The Hermitage collection of wood-based tempera paintings is represented by numerous, and often, unique monuments of West European Medieval and ancient Russian painting. Many paintings and icons were thoroughly overpainted and retouched during previous restorations which led to distortion of the original painting. The problem of identifying the original author’s intent is one of the primary challenges that the museum restorers have to face.
In 1994, the Laboratory for Scientific Restoration of Tempera Painting (LSRTP) was established in order to restore such monuments. The premises allocated for the Laboratory were fully repaired using the latest construction technologies. The original project was developed by a creative team headed by V.P. Lukin, Chief Architect of the Museum.
Much of the credit in the formation and development of the Laboratory belongs to T.D. Chizhova, art restorer of the highest category, Head of the Laboratory from 1994 - 2003. T.D. Chizhova worked in the area of easel painting restoration from 1959 to 1994 under the direction and by the side of such experts as F.A. Kalikin, S.F. Konenkov, S.P. Orlov and A.M. Malova who stood at the origins of scientific restoration of tempera painting at the State Hermitage Museum. The experience of masters of the older generation and practical maintenance of many techniques developed by their predecessors are the fundamental bases of the Laboratory work. The system of strengthening iconography with adhesive solutions of different concentrations as well as the methods of removing dark varnishes (drying oil) and layers that were painted over the tempera paintings, which are still used today, belong to F.A. Kalikin.
In the mid-1990s - early 2000s, a group of new employees came to the workshop and this is how the existing team was formed. Most of them are graduates of N.K. Roerich Art College of Saint Petersburg and disciples of I.V. Yarygina, a brilliant restorer and a talented teacher.
The duties of Laboratory restorers are not limited to restoration. Together with custodians, they regularly check the condition of the monuments at the exposition and in the vaults.
A considerable amount of work goes to preparation for temporary exhibitions in the State Hermitage Museum, as well as in museums in Russia and abroad. Thanks to the work of Laboratory art restorers, many paintings and icons were first shown to the public in the museum halls at temporary exhibitions.
Restoration work is carried out in stages. Before proceeding to restoration, complete data on the technical and technological features of the monument is gathered. The structure of the work of art is studied in detail using microscopy, micro-sections and studies in the ultraviolet and infrared ranges. The simplest quick chemical analyses are carried out in the Laboratory itself, but more complex studies are carried out in the Department of Scientific and Technical Expertise of the State Hermitage Museum. The restoration task is formulated based on the findings and then approved by the Restoration Commission.
The next stage which takes a lot of effort is conservation of tempera paintings, a complex technical process, including measures to strengthen the foundation, prime coat and paint layer using proven and time-tested restoration materials and techniques.
The conservation is followed by stripping of works of art from multilayer overpainting. Overpainting is sometimes very complicated, especially in the early monuments. Detection of all layers and the search for the boundaries of the original painting is long and painstaking work. Removal of the layers that were painted later is sometimes possible only under a microscope, layer-by-layer. This process can be compared with studies of cultural layers during archaeological excavations. The final restoration stage is toning which is compensation for the layer loss without attempting to repair or reconstruct the works of art.
Constant microscope control of the entire restoration process and detailed photo recording in the process of disclosure are very important for studying the history of the monument, its dating and attribution. Documentation of all operations, and monitoring of the monument at all stages are indispensable components of the restoration process.
LSRTP specialists are guided by the main principles: minimal intervention in the structure of the restored monument, as its authenticity is the highest value, and revelation of the original image of a work of art, its individual characteristics and their preservation.