Photos by Steve Smith, VisionFire Studios
How St. Ninian Cathedral is bringing art, history, 14 saints and two angels back to life
To save the saints, you must go high — 40 feet up, that is. That’s where I find head art conservator Michelle Gallinger, working with conservator Dr. Ruth Del Fresno-Guillem in the scaffolding, near the ceiling of St. Ninian Cathedral, a grand stone edifice holding pride of place in the university town of Antigonish, N.S.
Gallinger and her three-to-four-person crew have been painstakingly restoring a national treasure: 119-year-old, larger-than-life wall murals by Quebec artist Ozias Leduc, known as the “Michelangelo of Canada.”
Leduc, designated a person of National Historical Significance, spent two years from 1901 to 1903 crafting artwork inside the Catholic church, which was built in 1874. It is the only place of worship he painted in Atlantic Canada.
The work is rare; fewer than five of Leduc’s interiors have survived. At St. Ninian, his brush strokes and airy vision are in peril, obscured underneath years of renovations — specifically seven layers of peeling paint that’s flaking off the walls, taking the original artwork with it.
Gallinger says it’s been a race with time to save them.
The conservators have been working since 2015 to restore 14 saints in the cathedral’s main nave — the 12 apostles, St. John the Baptist and St. Cecilia — and two angels over the sanctuary. All funding has come from private sources.
“It’s so exciting,” says Gallinger as we sit in pews near a before-and-after poster depicting the transformation of St. Matthew, one of 11 now-restored saints. The final three were expected to be complete by the end of August.
“They all looked very sad, dead and floating in a sea of flaking paint,” says the Dartmouth, N.S.-based Gallinger. Parts of the paintings were covered over in 1937 with the first renovation of the cathedral, and again, more seriously, in 1957. “They just looked so sad as these little white figures. We called them the floating saints.”
Additionally, the interior paint of the cathedral was already in bad shape, and something had to be done, says Ernst Schuegraf, head of St. Ninian’s restoration committee.
St. Ninian conducted a preliminary investigation in the late 1990s, bringing in experts from the Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), who declared the paintings recoverable.
While some leaned toward painting over the interior at less cost, the parish as a whole decided to pursue restoration, to preserve Leduc.
St. Cecilia, in the choir loft, was the first saint restored back in 2015, thanks to a private donation. The project provided a cost and time baseline (depending on condition, a saint can take 12 weeks to restore and cost $40-$50,000 including scaffolding expenses) and showed dramatic transformation.
Part of St. Cecilia’s hair had been missing, her colours were unattractive and she didn’t look natural. When restored? “She was wonderful,” says Gallinger, who says it was gratifying to bring her back to life. “Particularly her hands and feet, to get those beautiful lines back. She was lovely.”
St. Cecilia’s original architectural niche was uncovered, revealing the garden she appears to be stepping out from.
Leduc was all about light, says Gallinger, and with the saints, he was imitating traditional fresco paintings, even though the paintings are oil rather than fresco. She believes Leduc wanted a traditional European feel, to have an airiness that most churches in Canada don’t have.
For Gallinger, beauty and serenity are inherent in each saint. “Right now, it’s like they’re coming in to join us from their own respective gardens. Each have their own landscape. It’s like they’re joining us right now, saying ‘we’re here for you.’”
One of the reasons Schuegraf became interested is because of his historic home.
“I come from a city in Germany, Bamburg, which is thousands of years old,” says Schuegraf. “The house I grew up in dates to 1382. You have respect for the older stuff. If you don’t preserve at 100 years, you don’t have at 500 years.”
Schuegraf says the project really captured attention two years ago when the angels in front of the sanctuary were restored. The saints, high along side walls, aren’t in immediate line of sight, but the angels are.
“They really hit when you go in there,” he says.
Restoration is a laborious process, with conservators working nine-hour days atop scaffolding, often in hot conditions. Summer’s heat helps make the paint more pliable. They must carefully glue all curling flakes of paint down before they can even start the process, an elaborate mix of steaming, gluing, cleaning, restoring and tacking.
Gallinger says it’s wonderful to be involved. “Not everyone gets to have their hands on and restore a national treasure artist’s work.”
And still there is work to do as the saints aren’t the only part of Leduc’s art at St. Ninian. What happens next depends on funding.
Schuegraf says some of Leduc’s most significant work is hidden in the main nave ceiling, some completely overpainted with blue paint, including, Gallinger says, an original with two massive angels that haven’t been seen since 1937. The Stations of the Cross are also Leduc, painted in his Quebec studio, put on linen and transferred here. They need to be cleaned and frames covering parts of the painting removed.
For now, as St. Ninian approaches its 150th anniversary in 2024, they’re thankful to be saving the saints.
Schuegraf invites all interested to come in to look, and of course, they’re happy to take donations.