THE 'VIRGEN DE LAS NIEVES' AND ITS PROTECTIVE SHELL

Royal Sanctuary of Santa Cruz de la Palma, Canary Islands, Spain

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Every five years on La Palma, the most north-westerly island of the Canary archipelago, this original terracotta image of the Virgen de las Nieves is on procession at the Fiestas Lustrales de la Bajada, a deeply traditional celebration involving the figure of their patron saint being taken from its display as the altar centrepiece at the Royal Sanctuary into the capital Santa Cruz de la Palma, whereby it is publicly adored as the object of people's devotional festivity.

Factum Foundation were invited to document the figure's current material state using photogrammetry with the aim of providing a better understanding of the sculpture through the closer analysis this allows. A facsimile was created from the data that was captured, with a protective shell for the original then constructed from this; having the data in both digital and physical forms serves as part of a new technological approach in terms of the preservation of such an important devotional figure.

These combined projects are essential to not only ensuring the long-term survival of the figure itself but also the continuation of this passionate expression of veneration by the people of La Palma. 

The quinquennial procession on La Palma

This image, as well as many other pieces of the same kind, was used to expand the Catholic devotion throughout the so-called New World and was originally a humble terracotta small figure. The subject of deep devotion throughout the history of the Canary Islands (it is even recognised to have been worshipped by the original inhabitants of the island: the 'benahoritas'), the 'Virgin of the Snows' has been undergone process of great transformation; none more drastic than during the Counter-Reformation when the figure was clothed in rich garments and adorned with jewels offered by the La Palma faithful. The intrinsic character of the image was altered from this moment, with the sculpture adopting the traditional triangular shape characteristic of the Virgin Mary and further enhancing its role as an object of devotion for the island's population. This is evident to such an extent that the figure is only recognised by the community as it appears on the right; robed and bejewelled, with only the few that are in charge of the dressing and changing of clothing knowing the virgins original shape.

The figure in its original state

The figure as it is presented publicly

OBJECTIVES:
  1.  Record with photogrammetry the original piece, consisting of a small polychrome terracotta virgin.
  2.  Create a facsimile of the virgin to be put on display. This will be a polychrome resin image at the same scale and aspect as the original in its current condition.
  3.  Create a protection shell to host the original figure.

 

PROTECTION SHELL PRODUCTION:

The original blueprint for the shell

Properties of the shell:

It needs to be screwed together in the processional throne.

  • Must be thin enough to allow the dressing of the icon with its traditional garments.
  • Must be hard in the outside and soft and cushioned in the inside to prevent abrasion. 
  • Must allow air flowing inside to prevent water condensation and eventual proliferation of mold and fungi (the current contact between the image and the padding must be the least possible but enough to keep the virgin safely held in place during the procession movements).

To construct the protection shell, fireproof epoxy resin was used that was then reinforced with glass fibre tissue, giving it an approximate thickness of 3mm. In order to allow air flow, as well as prevent mildew growth, the shell was created and made in three pieces to facilitate the insertion of the sculpture into the shell, which will be held together with screws. The gap between the protective shell and the sculpture will be padded with polyethene foam covered with polythene microperforated sheet (©Tyvek), ensuring cushioned protection for the sculpture. This is further added to the upper side of the shell being soft, that same cushioning from the sculptures waistline to neck and held in place with Velcro strips on the upper part of the base and on the side back of the shell. The addition of padded discs on both sides of the figure will aid the sewing and pinning of the arms and clothing involved in the traditional dressing process. Finally, the base will have a hollow screw in its inner lower part in order to fix the shell to the procession throne, assuring complete stability.

Using the 3D polyamide print to model with plasticine the gap between the carcass and the sculpture, as well as the air ventilation gaps and the lines of opening. © Oak Taylor Smith

Fireproof epoxy resin covering to create the shell. © Oak Taylor Smith

[L] Corrections and modifications being made to the collar. © Oak Taylor Smith - [R] De-moulding of the protective casing. © Oak Taylor Smith

[L] Final shell with soft frontal covering - [R] Final shell without soft frontal covering

FACSIMILE PRODUCTION:

For the recording process, a team from Factum Arte travelled to the La Palma Santuary whereby high-resolution scanning was undertaken using a Canon 5D. creating a large file of high-resolution images from which the 3D model materialized. This extremely detailed model not only allowed the creation of a protective shell so perfectly adapted to the topography of the piece, as well as the rematerialisation of the figure itself, but it also stands as a file of great documentary value by allowing the careful study of the fragile Virgen without it having to be physically touched.

This 3D file can be viewed below.

A Factum Foundation specialist conducts the photogrammetric recording of the figure

A Factum Foundation specialist conducts the photogrammetric recording of the figure

The execution of this copy was made in parallel to the creation of the protective shell for the image of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves, with both projects being based on the 3D information obtained in-situ through photogrammetry. This data allowed the printing of a 3D model in polyamide, at a scale of 1: 1, from which copies were obtained by direct mold. Two moulds were made, both in an epoxy resin widely used in restoration works of cultural assets due to the aging conditions which it can accurately emulate, as well as it having properties very similar to wood. In addition to this, it is a material that perfectly imitates terracotta, and as such proved very suitable for the later polychromy carried out using traditional techniques. One of the copies was used as a test base in order to execute polychromatic tests.

As a result of the complexity of the polychromatic work, as well as taking advantage of the delivery of the casing for its installation, a Factum Foundation specialist, travelled to La Palma to carry out the taking of colour references as part of a detailed visual analysis in order to aid the painting process. This visit helped decisions to be made regarding the optimum techniques to use, with the team eventually opting for a combination of aqueous media and traditional preparations to the glue, alongside acrylic preparations that were applied in superimposed layers of lean, acrylic and watercolours. To create layers of textures that captured those of the original, the work was finished with final touches of pigments, gold, and varnishes onto the acrylic base.

Process of creating the silicone mould to copy the figure into epoxy resin. © Oak Taylor Smith

J. Carlos pressing the fireproof epoxy resin into the plaster mould. © Oak Taylor Smith

J. Carlos adding the final touches to the cast - shown alongside the 3D print it was moulded from. © Oak Taylor Smith

The final resin copy being reviewed, alongside the color base beginning to be added. © Oak Taylor Smith

Facsimile during polychromy. © Oak Taylor Smith

The final facsimile

The creation of this exact facsimile of the Virgen de las Nieves is based on the balance found between the use of new digital media for the digitisation and rematerialisation of objects, with the use of artisan processes of emptying and polychrome to obtain the final object. The dynamic nature of this work resulted in the creation of a facsimile that reflects the singularity of the original Virgen de las Nieves. It also reinforces the need for the application of new non-contact digitisation techniques, mixed with traditional craftsmanship, as part of a new approach to conservation. Ultimately, it facilitates the dissemination of the original images and traditions that surround the Virgin.

The final facsimile being presented for the first time as part of an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Sacro de Las Nieves © Taller de Pintura y Escultura del Cabildo de La Palma

The final facsimile being presented for the first time as part of an exhibition at the Museo de Arte Sacro de Las Nieves © Taller de Pintura y Escultura del Cabildo de La Palma

A full photographic documentation of the various processes behind this project can be found here.


Credits

The team from Factum Foundation and Factum Arte that participated in this project include: Silvia Álvarez, Isabel Fernández López, Juan Carlos Andrés Arias, Javier Barreno, Ivan Allende Martín, Quinner Baird, Pedro Miró, and Carlos Bayod.

The Cabildo de la Palma team consisted of Isabel Concepción Rodríguez, Isabel Santos Gomez, Noelia Yanguas, and Alejandro Martínez.

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