Uncovering of cathedral’s spectacular murals reveals Halifax’s tragic past

HALIFAX — Perched on a scaffold high above the altar in St. Mary’s Cathedral in Halifax, art conservator Jennifer Fotheringham was using a scalpel to chip away a thick layer of white paint when she heard something odd.

“As I was working, my blade would click on little pieces,” she said in a recent interview inside the ornate basilica, which is undergoing renovations in preparation for the 200th anniversary of its founding next year.

“As the outer layers of paint came off, I could see it was pieces of glass — quite a lot of glass, coloured and clear … big patches of it.”

At that moment, the most devastating event in the city’s history — the Halifax Explosion of Dec. 6, 1917 — suddenly came into sharp focus for Fotheringham, who has been working since June to restore five, century-old murals that depict several angels and Mary ascending into heaven.

The catastrophic explosion — caused by the collision of two wartime ships, one of which was laden with explosives — killed or injured more than 11,000 people and blew out windows more than 100 kilometres away.

Every stained glass window in the church was shattered that day, with the force of the blast embedding tiny shards into the walls and the murals. On the night of the blast, as the search for survivors became desperate, a blizzard enveloped the stricken city.

“You can see the drips where the water came in and was left to freeze on the murals,” says Fotheringham, who is originally from Halifax but taught in Europe after training as a conservator at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont.

“It all goes back to the explosion and the snowstorm that night.”

Rivulets of water from melting snow caused paint on the murals to lift off the plaster, leaving the paintings badly damaged.

Originally painted in the 1870s, the murals were covered with white paint in the 1950s, says Rev. John Williams, chairman of the St. Mary’s Cathedral Basilica Foundation.

“They didn’t have the technology to correct the damage that had been done as a result of the explosion and the water damage,” Williams says.

More than 60 years later, when Fotheringham was called in to remove the overpaint, the prognosis looked grim. Solvents typically used by conservators to lift paint didn’t work on the lead-based layers. That’s when Fotheringham started using scalpels — scores of them — to carefully lift the paint one tiny chip at a time.

“I listened to a lot of audio books,” she says of the long hours passed on the scaffold. ”Once you get going, you don’t notice the time — and then something is revealed.”

Each of the murals is more than five metres tall.

Working from the bottom up on the first mural, Fotheringham eventually uncovered one angel’s bright green robe — and then its thick wings. “And the most exciting part was the faces,” she says, drawing a deep breath as she recalled praying they would be mostly intact.

And they were.

In recent weeks, she has focused her attention on restoring missing details on the face of Mary.

Using measurements taken from the angel’s faces, which revealed the exacting proportions of Romanesque features, Fotheringham produced computer-generated images on paper to guide her work.

However, she is careful to note that her painstaking work involves filling in gaps where the colourful paintings have been damaged, not repainting the entire scene. As a result, the paintings show their age — slightly muted and a bit shabby, but otherwise whole and brimming with history.

That’s exactly what Rev. Williams was looking for. He prefers to use the word rejuvenation instead of restoration.

“When she agreed to do the restoration of the murals, I said, ‘I don’t want them to look like they were Photoshopped,” Williams says, adding that the stone church is a national historic site and the second-oldest Roman Catholic cathedral in Canada.

“They should look like they’ve been around for a while.”

The original plan was to dismantle most of the scaffolding before Christmas, revealing for parishioners a stunning religious artifact most have never seen before.

However, Fotheringham has more work to do.

Though the scaffold won’t come down until January, the transformation of the murals is plain to see.

“No doubt, it will be a gift for those who come to see this, and there will be a renewed appreciation of the cathedral as a place of worship,” Williams says.

“It will make this Christmas different from those of the last 50 or 60 years.”

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