The beauty of medieval artwork revealed by restoration

Centuries of dirt and damage have obscured art from the Middle Ages. When the Toledo Museum of Art restored some of their works, they revealed much about how this art originally looked.

Home to one of the finest collections of medieval art in North America, the Toledo Museum of Art reopened its Cloisters Gallery earlier this year. It had undergone extensive conservation and restoration, and several items which had been kept in storage for decades were now being displayed. The highlights of this work could be seen in three stained glass windows, a 15th-century stone sculpture and a Venetian lace panel.

The before and after of a restoration of medieval glass at the Toledo Museum of Art

The stained glass pieces, two of which were from Sens and the other from Cologne’s St. Cecelia workshop, were extremely dirty. Removal of this grime revealed the rich colors and detailed paintwork hidden underneath. Old breaks, which had disfiguring lead inserts, were redone with conservation-grade adhesives. An updated LED lighting system made it even more readable and striking.

Before and after of a glass window showing a saint. It dates from the late 13th or early 14th century. Photo courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art

“This was one of my favorite projects, as we worked with Drew Anderson, a stained-glass conservator from the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” Sophie Ong, Brian P. Kennedy Leadership Fellow at the Toledo Museum of Art, tells “I first met Drew in 2010, when I was an intern at The Cloisters, and it was wonderful to come full circle and partner with him on this project. Drew also helped us design new frames for the windows that were fabricated in the UK and shipped to Toledo in the midst of the pandemic. The frames are brilliantly engineered to have an even wash of light and are simple to install, allowing greater flexibility for future installations.”


Another piece now on display is a stone sculpture of three men, probably made in Burgundy in the 15th century. “This sculpture once lived in the Cloister Gallery, but has been in storage for at least three decades because of its condition,” Ong notes. “Parts of the bishop’s crozier were damaged and detached, and there were many old, discolored repairs and surface grime. Emily Cummins reattached the broken parts and we then worked closely together to determine the appropriate level of cleaning of the stone. Following the treatment, we could better see the refined carving and expressive quality of the figures’ heads which bear resemblance to carved works produced by the prolific sculpture workshops of fifteenth-century Burgundy, such as those run by Claus Sluter, Claus de Werve, and Juan de la Huerta.”

Above is the before look of the 15th century statue, and below is restored version – photo courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art

The architectural colonnades within the Cloister Gallery also received an important restoration treatment, and the museum brought in members of the public to assist. Suzanne Hargrove, Emily Cummins and Marissa Stevenson, who helped lead the conservation project for the museum, explained that “a century’s worth of dirt and grime had accumulated on and within the surface of the medieval stone arches and columns, which significantly darkened their appearance. To reduce the grime, a gel poultice was applied to the stone, allowed to dry, and physically peeled off, taking the dirt and grime with it.”

Due to the sheer size of this project, the team invited members of the public to assist in the work. Over 60 people assisted over several months, including a conservation student who recorded her experience on TikTok (a video which has had 4.8 million views):

@ellieah_art Proud and excited to finally post this one! @toledomuseumofart #artconservation #arthistory #medievaltiktok #museum #satisfyingcleans #cleantok ♬ I Wanted to Leave – SYML

“Bringing in participants from the public not only helped us preserve the artworks and gallery for years, but also cultivated stronger bonds with our community and, in turn, fostered the community’s ownership of the museum and its collection,” explains Ong. “The cleaning has made a remarkable difference and the new wall color lets the sumptuous artworks and architecture come to the foreground and shine brightly! It’s a transformative, visual rebuttal of the notion of the so-called dark ages. But it was undoubtedly labor intensive and required the support of many individuals, from the conservation department who oversaw the conservation activities, to the interns and volunteers who helped clean the columns, and to the donors who help ensure we have the resources to realize our plans.”


The Venetian Lace showing it before (above) and after (below) its restoration – photos courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art

The entire team agrees that the most surprising of all the changes from this project can be seen in the colonnades. It has revealed that the stone has pink, yellow, and deep grey tones to it, and that the images in its carved capitals are far more legible.

The Cloister Gallery, which was first opened in the 1930s, has now been totally transformed and expanded. Among the approximately 100 artworks featured in this space are a diverse array of sacred and everyday objects from across the medieval world, including a gilded bronze standing Buddha from around 530; Late Antique blown glass vessels with Jewish symbols from Jerusalem; a mosque lamp from Mamluk Egypt; a 13th-century German reliquary embedded with a carved Carolingian rock crystal; frescoes of saints from 12th- and 13th-century Catalonia; ivory caskets with scenes from medieval romances; and a 14th-century Sultanate Mihrab from India.

The Cloisters Gallery – photo courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art

In discussing the importance of this project, Hargrove, Cummins and Stevenson note, “Artworks change and age over time just as we do. As conservators, our goal is to slow or halt the deterioration process, stabilize conditions, perform treatments, discover information about them, and safely display them for all to see. Our work ensures future generations can view, enjoy, and learn from the artworks in the same way that we do now. The range of materials seen in medieval art necessitates a variety of treatments, and no two treatments are ever the same. Performing conservation treatment can allow conservators, curators, and the public, to understand the materials and artistic processes of the artists and makers of the time.”


You can learn more about the Cloister Gallery at the Toledo Museum of Art by visiting their website.

A capital on one of the colonnades in the gallery – top image is before restoration and bottom is after the restoration. Photos courtesy the Toledo Museum of Art

See also: ‘Forgotten archive’ of medieval books and manuscripts discovered in Romanian church