The Religious Life of Objects



Neighborhood: Morningside Heights

Nadine had dark curly hair, a slow quiet voice and more stubborn patience then anyone I knew. She was showing me her favorite textile, a small pre-Columbian piece, dated around 500 BC. It was no bigger than a doormat, but she had been working on it for over six months. “These repeated geometric patterns form a god’s face,” she said. “See, there are little rows of faces,” she pointed along the borders of the shroud, “but they are hard to discern. Especially in something this old.”

The textile, on the worktable before us, had missing pieces and was laid out like a partially finished jigsaw puzzle. It was lightly stitched to a newer fabric of a similar, but slightly brighter, ochre hue. Nadine dyed the support fabric herself. “I spent weeks trying to get the color right,” she said. “This was a burial cloth. It was under the earth and next to a decomposing body, so the colors got splotchy and hard to match. Those missing areas—that’s where contact with the mummy destroyed the cloth.”

A delivery truck began backing up outside the building. The beep-beep reverse warning provoked a response that sounded like screaming children. “Those are just the peacocks,” Nadine said, “they hang out on the porch when it rains and they hate the trucks. Plus,” she added, as further explanation for their frenzied mood, “the peahens were taken away. I think they were too territorial or something…I’m not sure what happened, but they didn’t work out.”

Nadine was giving me a tour of the Textile Conservation Lab at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine. It was housed in a building about the size of a small library, with twenty-eight foot ceilings, whitewashed walls and an anomalous balcony above two tiny rooms. The rest of the space was wide open. “This used to be an orphanage,” Nadine said. It was hard to imagine children in such a cavernous space, especially during a cold, 1800’s winter. Their beds must have lined up along one wall with the dining tables along the other. That didn’t seem very cozy or private. Nadine wondered about that too, “maybe there was a second floor,” she speculated, citing the balcony as remnant and evidence, along with the three-story high ceiling.

The building was formerly known as the Leake & Watts Orphan Asylum. It was built in 1831, when John George Leake left his entire fortune to make a home for orphaned children. In 1892, the orphans were moved to a 40 acre farm in Yonkers and the first stone was laid for the Cathedral. The former Asylum became construction headquarters. It was slated to be torn down when the Cathedral was finished, but it never was.

When you look at it from the outside it appears to be the Cathedral’s southern transept, until you look closely and realize they are not connected at all and look very different. The Leake & Watts building is much older. It looks like a small Greek temple with fluted marble columns and a triangular pediment, which contrasts with the Cathedral’s gothic architecture and limestone walls.

The Textile Conservation Laboratory was established in 1980 and took up residence in the old orphanage. Its primary mission is to care for the Cathedral’s textiles. Including two 17th century tapestry collections: The Life of Christ, from the Barberini looms in Italy, originally woven for Pope Urban VIII, and the Mortlake series, Acts of the Apostles, eight pictorial tapestries based on the original 16th century set designed by Raphael and commissioned by Pope Leo X for the Sistine Chapel.

The conservators were working on one of Barbarini tapestries which was mounted onto tensioners: two large rollers that scroll the tapestry, leaving a few feet exposed, tilted at an angle conducive to working. Two conservators were seated in front of it, weaving needle and thread carefully across the holes. “The empty spaces have to be addressed,” said Nadine, “but we don’t close them up or hide the damage, we just want to reinforce the strength of the piece without interrupting the image.”

“Less is more when it comes to conservation,” says Marlene Eidelheit, the petite, soft spoken director of the Lab. Like Nadine, she exhibits a steely patience which, I suppose, is required for this type of work. She talks to me in her makeshift office space partitioned by overstocked bookshelves. Her desk is covered completely with stacks of papers. “Everything is documented,” she says. “Many of these pieces have been through several restorations.” She tells me that the tapestries carry a provenance of ministrations that amounts to a literal dialogue between conservators that spans centuries and follows the piece throughout its lifetime. The conservation work has to be done with this history in mind. “We want it to be clear where the original work ends and the conservation begins,” she says.

For the documented and the undocumented textiles, Eidelheit tells me that detective work is a large part of the conservators job. “There is a little unsolved mystery in every piece,” she says and gives, as example, another pre-Columbian textile, a painted panel that came in for conservation. “It didn’t fit into too many categories and we couldn’t figure out what it had been used for. We needed to know, because it had a cleaning issue. A white coating, some kind of salt, we couldn’t tell if it was there on purpose or if it was a stain. If it was there on purpose, then removal would have been out of the question.”

The mechanics of stains often preclude their removal. “After awhile stains bond chemically with the fiber,” Marlene tells me. “You can’t take them out, but on the other hand, you don’t necessarily want to. The stains are part of the history, the provenance of the piece. Especially for some of the pre-Columbian textiles used in religious ceremonies that involved human sacrifice. The blood stains on those pieces are part of the religious life of the object, which is what we are here to preserve.”

As I was leaving, I noticed one of the peacocks on the grass in front of the rectory. He held his tail up in full display and was strutting tensely around a nervous female pigeon with bluish plumage.

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