It’s seemingly just another day at work for Gemma Ramirez, not much different than any other. Called into a Spanish church as part of a team of art restorers, she and her colleagues are working on a statue depicting Jesus Christ. But in the process of her duties, Ramirez notices something odd. It seems that this figurine has some secrets to share.
This statue has been damaged in the past, and it’s now bearing the scars. A fissure has opened up on the surface of the figure – and it’s this fracture that has inadvertently led Ramirez to notice something strange. Inside the piece, situated at its core, she can see that something’s hidden away.
At first, Ramirez and a fellow restorer suspect that bugs have eaten into the statue and were now hiding inside. The piece, after all, was made of wood, and it wouldn’t be unheard of for ravenous insects to bore their way through such a material. But upon further inspection, they soon note that they’re looking at something much more significant.
Ramirez and her co-workers are no strangers to working with old art pieces. After all, they’re all employees of a company called Da Vinci Restauro. Situated in the Spanish capital of Madrid, Da Vinci Restauro has spent the last two decades restoring works of art which are of special significance to Spain.
Da Vinci Restauro concerns itself with all sorts of art, be it paintings, antique objects or, indeed, statues. The company was set up in 2000 by Ramirez and Ángeles Comba, both of whom had picked up degrees in fine art. Over the course of their careers, the pair have dealt with many pieces, developing a significant level of expertise along the way.
Of course, Ramirez and Comba aren’t alone in their company. Da Vinci Restauro is home to a wider group of experts, each a specialist in their own field. For instance, some of the team might focus on woodwork, while others might be better equipped to handle the architectural aspect of the business.
To give another example, dealing with paintings is naturally a significant part of what the Da Vinci Restauro team does. The manner with which they approach this task, however, depends on the nature of the piece itself. But regardless of whether the painting is on a canvas, on a board or even on copper, the restoration team claim to have the expertise to handle it.
Similarly, if team members face the prospect of restoring an old building, they should be fine. After all, the group’s collective skillset means they’re capable of touching up surfaces on the inside of a dwelling. And on top of that, they can fix roofs, wall decorations and flooring.
An example of a major restoration project undertaken by the Da Vinci Restauro team can be found at Madrid’s Círculo de Bellas Artes. This cultural center had a number of issues that had developed over time. A staircase, for example, had cracked, and a fountain had itself been split. But the team brought these things back to their former glory.
The experts of Da Vinci Restauro have also tackled the physical deterioration of churches. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise, of course, as these buildings are often full of delicate and important artworks. You might, after all, find paintings, statues, and elaborate furnishings and ornaments inside a church.
Things of this nature are worthy of restoration for several reasons. First and foremost, they are often at the heart of a culture. As such, they should be maintained for future generations to enjoy and revere. But there’s also an economic incentive for restorative works, as people might be drawn to a given area to view an important artwork or building.
According to those at Da Vinci Restauro, places such as Spain rely on important artworks. After all, they bring money into the communities where they’re found and, vitally, help to define a place’s identity. With this in mind, then, it’s easy to see how important restoration works can prove to be.
Restorations can breathe a new lease of life into old pieces of art. Paint fades over time, but if skilled restorers get to work on a piece, it can appear like new again. Or if a painting has developed a layer of dirt over the years, cleaning it might reveal a hidden detail, such as an artist’s signature.
However, restoration works aren’t easy, and great care needs to be taken. Ideally, the piece will be interfered with as little as possible. It should still be easy to identify, with the spirit of the initial iteration kept alive and well. As such, the same materials once utilized by the piece’s creator should be used again.
The Da Vinci Restauro team have been restoring artworks for some time now. But in 2017 one of their projects actually brought them attention from the international press. You see, the team were called to get to work on an artifact located at a church in northern Spain’s Sotillo de la Ribera.
The Church of Santa Agueda, as this building is known, is home to a particularly special piece of art. This is a figurine of Jesus Christ which had been constructed out of wood. Known as the Cristo del Miserere, the piece wasn’t in the greatest state before the Da Vinci Restauro restorers were brought in.
You see, time had very much taken its toll on the wooden artifact. For one thing, it was dirty and in need of a good clean. But more serious problems were evident, too. One of the figure’s arms had fractured, and its backside had started to separate from the crucifix to which it was attached.
All of these problems, however, fell well within the abilities of the experts from Da Vinci Restauro. So, they got to work on fixing up the piece. But during the course of this task, Ramirez became aware of something strange. The piece had a crack on its surface – and beyond this crack was something unexpected.
At first, Ramirez thought that she’d perhaps come across some bugs stuffed inside the piece and feasting on the wood. After all, in her line of business she’d surely seen similar things before. But upon closer inspection, she and her colleagues realized that the space behind the crack hadn’t been created by insects.
This hollow, in fact, had apparently been created on purpose. You see, Ramirez and her co-worker discovered that it was actually a secret compartment containing something special. Eventually, they managed to get the thing open so that they could take a peek inside. And when they did, they weren’t left disappointed.
While wooden figurines are often created hollow, this is usually to reduce the chances of the material developing cracks. Inside this particular statue, though, the restorers found a pair of leather parchments which both bore text. This must have come as quite the surprise, as such a discovery is far from ordinary.
It seems that the person who placed the parchments inside the statue intended them to last a long time. After all, they were made out of vellum, a form of leather notable for its endurance. If, on the other hand, the statue had once contained paper pages, it’s unlikely that they would have lasted for long.
But what exactly do we know about these two parchments? Well, as is evident from the yellowish tinge that they’d acquired over the years, the pages are old. In fact, they go back centuries, all the way back to the year 1777. They seem to have been penned by one Joaquín Mínguez, a chaplain who was associated with the Cathedral of El Burgo de Osma.
In the wake of her amazing discovery in 2017, Ramirez spoke to the website of British newspaper the Daily Mail about what had happened. She said, “The document of the 18th century appeared when we were dismantling the Christ of the cross. The wood is hollow inside, and the sculptor introduced the two [scrolls], which we have found.”
Ramirez has undoubtedly seen some wonderful artistic works throughout the course of her career. But this discovery must surely rank up there as one of the most surprising. After all, secret messages don’t emerge out of the blue all too often. But what exactly was the nature of these letters and what did they actually say?
Well, one aspect of the letters’ content focuses on the culture of the time and place in which the statue was made. In another part, the writer Mínguez explains that the figurine was constructed by a person by the name of Manuel Bal. And it’s also stated that Bal had also made similar pieces for other religious institutions located in the nearby area.
The scrolls also contain references to the nature of the Spanish economy from around Mínguez’s time. He even goes into detail about what sorts of food was being produced in his region. For instance, he mentions that grains such oats, barley, wheat and rye were all grown. Furthermore, the writer alludes to wine in the region, too.
In his letter, Mínguez also discusses more harrowing aspects of living during his time. He specifically mentions illnesses and infections which were prevalent in his area, things like typhoid fever. However, he balances this grim subject by mentioning the things that people did for leisure, such as playing cards or ball games.
In terms of the political landscape of the period, Mínguez explains that the court system was centered in the city of Madrid. And he also lets his readers know who was in charge of Spain at the time of writing. Namely, he mentions King Carlos III, who ruled Spain for almost three decades beginning in 1759.
In addition to ruling Spain, Carlos had also been the King of Naples between 1734 and 1759. Nowadays, Carlos has been termed by some as an “enlightened despot.” This is a reference to the fact that he led Spain through something of a short-lived rejuvenation of its culture and economy.
Mínguez’s letter also includes a reference to the Spanish Inquisition, a significant historical phenomenon which spanned more than three-and-a-half-centuries, from 1478 to 1834. Not specifically centered on Spain, the wider Inquisition was an arm of the Catholic Church which sought to locate and crack down on people in Europe and America that were opposed to its teachings and practices.
Nowadays, the Inquisition is known for the brutality of its nature, especially in relation to its treatment of followers of Islam and Judaism. It was perhaps at its worst in Spain, where the Spanish Inquisition operated for centuries. By its end, a posited figure of 32,000 people had been killed as a result of its campaign.
Given that the scrolls mentioned such important aspects of Spanish history, we can say that they were a significant historical find. Indeed, the notes paint a rather vivid idea of what life was once like. And the specific nature of the scrolls and the hidden compartment themselves can tell us something else, too.
A historian named Efren Arroyo spoke to a Spanish newspaper called El Pais to explain more. According to Arroyo, it seems that the chaplain Minguez had wanted to pass along information about his time and place to people in the future. In other words, the Jesus statue had been utilized as a time capsule.
Time capsules are vessels containing collections of artifacts or documents related to the time in which the capsule was created. People create these things in order to communicate with people in the future, hoping to give them a glimpse of what life was like in the past. Sometimes time capsules are buried, but as we can see from this story, they can be hidden away in more creative ways.
In his chat with El Pais, Arroyo also noted that this time capsule found in the Spanish church was quite surprising. “Although it is usual for many sculptures to be hollow, it is not so much to find handwritten documents inside,” he said. “It is amazing because it really is unique to find hidden handwritten documents inside such statues.”
After they were discovered by the Da Vinci Restauro team, the two scrolls had to be dealt with in some way. So, rather than being simply put back in place inside the capsule, they were removed. Then, they were transferred to the Archbishop of Burgos, with the intention that they would be placed inside an archive.
However, the team at Da Vinci Restauro wanted to honor Minguez’s original intentions. So, being careful to use the appropriate materials, they fashioned two replicas of the scrolls. These were then put back inside the time capsule, alongside a note which they’d penned themselves. This detailed life in our own times.
This note detailing contemporary life is a gesture which hopefully will be appreciated by people in the future. After all, Minguez’s note offered us a glimpse into his time, and so now our descendants might appreciate the same opportunity with regard to our period. In any case, the figurine and the notes it contains are now in place inside the Church of Santa Agueda.
The authenticity of Minguez’s scrolls and their contents has yet to be officially verified. But if it turns out that they’re genuine, then they’re clearly invaluable historical documents. They provide a first-hand account of what life was once like hundreds of years ago – and it’s not every day that such a chronicle presents itself to history-lovers.