Behdaidat Church’s Frescoes Restoration with Art Conservator Isabelle Doumet-Skaf

Nelida Nassar  10.20.2014

For the last 20 years, Isabelle Doumet-Skaf has consecrated her professional life to the study and practice of art conservation. Her latest undertaking was the mural renovation of the Behdaidat Church of Saint Theodorus with its group of thirty-three different figures in the Caza of Jbeil, Lebanon. Ms. Doumet-Skaf was assisted by an Italian team of experts. A visit to the church, a viewing of a documentary film explaining the restoration different stages and several conversations with her triggered a desire to share this project and the many more to come with our audience.

Nelida Nassar: How did you become an art conservator?
Isabelle Doumit-Skaf:
I’ m a great fan of arts and crafts in general. I’m very interested in art history and material techniques and I was always interested in combining academic and ‘hands on’ disciplines. The field of conservation allowed me to do both.

NN: What technical training is required? What equipment and skills need to
be mastered?

IDS: Conservators attend a recognized conservation course at a university. The approach and requirements differ depending on the various programs that teach conservation. In general it is compulsory to master some fine arts skills with a scientific background in chemistry or biology.

NN: Is conservation more an art form or a science? In other words, does a conservator need to be an artist or scientist, or both?
IDS: Conservation is an interdisciplinary line of work and conservators have backgrounds in fine arts, sciences (chemistry, biology and materials technology) and other disciplines such as art history or archaeology. All conservation work carried out, must follow existing international conservation principles outlined in the Venice Charter of 1964.

NN: How did you get involved in the restoration of the Behdaidat Church (team, funding, experts and more)?
IDS: The church is well known by scholars and the paintings were in bad condition and in need of conservation. This situation led the Archdiocese of Jbeil – under pressure from the local community – to allow unprofessional restoration work to be undertaken. The result was the complete over painting of the figure of St Georges by a local artist. The Directorate of Antiquities was able to stop this intervention and realized it was time to initiate a scientific and professional conservation project to protect the integrity of the paintings and prevent such random and potentially damaging intervention from occurring again. With the backing of the Directorate of Antiquities, my company CONSERVATION SARL applied for funds from the US Embassy in Lebanon (Ambassador’s fund for cultural preservation) for the first stages of the project and then from the A.G Leventis Foundation and from local sponsors: The Philippe Jabre Association , Carol and Antoine Kareh, Alice and Roger Edde. CONSERVATION SARL contributed also financially and managed the project. ICCROM based in Rome (International Centre for the Conservation of Cultural Property) was also a partner through the ATHAR program. The team consisted of three Italian Conservators: Giorgio Capriotti, Caterina Michelini Tocci, Sylvia Tribolati and four Lebanese conservators: Isabelle Doumet – Skaf, Nathalie Hanna, Badr Jabbour Gedeon and Ghada Salem.

NN: Traditionally frescoes art form is wet on dry were there any areas of secco corrections added by the artist or someone else that you discovered in the course of
the restoration?
IDS: No from the sample analysis conducted in Italy, there was no indication of areas painted ‘a secco’. The whole paintings in the church were executed ‘a fresco’. Other interventions were modern restorations.

NN: Behdaidat’s frescoes have suffered years of wear, decay, and potentially over-paint, is the new freshness, artistic brilliance of the colors and the clarity of the forms totally in keeping with historical documents that affirm the full majesty and splendor of the artist’s creation? Or no document existed and if so what guided the restoration process?
IDS: Cleaning of old waxes and calcite on the surface revealed a great deal of the originally preserved surface and there was no need for reconstitution or use of the Trattegio technique for reintegration. We used the ‘Aqua Sporca’ technique or ‘dirty water’ on the abrasions to give unity to the whole composition and improve the paintings legibility. Some light retouching was used on existing painted areas with watercolor.

NN: The frescoes may have been obscured by uneven layers of soot, glue, salt deposits and potential previous restorations. Were there any old restorations, which lie on top of discolored layers that may have been added to reinforce certain details that had become illegible beneath the heavy veil of blackened glue and blanching due to the salts and humidity?
IDS:
The church was first cited by Ernest Renan in 1864 and was immediately recognized as being of importance. Since then there were several attempts to conserve the paintings with applications of waxes and resins on the surface and the use of cement to fill gaps and consolidate the walls. We do not have any precise archives detailing these interventions but they were identified during the conservation process. The main cause of degradation was humidity and water infiltrations resulting in salt efflorescence which caused damage to areas of the paintings especially on the bottom part of the figure of St Theodore.

NN: Have these conditions combine to falsify the grandeur of the artist’s intention
by flattening the forms and reducing the colors to a monochrome that may have misled generations?
IDS: The applications of different materials overtime darkened the surface considerably preventing art historians from identifying correctly many iconographic details. Previous published descriptions and interpretations will have now to be corrected that the paintings are fully cleaned.

NN: How much the presence in few areas of water seepage, condensation and the efflorescence of salts and calcite have brought about a variety of irreversible surface effects, such as mottling and hazing of some colors? How did you remedy them?
IDS: The only way to remedy to water seepage sand salt efflorescence on a long term basis is to work on the building itself. Our intervention aimed at preventing further water infiltration through the walls. We redid the waterproofing on the roof, removed the cement pointing on the façade and replaced it with hydraulic lime mortar to allow water evaporation. The walls of the church are very thick and the water and dampness accumulated inside the walls over many years should be gradually reduced. It is a lengthy and slow process. Adequate long term maintenance will be crucial.

NN: How long was the work period including all the scientific testing, studies and actual restoration?
IDS: We started our preliminary mission in 2008 the work was completed in 2013. We mainly worked during the summer months.

NN: Can one particular artist hand be attributed to the Behdaidat Church or any specific visual elements or style?
IDS:
The paintings were executed by one hand (or one group of people) during one period. We don’t have any information on the artists. There are unfortunately no archives preserved. The style of painting is the object of a heated debate between art historians. Some call it a ‘syriac’ style others believe it’s a merely a local byzantine style.

NN: What is the biggest challenge or obstacle in art conservation and what was it in
the Behdaidat Church in particular?
IDS:
The biggest challenge in conservation is to intervene in a way that preserves the integrity and authenticity of the piece and ensure reversibility of interventions as much as possible. The logistics in Behdaidat were very difficult specially related to electrical and water supply. We had our own power generator we used during power cuts which are unfortunately very frequent in this area. The work in itself was also physically very challenging and difficult.

NN: What makes the Behdaidat Church frescoes important how are they related to other medieval churches around Lebanon? 
IDS: Paintings like the ones in the Behdaidat Church belong to the period of Christian revival at the time of the Crusades (11th – 12th c) and are examples of what remain of a long tradition of Christian church paintings. In this context the paintings of Behdaidat are, according to the art historian E Cruikshank Dodd particularly significant: “This is the only remaining church decoration in the Lebanon that was painted at one time, by the same hands or workshop, showing a coherent program and a conscious interrelationship between all the frescoes in the church”. A large portion of the iconographic program is preserved and this makes it also unique.

NN: Does Behdaidat Church have any western artistic influences or did it influence the West and where?
IDS: It is the work of art historians to interpret and analyze the iconography and stylistic influences in the frescoes. Different articles related to Behdaidat were published. They are all very interesting but quite inconclusive.

NN: Is there something else you would have wished to do in the church’s conservation process that could not have been done?
IDS:
During the years we worked in Behdaidat we did our best to raise awareness among the local community to the necessity of changing habits that could potentially damage the paintings such as hitting the walls with chairs, burning candles excessively damaging the bottom part of the paintings when cleaning the floor of the church etc… People were quite receptive at the time. I hope they will continue to implement our recommendations to ensure the long term conservation of the frescoes. The future of the church is in their hands.

NN: Would you repeat this challenge? Are you working on a new similar project
and where?

IDS: Yes , I would repeat this challenge but will definitely need help with fund raising because it is a difficult task. I am currently working on the conservation of contemporary Lebanese sculptures at the Sursock Museum.

Do not wait to visit this remarkable church with its murals.
Beihdeidat Church of Saint Theodorus is open daily.
The church key can be found in the vicinity at the only grocery store of the village
For additional inquiries contact: Ms.Isabelle Doumet-Skaf
via e-mail: idoumetskaf@gmail.com

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5 thoughts on “Behdaidat Church’s Frescoes Restoration with Art Conservator Isabelle Doumet-Skaf

  1. Thank God for Isabelle Doumet- Skaf. The restoration project is commendable and Thanks Nelida for bringing to light the treasures of the country that most of us are unaware of its existence. Now I am curious to go see it on my next trip to Lebanon.

  2. This renovation is very important for Beihdeidat and people here are understandably excited. You can’t put a value on such a fine result.

  3. It seems that the restoration team was challenged more than once but the result is so beautiful, thank you for keeping our heritage alive.

  4. Revered by art historians, these frescoes may have never quite made it into popular culture without the renovation by Isabelle Doumet-Skaf. Thank you.

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