted with fresh paints directly over
the old painted surface and over the new fragments of the
ground. As a result, the image on the icon turns into a mosaic
of fragments from different centuries hidden under the fresh
layer of paint. Even the best scientific restoration of such
an icon cannot determine precisely when the overpainting was
done and which fragments of the icon are still original.
Reconstructing the damaged fragments of icons, Russian and
Soviet restorers have followed the following principles:
1. Complete restoration of the work to its original appearance.
This principle has three distinct historical phases, each
producing results of different quality:
- naive repainting ("renovation")
- complete restoration of iconography
- scientific and artistically justified reconstruction.
2. Preservation of the original parts of the old work only.
This principle contradicts the first principle and disallows
any reconstruction of the losses. The restorer's intervention
is limited exclusively to preservation of the surviving fragments
of the work and to the removal of overpaintings.
3. Rejection of any visible additions by the restorers. It
can be called a principle of archeological restoration because
it obliges the restorers during their revealing of the original
layer of paint to preserve, wherever possible, of various
layers of overpainting. The result of such restoration is
a monument of history of culture and not a work of art which
embodies the idea and the genius of its author. The main principle
of such restoration is to leave the previously repaired and
restored fragments intact.
4. Reconstruction of the color and tonal unity of the composition.
This principle, introduced and developed in the 1920-30s,
remains the most popular today. In a restoration guided by
this principle, the restorers try to recapture the original
artistic unity of the work by developing the potential unity
of the surviving fragments. The restorers' efforts should
be restricted to the revealing of the possibilities hidden
in the fragments themselves, without committing a historical
blunder or aesthetically damaging the work. This principle
requires that the fill-ins (restorations) be made easily recognizable
but at the same time invisible from a distance optimal for
the viewing of the work; otherwise the work's unity, which
is the main objective of such a kind of restoration, will
be destroyed. Therefore, the fill-ins should match the original
parts of the work in luminosity and chromatic quality.
with the help of computers, anyone can engage in the "restoration"
of icons without fear of irretrievably destroying a magnificent
work of art. Digital reconstruction allows us to take a "hypothetical"
look at some of the most damaged icons. In the example at
the top of this page, I have "reconstructed" the
damaged face of St. George from the Dormition Cathedral in
the Moscow Kremlin (11th-12th century). My "restoration"
was mainly an attempt to reveal completely the facial features
of the saint. Indeed, I discovered a face of such beauty and
excellence that I would not hesitate to attribute the work
to a master from Constantinople. As can be seen, the face
of St. George bears close resemblance to the face of St. Panteleimon
from an early 13th-century hagiographical icon from Constantinople.
It is easy to notice similarities in the authors' rendering
of the eyes, the brows, the mouths, the noses, and the characteristic
ruddy right cheeks of both saints. Even though the icon of
St. Panteleimon seems to be more refined and differs from
St. George in the color scheme, the portraits of both saints
appear to be the products of one school.
To show the painstaking process of this restoration, I kept
taking off layer after layer of damages, saving my images
in twelve separate files. When the "restoration"
was completed, I combined the images into an animated GIF
file: you see how the damage on the face of the saint disappears
right in front of your eyes.