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Restoring the St. John's Mural
By Tim Post
Minnesota Public Radio
January 15, 2002
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Six stories up, an art restoration team sways on scaffolding but works with steady hands to restore a mural at St. John's University in Collegeville. The mural is considered one of the most detailed paintings of it's kind in the country. St. John's officials say it's more than decorative art. It represents the school's Benedictine tradition and beliefs.

The restoration crew has cleaned layers of dirt from the mural, letting the painting's original colors and layers of gold shine through. View a slideshow of images of the mural and hear restorationist Joan Gorman describe the huge painting.
(MPR Photo/Tim Post)

Normally when you walk into St. John's Great Hall, the first thing you see is a huge mural where an altar once stood. At 60-feet high and 45-feet wide, it covers the wall floor to ceiling. It's hard to miss.

But now the expansive painting is covered up by a maze of red scaffolding. A restoration crew creeps among the metal works. They're here to return brilliance and luster to the 70-year-old mural.

Workers with the Minneapolis-based Upper Midwest Conservation Association wipe the painting with a sponge dipped in a mixture of water and diluted ammonium hydroxide. After a piece of the the wall is cleaned, brilliant colors and real gold are uncovered.

As the restoration crew's leader, David Marquis stands at the very top of the scaffolding, six stories up, the structure sways. After a few days the crew got used to the movement and were able to concentrate on their work. Their job is to remove years of indoor pollution that's settled on the painting.

"What has essentially occurred over the years is just years and years of deposits of dirt, grime, candle smoke, incense - all the results of a very active church community." Marquis says.

The Great Hall, built in 1879, served as St. John's main church for nearly 80 years. In the 1930s, Brother Clement Frischauf painted the mural. It's a huge painting of Christ, surrounded by gold. He towers over several angels, palms trees and a flock of sheep. But what makes it truly unique is the incredible detail. Fine points you'll only pick up while standing on this 60 foot scaffold, a few feet away from the painting. Marquis says those details make the painting more complete.

"The pupils of the eyes, the eyelashes, modulations in the faces, the lines; there is nothing left to chance. The whole painting really has the same degree of care, every square inch has the same degree of care in my book. It's really unusual to see that," he says.

Preserving the work that went into this mural is what Marquis and is crew hope to do. First they clean the dust and grime from the mural. Then they patch any cracks with a plaster-like substance. They only paint the area's they've filled in. That way they never touch the artist's original work.

Brother Alan Reed, Curator of Art and Artifacts of the St. John's Abbey, watches the restoration from the floor 60 feet below. Reed says the mural is much more than decoration. Reed says this image of Christ helps define the Benedictines' belief about who their God is.

"He's much of less of a severe looking judge, and I think that's a Benedictine belief; that somehow, judgement doesn't mean condemnation. It means what you believe happens at death; that somehow it means that this loving God your more closely united with God," Reed says.

After a new church was built in the 1960s, the Great Hall became the main entrance to the university. Now it's used for university events and dinners. That kind of activity won't create the indoor pollution that dirtied the mural in the first place. St. John's officials hope the huge painting won't need a touch up for at least 50 years.

The restoration of the Great Hall's Mural at St. John's University should be done by the end of January.

More Information
  • College of Saint Benedict/Saint John's University