FOR more than 160 years, worshippers filed past the giant painting as it hung at the back of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Kelso.
But as the decades passed, the image, of the lowering of the body of Christ from the cross, darkened until it was barely visible, while encroaching damp started to eat away at the canvas and paint started to crumble and flake off.
Painted in the closing years of the 16th century, the picture is a copy of the famous work, Deposition from the Cross, executed by Daniele da Volterra between 1545 and 1548.
The original, which has links to Michelangelo, was painted as a fresco for the altar of the Orsini Chapel in Trinita dei Monti and is now in Rome’s Bonfili Chapel.
The copy, which has hung in St Mary’s since the 1850s, has now been saved from further deterioration thanks to two generous legacies.
A local fund-raising effort has been launched to cover the remaining portion of the costs of the near-nine month restoration project, completed in December by well-known Borders restorer, Simon Blackwood.
Local businessman and St Mary’s congregation member, Colin McGrath, was instrumental in the restoration effort, taking over from the late Bill Adamson.
Mr McGrath says that while the painter of the Kelso copy is unknown, it would almost certainly have been painted by an artist from “the school of Volterra”.
“The age of the canvas and the paint confirms it is contemporary to the fresco,” Mr McGrath told TheSouthern this week. The picture, in its Victorian frame, was gifted to the newly rebuilt St Mary’s Church in the 1850s by Sir George and Lady Douglas of Springwood Park at Kelso.
In 2006, the painting was taken down and stored in various locations until funds were raised for its restoration. But the credit crunch coupled with the religious theme of the painting stymied efforts to obtain grants and lottery cash. Then two legacies were allocated to the project and the shortfall is being made up by the selling of squares of a jigsaw reproduction of the painting, at £10 each.
“It’s wonderful to see the painting restored and thanks must be given to the late Bill Adamson, who sadly did not live to see the culmination of this work, and to Margaret McMenemy, who were both substantially involved in this restoration project,” added Mr McGrath.
Emerging from the years of grime and dirt, the picture shows three ladders propped against the cross from which five men are carefully lowering the body of Christ, while at the base of the cross are the three Marys whose anguish is plain to see.
What makes the painting even more special is that the original drawings on which the work is based were done by Michelangelo.
Mr Blackwood, whose studio is near Bedrule, not only had to remove more than 60 nails hammered through the front of the painting to secure it to the stretcher behind, but also had to repaint areas from which paint was missing, including the foot of Christ.
“It was a big job. As well as being very dirty, the canvas had warped so that it looked like corrugated iron,” said Mr Blackwood. “Removing the nails was difficult as each one had to be surrounded by a protective tissue before a micro-saw was used to cut them out from the back very gently..
“But I’m very pleased with the finished result.”
The priest at St Mary’s, Father Michael John Galbraith, is also delighted the work has been saved for future generations. “This painting has long been a feature of the church and many local people, their parents and grandparents will have known it well.
“I’m very pleased to see the painting restored so that many more people will be able to enjoy it.”