When W.R. Hearst scoured the collections of the old world in search of buried treasure, he often unearthed objects so exquisitely crafted, they had endured for centuries. One of the Castle’s most beautiful artifacts is the 16th century Spanish Mudéjar coffered ceiling spanning what came to be known as Hearst Castle’s ‘Morning Room.’ A substantial twenty-two by forty-five feet, it is comprised of five sections divided by large beams with layered corbels, and carved, painted panels between the beams. Its story languished, muted, its beauty hidden under an accumulation of almost 500 years of fireplace smoke and candle soot.
Mudéjar art arose from a set of historical circumstances that were unique to the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages. After 800 years of Moorish occupation, Spanish Christian kings re-conquered the lands of al-Andalus and permitted the incumbent Muslims to stay, assimilating their religion, language and system of laws into their Christian kingdoms. These were the Mudéjars, and their advanced culture and exotic blended society gave rise to a new artistic tradition. A link between two cultures, Mudéjar art became the artistic expression of a complex society in which Muslims, Jews, and Christians lived side by side: a unique phenomenon in the history of art, as well as the history of peaceful coexistence. Authentic examples of Mudéjar art are by definition priceless and extremely rare.
Last year, we cleaned a small section of the Morning Room ceiling and were stunned to discover under the layers of grime the most gorgeous, vibrant, gessoed work of art. Its conservation is an ambitious undertaking and will take many years. An early estimate of man hours needed for the work is close to 6,000, but without expert preservation, this ceiling will be lost and, at a time when the world needs to hear its story, it will remain silent.
Conservator, Gary Hulbert, BFA, MFA, and MA in Art and Art Conservation, has worked on site at the Hearst State Monument on a variety of projects which date back to 1989. He gave us this glimpse into the painstaking work being done on the Morning Room ceiling: Hulbert: “The first step is to secure the paint. You use a very small tip brush using refined glue. You use a tacking iron with a silicone sheet that bonds the paint to the wood. Then you remove loose dust and dirt with distilled water. This takes the heavy soot layer off. Then I go back with a cleaning gel and brush it on and remove it with a solvent. It’s possible they oiled the panels to bring out the colors. I repeat the process five or six times to remove all the dirt. Then I put a very thin protective varnish over the paint. The final step is to in-paint with a very small brush. I match the paint with conservation colors that are soluble, organic solvents that don’t yellow or darken. “