15th c. Cross of the Pelican smashed by earthquake restored

The Cross of the Pelican, a 15th century altar crucifix from the Abbey of St. Eutizio in Piedivalle di Preci, outside Perugia, has been restored after it was all but destroyed in the earthquake that devastated central Italy in 2016.

The tempera-on-wood cross was made by Nicola di Ulisse di Siena in around 1472 for the church of the St. Eutizio Abbey. Its composition, stripped of figures of mourners found in other examples from this time, was inspired as a meditation on the death of Christ. He hangs on a bare wood cross against a monochromatic blue background. The cross has trefoil terminals with the top one, where the INRI sign is usually placed, containing the pelican in piety, tearing her own breast to feed her three nestlings with her blood, a popular symbol of Christ’s sacrifice in the Middle Ages.

The abbey was founded by Syrian monks fleeing persecution in the wake of ecumenical councils in the 5th or 6th century. The travertine spur is peppered with natural caves that appealed to the eremitic style of the cenobitic monks. It began as an oratory dedicated to the Virgin Mary. St. Eutizio expanded it into a cenobitic monastery and became its abbot. After his death in 540 A.D., the church was named after him. The monastery evolved from its ascetic origins to embrace the rule of St. Benedict and grew exponentially. It reached the apex of its regional importance and property holdings in the 12th century.

The church is located on a terrace between the valley and rock spur containing the hermits’ caves. When the earthquake devastated the area in October 2016, the rock spur collapsed and the subsequent landslide crashed into the monastery. The crucifix was hurled to the ground and smashed. The fragments were trapped in rubble for weeks. Fire fighters worked with three dozen conservators from the Vatican Museums to recover every splinter of the altarpiece they could find.

The cross was in a parlous state, broken into more than 30 splintered fragments with areas of total loss. Because of its devotional purpose, the Archdiocese of Spoleto-Norcia and the Superintendency of Umbria decided to attempt a full restoration of the painted image, the figure of Christ and the pelican, instead of conserving only what had survived. In July 2018, experts at the Vatican Museums’ Restoration Laboratories set about puzzling together the jigsaw puzzle. They consolidated the fragments and reconstructed missing parts, mounting the cross to a new wooden backing structure to make it stable enough to take its place above the altar once more. The painted surface was re-adhered and discolored varnish removed. The lost areas were then recreated. Finally, the gilded perimeter frame was restored with pure gold in accordance with the traditional method used in the 15th century.

The restored cross is on display in the Vatican Museums. It will be exhibited in Spoleto at the church of St. Euphemia this fall, and will then return to the high altar of the St. Eutizio Abbey.

This video documents the disaster and the hard work that followed to bring the crucifix back from the brink. There is no commentary, but you don’t miss it because the photographs and film relay the restoration process eloquently on their own. (With a little boost from a score that is two parts Rock Me Amadeus to one part LadyHawke.)