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  • Writer's pictureEthan A. Hayes

How NOT to Care for Fine Religious Statuary

The statuary furnishings of a church are usually extremely low maintenance: the occasional feather dusting being all that it takes. Regardless, most damage to statuary occurs through adjusting or maintaining the statue in some way. Here are five 'Don't's to ensure your statuary lasts several lifetimes.

Don't move them!

The most common cause of serious damage seen by the studio is simply moving the statue. Unless there is a significant spiritual advantage such as usage in a procession, just don't move the piece. It is very easy to nudge a statue with one's body or bump it against a wall and crack a few fingers or the wrist. These precarious situations arise all the time when housekeepers change out the cut flowers around a statue and feel obliged to move things around. Thousands of dollars in damages can be made in an instant, but it is completely avoidable.

Note also that the bottom edges of the base of a statue and also quite vulnerable. The bottom edge of the base is often made of plaster, and not designed to bear weight upon a point. The statue ought to be lifted vertically and shifted horizontally only. The studio felts the bottoms of all statues that we work on with an ultra-low pile berber to allow the image to be slid in this way avoiding the issue altogether.

Don't place items on them!

Pious intentions placing flowers, rosaries, notes, et cetera on statues is a great cause of harm. Metal objects are the biggest offenders here. Crowns for May Crownings are rarely made statue-safe, and with children performing the physical crowning, this is most necessary. If a rosary is not a planned part of a statue, built into the design, it will almost always subtly clang around and lead to damage. Most 'Our Lady of Fatima' images, where this is often attempted, already have a rosary sculpted onto her belt: no need to add another out-of-scale one. If your image does not have such an accessory and it is important to your parish that it does, contact the studio and we can affordably modify the statue to include it. If a parishioner wishes to give the image an ex-voto offering, this can be done in a safe way using museum wax or specialized moleskin fittings. And to a similar note, unremoved flowers can rot and do leave stains on surfaces.

Don't touch them!

The oils of human skin aside, which will slowly eat away at the paint of a statue, mere frictional wear will damage statuary. If the faithful have any close access to an image, it is inevitable that the statue will be touched out of religious devotion just as with the imposition of rosaries, slips of paper, flowers, et cetera. These practices are pastorally difficult to prevent and perhaps ought not be, but at any sufficiently old church, you will find fingers and toes of images with worn paint and plaster from being repeatedly touched. This damaging effect occurs regardless of material and there is no treatment sufficient to prevent it. Even at St. Peter's Basilica, there is a famous ancient bronze statue of the titular saint where the right foot especially has been reduce to a mere toe-less nub by compulsory touching and kissing by pilgrims.

Don't get them wet!

...or at least not very wet. Proper care of statuary, particularly the more common plaster statuary in America consists of only wiping them down with 'baby wipes' whenever a simple dusting doesn't suffice. As paint ages, it will become increasingly likely to be weakened by household cleaners. With bronze statuary too there is concern. Again use only wet wipes and watch out for green or whiteish corrosion. This is a possible sign of irreversible bronze disease which is caused by chloride wipes. If there is built-up grime, call a professional. Avoid the use of room humidifiers within 10 feet. Rapid changes in humidity cause plasters to expand and contract under the paint especially at the base, creating cracks, chips, and delamination.

Don't put them in the sun!

Many statues come in to the studio for restoration with a sun-bleached, yellow taint to white garments, skin, and certain more sun-sensitive pigments. It must be explained that the skin of the statue was not originally a jaundiced yellow at all but more peachy and natural. This is damage from ultraviolet light. Church layouts usually do not place statues in sunny positions, but as a building ages, statues inevitably start getting placed in odd, inopportune corners. This sun damage leads to the paint slowly 'cooking' off and delaminating, especially when coupled with humidity changes. As one might gather, the outdoors is the overall very worst place to store fine painted statuary, and yet it happens a lot!

Don't feed them after midnig--

--jokes aside. It is often a challenge to keep your statuary away from all potential sources of damage, but when left undisturbed, there is no reason why a quality piece cannot survive for centuries. In a throw-away world, the things of God ought to be permanent and indefectible. Further, it is desirable that God be portrayed as reliable and perennial in his presence and activity among men, and thus it is important that the things of His house portray Him as such. Things age, and eventually church goods do need to be repaired or replaced, but with proper care, the riches of your parish can carry many generations to Christ.

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