Times Past

Triptych depicting namesake of SLO gets major restoration

Mission San Luis Obispo art restorer Nageh Bichay shows his work on the triptych of St. Louis.
Mission San Luis Obispo art restorer Nageh Bichay shows his work on the triptych of St. Louis.

St. Louis the Bishop, our California mission town and county’s namesake, died of a fever in Brignoles, France, in 1297. He was canonized as a saint in near-record time by Pope John XXII in 1317.

His brother, Robert of Anjou, had become king of Naples when Louis, the elder brother, renounced his crown to become a Franciscan brother. Mindful of the debt, Robert commissioned Simone Martini, a leading figure among the pioneers of Italian Gothic painting, to create an altar masterpiece featuring Louis “crowning” him as king.

Louis and Robert’s mother was St. Margaret of Hungary. Their nephew, Charles, became King Charles I of Hungary and named his son and heir Louis. Both father and son encouraged devotions to their holy uncle as a way of reverencing the Hungarian monarchy.

The veneration of our St. Louis spread from Italy, France and Spain to central and Eastern Europe. Great artists such as Simone Martini, Piero della Francesca and Antonio Vivarini painted images of Louis. Vivarini’s (1450) now hangs in the Louvre.

Many of the large devotional images were encased triptychs. These are three-panel hinged paintings that usually have their main theme on the central panel and supporting themes on the side panels. The St. Louis triptychs usually have him renouncing his crown in the central panel and his works of mercy such as distributing bread to the poor on the side panels.

The wood surface of a triptych is often coated with a paste made from gypsum given the Italianate name, gesso. The gesso can be amended with additional plaster to produce a three-dimensional, basrelief effect.

During the 1980s, a Franciscan church in New York City was modernizing its house of worship. The Franciscans had gone to New York just after our Civil War to serve the needs of the new Italian immigrants.

They asked whether the parish of San Luis Obispo in far-off California would like a triptych of our patron saint. The Rev. Jim Nesbit, our pastor, eagerly accepted the gift. The triptych of St. Louis the Bishop has hung in our parish hall ever since.

The parish hall was once the seat of early American government in San Luis Obispo. It served as our first schoolhouse and our first jail. The structure was rehabilitated by famed mission restorer Sir Harry Downie with funds from William Randolph Hearst in 1947. By 2012, it was clearly in need of a new makeover. The Rev. Russell Brown and his committee have done full justice to this historic space.

The St. Louis the Bishop triptych dating from the late 18th or early 19th century was also suffering from its long history. The surface needed a major cleaning. Much of the supporting surface on the backside of the panels was broken, as was one of the saint’s gesso fingers.

The triptych needed highly specialized conservation. Fortunately, the mission has an art restorer. Nageh Bichay comes from Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt. Having participated in the restoration of some of the very ancient Coptic Church sites associated with the flight of the Holy Family into Egypt, told in the Gospel of St. Matthew, Nageh brings just the skills needed to bring our triptych of the bishop back to life.

Last week, we spoke of the 1774 José de Páez painting of San Luis Obispo commissioned by Father Junipero Serra and the 1790s-era statue of our saint facing the sanctuary. Now we also have a well-conserved triptych that took a different path to our “city of the bishop.”

Dan Krieger’s column is special to The Tribune. He is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association.