After Descending to Earth, St. Paul (the Statue) Is Given New Life

Left: The statue of St. Paul in its niche, below the roof of St. Paul's Chapel. It will be replaced by a replica. Right: Last August, the statue was removed from its niche and lowered by crane to the ground. Photos: BCA and Trinity Wall Street (chapel); Tatti Conservation (statue)

Feb. 29, 2016

The spirit of St. Paul may live on divinely in the minds of the faithful, but at the 250-year-old Broadway chapel that bears his name, a seven-feet seven-inch statue of the apostle has suffered greatly from its long earthly life.

The painted wooden figure, a sword in one hand, the Book of the Gospels in the other, has looked over Broadway from its niche, 50 feet above the entrance to St. Paul’s Chapel, since the late 1700s. Ravaged by time, weather and pigeons, this unique survivor of our nascent republic was gingerly brought to the ground last summer and trucked a few miles uptown for a meticulous restoration.

This month, it will return to St. Paul’s, protectively placed in the sanctuary and imbued with newly uncovered historical significance.

“We feel that it is among the first, if not the first, carved wood sculptures that was done in this country,” said Claudia Kavenagh, director of Building Conservation Associates, the firm contracted by Trinity Wall Street to oversee the work. “And certainly it is the first using European sculptures as the prototype.”

The statue represents the very beginning of the country’s desire to present the latest style in art and architecture to the world, said Michele Merincola, a professor of conservation at New York University who served as a consultant on the project.

“These remnants of our early ambitions as a nation are really rare,” noted Merincola, an expert on the history and conservation of painted wooden sculptures. “That’s what makes it for me such a powerful object.”

Conservators and Trinity officials discovered the importance of the statue, last restored around 1930, during the recent restoration of the chapel’s Broadway facade.

“We said, while we have the scaffold up there this is a good time to start our investigations,” said Luke Johns, senior construction project manager for Trinity Wall Street. “Once we did that we started doing color samples, paint samples, we did x-rays, we did everything.”

Indeed, well before the statue was removed from its niche, Johns and conservators began their inspection. A sample of the piece, about the size of a pencil eraser, was sent to an expert on American wood, who confirmed that it was tulip poplar, a tree native to the northeast and proof that the statue was regionally carved and not brought from Europe.

“This was a really exciting discovery because it was the smoking gun,” Kavenagh said.

Another expert used x-ray radiology to study the wood’s cellular structure and determine its condition; yet others, employing microscopic analysis of cross sections of paint layers, established which colors had been applied over the years, and when. (No paint before 1930 could be found, and that is the color it has been returned to.)

Last August, around 1 a.m., a crane extracted the statue from its niche. Eerily, the saint appeared to float above Broadway.

“My heart actually skipped a beat when we made that final disconnection and it moved out of its niche,” said Johns. “My breath was like…” he added, feigning a gasp.

The statue was taken to Steve Tatti, a conservator on East 39th Street, who began his work by removing the multiple layers of paint in order to reveal the statue’s true condition. In an interview in his studio, where the statue stood just outside in refurbished glory, Tatti explained that certain areas, including the foot, the base and the upper part of the figure that had been exposed to water pooling, were so deteriorated that they had to be “consolidated,” or filled in with new material.

Once the statue was stable, he said, “we started making decisions about the cosmetic and aesthetic choices, what to leave from the old restorations and what to fill in.”

“Most of the time,” Tatti added, “we opted to do less rather than more.”

As for the replica, there were other choices to be made, Tatti said. What are you replicating? The original piece? The deteriorated piece? Or something in between? Most of the time it's something in the middle that the group decided on.

Then there was the question of whether, as originally planned, the restored statue should return to its niche.

“I was concerned about taking the sculpture from its original context because it was designed for a specific spot and to be seen from a specific angle,” Merincola said. “But we could not assure the church how much longer it would last if it were left up there. Tulip poplar was a furniture wood not meant for outdoor sculpture. Were we pushing the material farther than it could go? It was a big debate.”

To make the replica that will replace the original, Tatti technicians took a laser scan of the statue to create a digital 3D model. In another shop, that digital information was used to guide the cutting arm of a milling machine, sculpting a 3D foam model.

From that, the mold for the cast resin replica will be created.

(Resin replicas have also replaced carved statues outside of the Cloisters, where the  originals are displayed inside the museum. Statues on the Acropolis in Athens have been similarly replaced.)

Once the statue returns, and the replica takes its place this spring beneath the St. Paul’s roof, the chapel will be getting the best of both worlds, according to Kavenaugh.

We’ll have this amazing, important piece of art that a lot of people can see and experience,” she said, “and we also get something that’s going to look just the same, 50 feet up.”