Restoring Old Paintings

Restoring Old Paintings
by Theodora Goss

The passage of time has faded them:
it has dimmed the Madonna’s shining face
with candle smoke, it has spread a thin layer
of grime over the elegant lady’s white gloves,
smirched her lace. The king’s spaniel is dirty,
as he never was in life.

They are no longer as beautiful
as they once were: the lady’s hair is no longer
a glorious riot of golden threads
woven through with pearls. The spaniel’s fur
is no longer white and brown, just brown,
and the infant Jesus, putting his hand
up to his mother’s cheek, looks as though
he would like to wipe away the smudge
of centuries.

And so the art restorer comes
to lift it all away — the grime, the soot, the dirt,
repair decay, repaint discolorations
where a canvas was exposed to sunlight
or humidity. It takes a particular eye,
an ability to see and sense
what is time, what is the artist,
to restore what was to its (nearly)
original splendor. There is something heroic
in the endeavor, almost godlike.

Imagine: all those centuries
of worship suddenly gone, like candle smoke
floating up into the vault of the cathedral.
The revolutions during which a king’s spaniel
must be hidden in the cellar, behind barrels
of wine, undone. The lady’s age erased,
although the lady herself lies
in a stone coffin, air and bone,
alive now only in effigy.

There is a kind of arrogance
that drives us to deny the past
and process, a denial
of death, even when it is our own,
and inevitable. We like to think
that we too are precious works of art,
that someday a Great Restorer will come
to strip away our old varnish, repair
any rips in our canvas, return
us to what we once were,
bright and fresh
as the artist’s vision.

The image is Madonna and Child by Pompeo Batoni.

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