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Our Lady of Lourdes - restored for St. Peter in chains

The first statue of Our Lady of Lourdes

The statue at the grotto of Lourdes is the work of sculptor Joseph-Hughes Fabisch. He was renowned as a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts de Lyon, and became its director in 1874. The statue is his most famous work.

It was commissioned by the Lacour sisters who wanted a statue faithful to Bernadette's description. A small plaster statue had been placed in the grotto which seemed inadequate for the growing numbers of the faithful to the grotto.

Fabisch came to interview Bernadette on the appearance of the Virgin Mary on September 17, 1863. Two months later he sent a photograph of the model to Lourdes for approval. Bernadette admired the work, but concluded "No, it is not her". Bernadette said that the sculptor made Our Lady's smile too little and herself look too big.

Knowing that he had failed to capture the virgin's appearance, Fabisch was extremely irritated that he had failed, and that Bernadette had not approved.

Later, she would say it was impossible to replicate the Lady as She was. This was probably out of kindness to the artist, who had a great reputation.

In later years, Fabisch said that the girl's reaction was the "greatest sorrow of his life" and admitted that in his pride he had not really listened to Bernadette's description, but produced a work which he felt was a better interpretation of the Virgin.

Statues of Lourdes were only made from around 1876, the 18 apparitions at Lourdes having taken place between February and July 1858.

The statue of Our Lady at St.Peter's

Steve explained that the statue of Our Lady of Lourdes had once belonged to the Canons Regular of the Lateran at St. Monica's priory in Dorset. It had been installed at St. Peters around the year 1907, indicating that it is an early depiction of Our Lady of Lourdes.

The statue at St. Peter's does not slavishly follow the ideas of Fabisch, and I would like to think, is closer to Bernadette's description. Her face is that of tender young girl, rather than the matronly corseted figure which Fabisch sculpted. The sculptor has captured beautifully the fabric of a loose fitting gown, and a veil which appears to float gently on a heavenly breeze.

Our Lady statue before restoration
Our Lady statue before restoration

Caramel coated statues

For around 100 years, the statue at St. Peters had remained untouched. Between the years of 1960 to late 70's when the church was being re-ordered, it was noted that the decoration on the statue of Our Lady was in a state of deterioration. In an attempt to preserve it, this statue and several other of the churches artworks were given a coating of Polyurethane varnish.

Polyurethane varnish in a spray can was hailed during the 1970's as the solution to all things requiring a tough finish. Given time it turns into a glossy sticky-looking brown. Not unlike the caramel on toffee apples.

The darker the statue became, the poor quality of the spray work revealed itself, showing drips, streaks, curtaining and raised beads of varnish throughout the surface.

Sash of statue with varnish damage
Sash showing varnish damage -stars not original to statue

Colour changes and floral undulations

The statue of Our Lady of Lourdes at St. Peter's church had acquired a glossy appearance due to the unsuitability of the varnish used. Gloss finishes are seldom an original feature of wooden statuary, it is best reserved for furnishings. We have found many a statue whose complexion once had the blush of an English rose, and later acquired a "fake tan" thanks to oxidised varnish.

Perhaps this has given rise to the myth that all good statues only hail from sunny Italy! I favoured Germany as the origin of this statue, based upon the carving and decoration; However it also has the bearing of an early Stufflesser!

The figure and original diorama would have been commissioned by the Cannons regular in a period where art studios followed a classic somewhat romantic style of the period. Without a label of any kind, further research would have to be done to certify its origin.

The floral pattern around the veil of Our Lady was considered 'Modern' in the late 1800's.

Here is an example of two of my colour tests showing the effects of brown varnish and a layer of candle soot over the original colours. The celadon green becomes sap green, and the crimson turn a mahogany red.

replicated & restored decoration to veil edge
decorated veil edge restored and replicated

The original decorative artist had stretched or distorted the design to make it fit areas of the veil. Some areas appeared to have been tightly painted on the first day, and then became a little sloppy as the work progressed and the artist tired. This is because statues do not have flat surfaces, and painting around corners and curves is a physically demanding discipline. (Contortionists only need apply!)

The floral design on the veil is a complex undulating pattern that has a metered rhythm to it.

Because the polyurethane had bonded irreversibly with the remaining decorative surface; All of the original decoration would be removed along with the varnish. Rather than distort the pattern in areas, as the original artist had, I meticulously measured out each section before re- painting the original floral design, including all of the details on the robe of the statue. Below shows a record of the position of each monogram before they were re-instated.

Position of monograms
Position of monograms

Golden roses

Decoration of the statue was completed by the gilding of the roses in 23.75 K gold, along with the monogrammed crowns and scepters on the statue's gown. David made a Halo with twelve stars to replace the long lost original.

gilded roses on our lady's statue restored
gilded roses on our lady's statue restored

My next post: Angels get their wings

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