A 10x12 feet canvas depicting The Last Supper that took German neoclassical painter Johann Zoffany six weeks to paint, will take a team of six conservators five months to tend to the 47 tears and holes, besides other abrasions, it has suffered in the 223 years since its creation. Started in February, the project will cost about Rs.15 lakhs.

Previous restoration

Two previous restoration efforts have adversely affected the painting. Putty was used to fill the gashes, up to 47 cm in length, and large sections of overpaint and tinted varnishes were applied. The painting was relined to support the original canvas layer, said said Renate Kant, a Singapore-based German conservation expert, who was approached by the Max Muller Bhavan in Kolkata to lead the project. “Almost 50 per cent of the work has been de-restoration.”

The painting, acknowledged to be among the finest representations of the Biblical scene in India, was presented to the St. John's parish on June 24, 1787, for the consecration of the first church built by the British.

“It created quite a stir in those days, as Zoffany had modelled the faces of Jesus and some of the apostles on some controversial members of the Calcutta Society, which was not a favourable comment,” Ms. Kant said.

“Kiss of death”

While she describes the tropical climate of Kolkata as “a kiss of death” for the painting, with the canvas constantly contracting and expanding with changing temperatures, she felt it has suffered far more due to vandalism and negligence.

A team of five conservators from the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) is working to reverse the damage. The project is also aimed at training conservators in India according to current international standards and ethics in art preservation.

“Some of the material and equipment for the work was brought in from Europe, including reversible paints and consolidation media. If the painting needs a further treatment in the future, the materials applied now will be easy to remove.”