ANTIGUA, Guatemala — The Cathedral of San Francisco in the colonial town of Antigua, Guatemala, was first built by the Spanish in the 16th century, but it’s as alive today as a center of worship as it ever was. One late Thursday afternoon in early July, an earnest congregation of indigenous and ladino locals sang hymns in its main chapel, a heavy atmosphere of prayer and adoration enveloping the room.
From the wooden pew where I sat, I couldn’t help noticing the elaborately gilded, 18th century altarpiece just to the left of the main altar. Its seven panels, painted by a since-forgotten artist, depict the life of the Virgin Mary. Five of them are so obscured by candle soot and dirt that their forms are almost impossible to decipher — much like the vast majority of paintings in the church.
By contrast, the bottom two panels stood out as though illuminated from within. They had been cleaned in 2014 by an international trio of conservators that restored their original colors, unshrouding the Biblical scenes they depict. In one, the angel Gabriel appears to a young Mary, telling her she’ll bear the Christ; in the other, Mary visits her cousin Elizabeth, whose child John the Baptist leaps with joy in her belly. Centuries after they were first painted, these images communicate the wonder of those ancient stories.
Next week, conservators Kay Zahn, Therese Charbonneau, and Marion Mertens — who hail respectively from the United States, Canada, and New Zealand — will return to finish the job. “Our mission is simple: to honor the transformative power of art,” Zahn writes on the page for the group’s recently funded Kickstarter project. “This, and a deep appreciation for history and the preservation of material culture, guides each member of our team.” The women will clean the middle tier of the altarpiece, a complicated job requiring scaffolding and endless hours of patient, tedious labor. The top tier will only be completed next summer.
When all’s said and done, the paintings will shine as luminously as they first did three centuries ago. And that has important implications for local worshippers. “Now they’re very dark, very black, but every image is meaningful for us,” local doctor Arturo Sammora told me.
“When we want to remember someone — for instance, my father or my mother — I look at a photograph, and the paintings are the same,” said Iliana Echeverria, a life-long Antiguan. “This is one of the criticisms that other Christians have against us. They think we’re worshipping the images, but they’re just a representation to us. And they are important to preserve.”