Altarpieces, also known as retablos, are unique cultural objects in which a variety of artistic, technical, and material expressions are combined. Given their physical complexity and important social and religious functions, the conservation of altarpieces presents considerable challenges. These challenges can only be met through the application of a sound methodological approach that considers the altarpiece in all its aspects—from the work of art itself to its built environment and social context.
After the Getty Conservation Institute's (GCI) project on the main altarpiece of the Church of Santo Domingo in Mexico, the GCI sought a way to build upon this work and to address the specific conservation issues associated with polychromed wooden altarpieces. In 2002 the Instituto Andaluz del Patrimonio Histórico (IAPH) and the GCI joined together to convene a diverse group of conservation professionals from Latin America and Europe for a workshop with the goal of defining a clear methodology in the form of a reference document or set of guidelines that would assist in developing a conservation strategy for any altarpiece, simple or complex.
Over three days in Seville, Spain, participants exchanged ideas through case study presentations, visits to altarpieces in the region, and discussion sessions. From these discussions, a representative group of participants drafted the Documento de Retablos 2002, a series of basic principles for altarpiece conservation, advocating an integrated methodological approach to promote the sustainable conservation and continued use of these works of art.
During the meeting, participants also concluded that there was a need to establish a common language and to collect bibliographic references in order to increase the knowledge base and to facilitate communication among professionals, and between professionals and stakeholders. As a result, the GCI and IAPH developed three publications to share the most important ideas and issues that emerged from the workshop.
An interactive tool, "Altarpieces: Illustrated Basic Terminology," provides detailed visual information on the definition and history of altarpieces, and compiles key terminology and more than 3,000 reference images to illustrate the most significant aspects of altarpieces in a multilingual format. A bibliography compiles key references useful for understanding the history and construction of altarpieces, the choice of appropriate research tools, causes of deterioration, and relevant intervention techniques.
Finally, a monograph, Methodology for the Conservation of Polychromed Wooden Altarpieces, available in English and Spanish, compiles the case studies presented at the workshop and illustrates the great diversity of material expressions, cultural contexts, and conservation approaches existing today. All demonstrate the ever-present challenge of reconciling theory with practice in complex physical and cultural environments.
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