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Jean d'Alluye: Conservation in the Public Eye

Lucretia Kargère, Conservator, The Cloisters Museum and Gardens

Posted: Thursday, May 15, 2014

Conservator Lucretia Kargère at work in the galleries

Conservator Lucretia Kargère working on the tomb effigy of Jean d'Alluye in the Gothic Chapel at The Cloisters

«Conservation treatments are not often performed on works of art in public. The process is lengthy and requires extreme concentration, and treatments usually need to be performed in fully equipped laboratories. The sight of a work in the process of being conserved might also come as a shock to passersby; seeing a work of art in its "stripped" state—where all fills and old restorations have been removed—is like seeing a celebrity un-Photoshopped or without makeup.»

For the past six months, I have been conserving the tomb effigy of Jean d'Alluye at The Cloisters museum and gardens in situ, with only ropes and a poster stand separating me from public view. This mid-thirteenth-century effigy is thought to represent Jean d'Alluye, a knight of Philip Augustus and one of the principal nobles of the Loire Valley, and to come from the French Abbey of La Clarté-Dieu, a Cistercian monastery in Touraine.

Tomb of Jean d'Alluye before treatment

The tomb effigy of Jean d'Alluye before treatment

The effigy has significantly darkened over time from grime, hand-oil residues, and tarnishes acquired throughout its complex history. Although its current state is partially concealed by the dim lighting of the Gothic Chapel, the sculpture's condition will be clearly visible in the spring of 2016, when the work will be part of the exhibition Jerusalem in the Middle Ages in the Museum's Main Building. So it is time for Jean d'Alluye to get ready for his close-up!

What exactly goes on in a conservator's mind while he or she performs the slow process of cleaning a surface? We like to think the process is analogous to a detective's use of forensic skills during an investigation; every minute detail on a surface opens a window of information that can be further scrutinized with scientific equipment. A conservator's eyes, enhanced by head loupe and microscope, are the first tools to generate a diagnosis before treatment. Once a course of action is determined, the conservator's movements are minutely orchestrated, and the process involves nearly all the senses: sight, touch, hearing, and sometimes even smell. A conservator's investigative repertoire includes looking for visual cues, feeling the way in which cotton swabs and Mars pencil erasers glide over the work's surface, listening to the sound the swabs make, and using particular solvents.

A conservator's work is further informed by extensive scientific analysis of the object's materials and techniques, as well as an assessment of the processes of deterioration at hand. In the case of the tomb of Jean d'Alluye, thin-section analysis was performed for petrographic examination with a hair-thin slice of stone mounted on a microscope slide. The stone was identified by the LRMF (Laboratoire de Recherche des Musées de France) as Apremont stone, a so-called noble stone: fine-grained, semi-hard, and quarried about 162 miles east of La Clarté-Dieu down the Loire River. The condition of the stone was also fully documented and evaluated.

Thin-section slide of stone, identifying stone from Apremont

Thin-section slide of stone from the sculpture identifying its origins at Apremont

Finally, because stone effigies were commonly painted, and because we assume that the knight's carved shield exhibited a colorful coat of arms, the surface was thoroughly investigated for the presence of paint residues. Although minute traces of color have been detected on the stone surface, none was identified as original.

The treatment of the tomb effigy of Jean d'Alluye is gradually proceeding as I carefully work on each curve and detail. The process is exceedingly slow, but the story mesmerizing.

Photograph taken during treatment of Jean d'Alluye

Photograph taken during the treatment of the tomb effifgy of Jean d'Alluye

Related Link
Conservation and Scientific Research


  • Erika Milo says:

    I would love to know more about the actual tools and materials being used for cleaning.

    Posted: May 16, 2014, 1:14 a.m.

  • Becca says:

    I just stumbled upon this blog, and love the chance to see behind the scenes at my favorite museum!

    I love reading about the details do this restoration-- so, it seems as though this statue has had triage and now ready for treatment, so to speak. What are the steps to come for this piece? As a conservation specialist, do you specialize in a certain type of media, or can you go from a piece like this to a tapestry to a painting? When a sculpture is originally painted, would you consider restoring the paint?

    Thanks for posting the details! So interesting!

    Posted: May 16, 2014, 8:48 p.m.

  • lucretia kargere says:

    I am just using cotton swabs and solvents (ethanol/water 1:1), or a simple Mars pencil eraser. Stone usually does not clean so well, but in this case, the grime is very soluble.

    Posted: May 17, 2014, 8:20 a.m.

  • lucretia Kargere says:

    Hi Becca,
    I specialize in medieval sculpture conservation, be it stone or wood, painted or not. The treatment of such objects requires extensive knowledge of original techniques, and their deterioration process. The museum has specialists in many conservation fields, for paintings, textiles, paper, and all have their own laboratories and staff.

    When we do find paint on sculptures, we do not "restore" it (i.e. paint more of that same color), but document it, and make sure it is stable. Because medieval sculptures were often painted over in the course of time, we have to do a stratigraphic analysis of the paint layers, that is try to understand how the sculpture looked like in the 13th, 14th, 15th century up to modern times.
    Thank you for your interest, I hope this helps!

    Posted: May 19, 2014, 11:03 a.m.

  • Adriana Guizar Vargas says:

    In my opinión this people do an excellent job, congratulations!

    Posted: May 31, 2014, 4:05 p.m.

  • robert burt says:

    I Prefer the old Patina !

    Posted: June 2, 2014, 5:12 a.m.

  • Lucía Villa says:

    I like all about fixing in Art. I díd it in pintures, wood, and other. Thank you, This has Been a wonderfull opportunity!

    Posted: June 2, 2014, 11:19 a.m.

  • Elisa Adams says:

    Are you still working in the public view? If so, for how long? I would love the opportunity to visit--thank you.

    Posted: June 22, 2014, 12:59 p.m.

  • Fran Reidy says:

    The times I am lucky enough to be at the museum when curators are 'curating' are always special to me. I love history and am happy to see preservation actually taking place. Everyone at the Cloisters does a fabulous job of making the experience worthwhile.

    Posted: July 9, 2014, 2:44 p.m.

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About the Author

Lucretia Kargère is a conservator at The Cloisters museum and gardens.

About this Blog

In Season features all the latest news about The Cloisters museum and gardens, the branch of the Museum in northern Manhattan devoted to the art and architecture of medieval Europe.