Conservation of a King: Introducing King Caspar (Part 1)

Conservation of a King: Introducing King Caspar (Part 1)

Meet King Caspar. This small polychrome wood sculpture dates to eighteenth-century Ecuador and is part of the renowned Stapleton Collection of Latin American Colonial Art at the Denver Art Museum. King Caspar is one of a set of six polychrome sculptures in the Stapleton Collection that together represent the three Magi and their horses. It is currently undergoing conservation treatment.

Caption: Sculpture of a Man (King Caspar), c. mid-18th century, Ecuador. Polychrome wood. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family, S-0360.

As part of the Christian tradition, the Adoration of the Magi refers to the event in which a group of three distinguished foreigners traveled to pay homage to the Christ child soon after his birth, bringing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The Magi are also referenced as Kings or Wise Men and are named Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar. They are frequently included in depictions of the Nativity.

Caspar and the other Kings in the DAM’s collection are small-scale devotional sculptures that were made in a workshop setting. The practice of creating worshipful images and sculptures began in medieval Spain and was later transmitted to Spanish Colonial cities such as Quito, Ecuador. Small-scale sculptures of this type often depict angels, saints, or the Virgin Mary. They were likely used in the church, home, or in a processional setting and were integral to the ardent Catholic traditions of the New World.

Unfortunately, the Magi and horse sculptures are unable to be exhibited in their current condition. They are structurally unstable with losses to the wood, paint, textile, gilding, and gesso layers. In addition, they are covered with a heavy layer of grime. Through a generous grant from the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation, I have the privilege of conserving these six sculptures and studying their fabrication technology this year.

In the spirit of the fast-approaching holidays, I invite you to follow my progress as I begin conservation treatment on King Caspar. Treatment will include steps to both stabilize the structure and unify the appearance. Along the way I will use scientific analytical techniques to learn more about the methods that were used to create the sculpture and to identify areas that have been refinished or restored in the past.

Image credit: Detail, Sculpture of a Man (King Caspar), c. mid-eighteenth century, Ecuador. Polychrome wood. Denver Art Museum: Gift of the Stapleton Foundation of Latin American Colonial Art, made possible by the Renchard Family, S-0360

Courtney Murray is the Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Objects Conservation at the Denver Art Museum. The Kress Fellowship is administered by the Foundation of the American Institute for Conservation.