The Life of Christ On Copper Paintings Restoration

by Anastasia Heaton

Thanks to a generous grant from the California Missions Foundation, the Santa Barbara Mission Archive-Library has been able to move forward with restoration treatment for five unique paintings from its collections. These five artworks depict scenes from the life of Christ and were executed in oils on copper panels. Conservators at Fine Art Conservation Laboratories are performing the restoration on these middle nineteenth-century paintings. The varnish and paint have become significantly discolored over the past 150 or so years. Correcting this discoloration will form the bulk of the restorative process.


The five paintings of the life of Christ on copper before being picked up by the conservators. From the collections of the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library (SBMAL).

While the paintings currently appear a little dim and gloomy, the restoration will allow  them to be experienced as they were originally intended to be – bright and clear! In addition to restoring the paintings themselves, Fine Arts Conservation Laboratories will be giving the currently anachronistic frame a face-lift, refinishing it with more period-appropriate metal leafing.

Little is known about the origins of these paintings. The artist did not leave a signature and few records exist to provide clues about their provenance. Dating techniques place their composition around the mid-nineteenth century. Additionally, oil on copper has been a staple of the European painting tradition since the Middle Ages. Copper does not mold or degrade the same way wood or canvas does, making it an excellent medium to ensure a painting’s longevity. Often artists would rub the copper plating with garlic juice as a kind of primer.  Well-known masters such as Rembrandt and Saraceni preferred copper bases, and to this day oil on copper remains a popular choice among contemporary artists.


Painting of Christ meeting the Samaritan woman at the well before restoration. From the collections of the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library (SBMAL).

The five paintings, arranged in the frame into the shape of a cross, depict scenes from the life of Christ. These scenes consist of Jesus and St Peter walking on water, Jesus and his disciples on the stormy Sea of Galilee, the Samaritan woman meeting Christ at the well, the Triumphal Entry, and the woman anointing Jesus’s feet. I am particularly interested in the highly relational nature of each of these paintings. Unlike many other devotional artworks, in these five paintings Jesus is always depicted among a large group of followers. Perhaps the artist was reflecting on the communal nature of the life of the Christ or the dedication of the devout?

My personal favorite of the paintings depicts Christ entering Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. This painting teems with life. Citizens of Jerusalem cluster around Christ on his donkey, kneeling before him, laying down robes to form a path, and clutching palm branches. The scene is expansive, capturing the immense crowd in the foreground while also capturing the gates of the city and the seaside in the background. Furthermore, the composition of this painting and its sense of scale are especially impressive. The painter manages to include dozens of figures despite such a small surface area, while still delineating Christ from the crowd. My favorite part of the scene is definitely the two toddlers, who waddle up to Christ with palm branches in their pudgy fingers, bringing a sense of childlike joy and enthusiasm to the scene. The deep reds and blues of the cloaks in this painting hint at the triumphant atmosphere that will come to light once the restoration is completed.


Painting of the Triumphal Entry, before restoration. From the collections of the Santa Bárbara Mission Archive-Library (SBMAL).

We look forward to sharing with you the outcomes of the restoration of these very remarkable paintings! SBMAL is very grateful for the generosity of the California Missions Foundation and the excellent work of Fine Art Conservation Laboratories.

Other SBMAL paintings that have undergone restoration include the twenty two paintings of the California Missions by Edwin Deakin and the 18th century “St. Joseph with Christ Child.” Learn about how you can support future SBMAL art restoration projects like this one here:

Interested in learning more about our partners?

Visit Fine Art Conservation Laboratories at

Visit California Missions Foundation at

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