St. Ambrose’s silk tunic liberated from glass prison

Textile conservation experts from the University of Bonn have been preserving the fragile silk textiles believed to have belonged to Saint Ambrose, the 4th century archbishop and patron saint of Milan, since 2014. Considered holy relics of the saint, the ancient silks are so delicate the team created a mobile conservation lab so they could be preserved in situ at Milan’s Basilica of Saint Ambrose. The process of cleaning damaging dust from the silk fibers using small brushes and miniature vacuum cleaners has taken years.

Suction cups attached to glass pane covering the silk tunic of St. Ambrose. Photo by Jochen Schaal-ReichertNow conservators have taken on the most daunting project of all: raising a pane of glass weighing 80 kilos (176 pounds) from the silk tunic it was meant to protect. The pane was supposed to keep the silk threads clean and allow the tunic to be displayed without damage, but instead the fibers formed undulations under the massive weight of the glass. The fine threads also adhered to the glass over the years, making it extremely difficult to remove the pane without tearing the tunic. Even simply moving the tunic still under glass into a space where it could be conserved required elaborate planning.

Carrying the tunic sandwich through the winding narrow corridors of Sant'Ambrogio. Photo by Sabine SchrenkThe silk tunic measuring an impressive approx. 170 x 280 centimeters was stored in a drawer cabinet in the gallery of Sant’Ambrogio. However, this room was unsuitable for the preservation work. The transporters thus packed the glass panes with the valuable cargo between two large wooden boards, and the huge artwork was then carried vertically along the narrowest, winding corridors into the basilica’s archive, which was transformed into a workshop for a month. “This transportation was highly risky,” reports the restorer Ulrike Reichert. In some places, the art transporters had to proceed millimeter by millimeter to ensure the transit was ultimately successful.

Restorer Ulrike Reichert uses flat bar to gently separate silk threads from the glass plate. Photo by Sabine SchrenkOnce they arrived in the workshop, the six art transporters heaved the glass, silk tunic and wood sandwich onto a large table. The most dangerous moment of the preservation was now imminent. While the art transporters lifted the glass pane very slightly using suction handles, Ulrike Reichert used a flat stick to very carefully separate adhering parts of the silk tunic from the glass pane square centimeter by square centimeter. “This work took a long time – for the helpers, it was a feat of strength to keep the heavy pane in the air the whole time,” says Schrenk.

Glass pane lifted with suction cups. Photo by Sabine SchrenkOnce all the silk fibers were separated from the pane, the transport crew lifted the heavy glass slowly a centimeter at a time. If the suction cups had failed or the glass had broken, the tunic could have been irreparably damaged. Thankfully nothing went wrong. The glass lifted clean and the silk didn’t budge. The crew was able to quickly move the pane off the tunic and put it down.

Glass pane moved aside. Photo by Sabine SchrenkThe tunic can now be painstakingly cleaned as its brethren were. Once it has been fully cleaned and stabilized, it will be covered with a lightweight acrylic pane which will preserve the silk textile without forcing it to bear the weight of a grown man sitting on its chest for decades.

 

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Comment by Cordate
2017-04-12 05:44:59

Curious that they lifted the pane manually rather than making use of a frame with a mechanized setup so the lift could be more precisely (and tirelessly) controlled. Glad to hear that it went well despite all the risks!

 
Comment by Karlsdottir
2017-04-12 12:31:56

I think they were afraid the glass would break of its own weight:

From EurekAlert!

https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2017-04/uob-lrf041117.php

Once they arrived in the workshop, the six art transporters heaved the glass, silk tunic and wood sandwich onto a large table. The most dangerous moment of the preservation was now imminent. While the art transporters lifted the glass pane very slightly using suction handles, Ulrike Reichert used a flat stick to very carefully separate adhering parts of the silk tunic from the glass pane square centimeter by square centimeter. “This work took a long time – for the helpers, it was a feat of strength to keep the heavy pane in the air the whole time,” says Schrenk.

Then came the key moment: will the upper glass pane break when lifted and tear the tunic? Very carefully, the specialists lift the heavy pane centimeter by centimeter using the suction handles. The silk fibers remain intact! The carriers quickly lift the glass pane to one side and place it down on the table. The valuable fabric is now accessible for preservation. The fine silk fibers are carefully freed from dust and the valuable tunic is then protected against environmental influences with a lightweight acrylic glass. “The success shows that it was right to take the gamble,” says Schrenk. “The great team mastered this challenge together.” The project was sponsored by the Gielen-Leyendecker Foundation.

 
Comment by Gen
2017-04-13 19:01:58

Mmmmmmm tunic sandwich.
But seriously, it doesn’t look like anything.

 
Comment by Rick
2017-04-15 22:44:39

Where does 176 pounds become a “massive” weight? The weight of the glass on the tunic would have been about 3 pounds per square foot! And when would 6 men holding up less than 30 pounds each become a “feat of strength?” I like to that “This transportation was highly risky” but that it was “heaved” onto a table. This all sounds like fund raising language to me.

 
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