Miguel de Santiago: A master’s works are restored to life

22/Mayo/2012 | 16:13

In the courtyard of the Saint Augustine Convent in Quito the sun’s rays are intense. But sometimes it rains, and through the open air patios the moisture and contamination of the city invisibly seep into this otherwise pristine sanctuary. The enveloping elements leave their mark upon everything within these sacred walls, including the more than forty, priceless paintings by Quito’s Renaissance-era artist, Miguel de Santiago.


The paintings in this 17th century convent originally numbered 60, though only 52 have survived to the present day. In the gallery lining the courtyard of the convent, 42 works have been displayed for centuries, exposed to the ambient climate. Following centuries of deterioration, these large format canvases (they average 2.5 x 2.1 meters each) were in dire need of intervention, prompting a restoration effort that began two years ago to preserve and recover them.

“Miguel de Santiago was here five years making these pictures,” explains Rosa Torres, head of the restoration team at Saint Augustine. She says the artist worked from 1653-56 illustrating the life of Augustine of Hippo, founder of the Augustinian Order, from birth to death.

Many consider Miguel de Santiago not only the greatest of Ecuadorian painters, but equal in talent to the great European artists, like Michelangelo or Rembrandt, which makes it all the more surprising that this intervention did not happen sooner.

But this is not Italy and funds for restoration of Quito’s heritage were not always plentiful. Serious restoration work in Ecuador did not even begin until the 1970s and, due to advances in techniques and materials, some of what was done then is being redone today at considerable cost.

Each of the works in Saint Augustine is unique in terms of its content and deteriorated condition. The approach taken by Torres and her team is to give each painting the treatment it merits, a method that is as expensive as it is exhausting.

“Each work has an individual pathology, individual problems that must be resolved,” says Torres. And for her, economic considerations should not interfere with the need to preserve and restore a masterpiece.

Following two years of intense labor, only two paintings have been finished with many others at various stages of completion. Each painting requires 9-15 months of work and costs tens of thousands of dollars to restore - a cost born from the refusal to act sooner. Until now the paintings had hung for more than 300 years under the atrium without serious intervention.


But now, a section of that atrium has been converted to a workshop where a small team of experts are working fulltime to rescue these hidden masterpieces. The workshop is open to the public. Visitors can view the restoration effort up close, talk with the professional restorers, and get a lesson in the daunting work of artistic conservation and preservation.


“The object is to create a conscience of what heritage is, how it can deteriorate when it is not cared for, so that the public makes it their cause to conserve their heritage and respect it,” explains Torres. 


It is a modified throwback to the 17th and 18th centuries, when Quito, apart from being a religious city under construction, was a town of workshops whose cumulative production established what would eventually be known as the “Escuela Quiteña,” or Quito School of Art. 


Restoring a painting from the 17th century is challenging not merely because of its age, but due to its complexity. 

Restorers begin by reinforcing the frame and support, which is often rotten or compromised by wood-boring insects. The canvas is meticulously repaired and the original paint is consolidated – an arduous task of re-uniting the paint to its original fabric. Finally, a new canvas is applied to the reverse-side of the original to lend more support. All of these measures are meant to conserve the picture – to stop the degradation that time brings to a painting.

The next stage is to restore the pictorial image, which involves making decisions about what to keep and what to remove. Many of the visible images in these paintings are not the hand of Miguel de Santiago, but rather re-painted interventions that occurred after the original work was completed.

“You have to be able to have the capacity to discern,” says Torres, “what to do with the repainting, take it away or not take it away,” says Torres. “The tendency is to recuperate the original but this cannot always be done nor should it always be done…because many re-paintings do not reveal the original beneath.”

At the Saint Augustine workshop visitors will see works like, La Traslacion de las Reliquias del Santo, and will learn that part of the image on the canvas is a 20th century addition which will be preserved because analysis shows that little or nothing of the original by Miguel de Santiago is left beneath.


In San Agustin Entrega La Regla the restoration involves removing almost the entire, visible pictorial layer because it is an intervention that covers the original. A similar situation occurs with San Agustin Ante San Geronimo. The work of Miguel de Santiago was covered at some point in the past by another painter but is now being uncovered and visitors have a chance to see the work in progress.


Restoration work is demanding. Miguel Garcia, one of the restorers, says, “I am working on a painting that is 350 years old…the painter takes me to his time, how he worked in these paintings in an environment with inadequate light and materials.” Garcia works under similar conditions in their makeshift workshop.


Karina Noboa alternately sits and stands for eight hours a day, cleaning canvases and removing dirt, varnish and paint from other artists that have hidden the hand of the master for centuries.   It is tedious and tiring, but she sees it in another light. “This is a privilege to be here….it is a profession in which one must have a vocation…I believe that everyone here has a vocation, above all else one that is mystical.”


Restoration is not merely the act of recovering a pictorial image. Four of the 15 paintings removed from the convent walls have revealed markings on the reverse side of the canvas, which seem foreign to the eyes of a 21st century observer.  

Angel Justo, a member of the Department of Art History at the University of Seville and author of the book Miguel de Santiago en San Agustin de Quito, says, “The markings appear to be from commercial vendors who imprinted them on the fabrics which traveled with their merchandise and then later, due to the scarcity of available linen, they were used in some paintings.”  They tell, in part, the economic story of the time.

To conserve these markings the restoration team has opted not to cover the original canvas with new linen, as is the standard procedure, but rather utilize a transparent one made of synthetic fiber in order to visually preserve the markings for future study. This adds additional time and cost to the restoration. Torres, however, reminds people that the markings are part of the story, which the restoration team feels is important to conserve and one that was most certainly overlooked in the past.

“The works of art are not only works of art,” says Torres. “They are not only artistic documents, they are historical documents.” For her, this is part of paying respect to Ecuadorian heritage.

Torres insists, “A heritage like ours needs to be conserved as it deserves to be and with the investigation necessary to do so…If you investigate all of the works of art worldwide that have been conserved, it occurs to nobody that finds an interesting fact about a Rembrandt to say, no, we must cover it.” 

Her nuanced and sophisticated approach to restoring the works of Miguel de Santiago is perhaps surpassed only by her determination and resolve to see that it is executed flawlessly. She says without apology, “We, too, have our own Rembrandts.”

The Saint Augustine Convent is located at the corner of Chile and Guayaquil Streets in the historical center of Quito. To observe and learn about the restoration visit Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. and 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m. The convent is also open Saturdays 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. For more information call 2-295-5525.


Restoration Team of Saint Augustine Convent

Rosa Torres, Director

Manuel García

Mario Basantes

Karina Noboa

Juan Cuzco

María del Carmen Viteri

Maria Ángeles Jaramillo

Verónica Burbano de Lara


Ciudad Quito

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