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  • Writer's picture Cynthia Lawrence

Conserving Icons for a Denver Cathedral

In the third phase of a long-range conservation and preservation project, mural style paintings on the ceiling and wall of Holy Transfiguration of Christ Cathedral.

In 2018, the Cathedral was undergoing renovations of the structure, with re-painting of all interior walls in the Church as part of the last work to be completed before the annual Festival. I was asked to consult on and organize an icon cleaning campaign for the Cathedral, to coordinate with the short period of time when the roof was being repaired and the interior . At this time, the icons would be removed from the Cathedral walls and temporarily placed in the church hall. The completion date was set to coincide with the annual festival. At the time, the walls of the Cathedral were covered with a heavy accumulation of sooty, black grime that had built up over a relatively short time, and it was presumed the icons were extremely dirty as well.

Construction of the Cathedral building began in 1898, initiated by a group of “Slavish” people who had been meeting for services in a German Reformed Church. The transformed from a Greek Catholic Church to a Russian Orthodox Church to an Orthodox Church through its history, becoming an integral part of Globeville spiritual and civic life and hosting several neighborhood, city, and non-profit groups which utilize the parish’s location for meetings and classes to this day.

Icons in the Cathedral include pieces from the 18th century to contemporary, “written” on prepared wood panels and other forms of rigid supports, on stretched canvases, and on canvas adhered to walls, as well as images printed on paper adhered to board, with paint media and surface coatings varying widely.

The Cathedral is in the Globeville neighborhood of north Denver, once a town in its own right, now one of the poorest neighborhoods in Denver. It is situated within a few blocks of both I-70 and I-25, coal trains, a petroleum refinery, a Purina pet food factory, and the Denver stockyards. All of these factors presumably have contributed to the striking buildup of soot and dirt on the church interior, including on all of the icons, likely the refinery and traffic pollution being the major contributors of pollution. Other environmental factors affecting later accumulations on the icons specifically, include olive oil and burning of candles, anointing with blessed oil, and historically, kissing of certain icons.

An immediate strategic plan was created to advise on safely handling and moving icons from the Cathedral to the hall, and to clean as many icons as possible of grime and miscellaneous accretions. It was determined that the focus would be on the dozens of small icons placed on ledges along both side walls of the Cathedral. The effort involved various teams of volunteers from the Cathedral parish, led by a talented, energetic and dedicated parishioner, Becky Schilling, who had been the volunteer coordinator for Make a Wish Foundation, as well as conservation carried out by Cynthia Lawrence. The scope of the first phase of preservation was limited by the Festival dates.

Larger icons hanging from walls, on pedestals, and as part of the iconostasis would be addressed in a second conservation campaign, carried out by Lawrence Art Conservation over a two-year period. In phase three, all of the “mural” icons, painted canvas adhered directly to wall and ceiling surfaces, were cleaned of soot and grime and conserved, requiring assembling and dismantling scaffolding to work around Church services and celebrations, and the Parish priest adjusting schedules to accommodate the work as well.

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