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Restoring relics: time and ethics

This relic is one of the most ancient pieces of its kind in Europe (photo: Geneva Art & History Museum)

(swissinfo.ch)

For the past five years, Geneva's Art and History Museum has been restoring two of Switzerland's most priceless medieval works of art. Now the conservation team is swapping its experiences with those of counterparts from all over Europe.

The colloquium on reliquary shrines and medieval gold- and silversmith work is being billed as the first time specialists from various fields have assembled to discuss the rights and wrongs of restoring these ancient treasures.

The Geneva team decided to organise the gathering because of the many thorny technical and ethical issues that arose in its work to restore two of the oldest and most important reliquaries in Switzerland, both of which come from the southern canton of Valais.

Three years ago, the Art & History Museum conservators completed work on the 11th Century Great Shrine of Sion. It is about one metre long, 40 cm high and partially covered with silver reliefs.

Restoring a shrine

"It's magnificent. One of the most ancient pieces of its kind in Europe," says François Schweizer, head of conservation at the museum.

Schweizer's team is currently studying and restoring the Shrine of the Children of Saint Sigismond, from the Abbey of St Maurice. It is the first time in 900 years that this beautiful 12th Century silver-plated and partially gilded chest has left the abbey.

Both reliquaries were in a poor state of repair when work began on them. One of the main ethical questions the team had to ask themselves was: to what extent should such objects be restored?

François Schweizer says that, for objects that are still in use - that "must inspire people when they go to church" - it is more important to return it to its original beauty. A museum piece, on the other hand, is a "witness of its present state", and it is ethically more honest to keep it as it is.

Many shades

"In between, you have all kinds of shades," he says. While a skilled jeweller would easily be able to replicate a missing part, Schweizer prefers what he calls a more integrated approach, which, for example, might involve incorporating plain silver plates into gaps.

"In this way, we don't immediately draw attention to the missing piece, and the remaining parts are more important than what is not there," Schweizer explains.

"We try to use reversible methods, so that if ethical concerns change, colleagues in future will be able to remove what you've added without damaging the original materials," he adds.

However the restoration is achieved, one thing is sure: "It takes a lot of time," Schweizer says.

Treasures of Basel

It also requires the involvement of specialists from many different disciplines: historians, chemists, metalsmiths or even jewellers. Geneva is one of the few places where all these experts work alongside each other.

The aim of the Geneva colloquium is to bring together specialists from seven European countries to share their experiences.

"It is useful to compare our different approaches," Schweizer says.

One of the talks at the colloquium will be devoted to the treasures of Basel Cathedral, one of the most spectacular collections of medieval gold and silver work in the world, which was dispersed in the early 19th Century to raise money for the local government. More than half of the treasures are still in Basel, at the city's Historical Museum.

"This collection was kept together for a long time, through many difficult times. It is a reflection of the devotion the people had for their cathedral," Schweizer says.

by Roy Probert

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