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Fig 2 After Treatment Fig 2 After Treatment

The Cycle of Destruction and Repair: Conserving a Thanjavur Painting

From the Conservation Studio


A gift from the Chicago Imagist artist Barbara Rossi, this Thanjavur painting presents one of Indian art’s most iconic subjects: the Hindu god Shiva as Nataraja (Lord of Dance).

Thanjavur painting, an art form practiced in South India since the 18th century, is characterized by its intense color palette, the extensive application of gold leaf, and the inclusion of inlaid glass and gemstones. Though Thanjavur paintings may represent a range of subjects, they often depict religious themes and are hung on the walls of communal or private spaces of worship to be seen by devotees. 

In this painting, Shiva Nataraja Enshrined at Chidambaram Temple with Attendants, Shiva Nataraja (Lord of the Dance) performs his cosmic dance surrounded by a flame-tipped aureole.

India, Tamil Nadu, Thanjavur. Gift of Barbara Rossi

Shiva’s upper right hand holds the damaru, an hourglass-shaped drum upon which he beats the rhythms of creation into existence. His upper left contains a red fire, symbolizing the destructive nature of dissolution that inevitably follows creation. Nataraja’s front right arm is poised in the gesture of reassurance (abhaya mudra), while the transverse left arm droops to resemble an elephant’s trunk (gajahasta). Meanwhile, his foot tramples the demon Apasmara to overcome ignorance, which he personifies. Fundamentally, the Nataraja icon visualizes Shiva’s divine ananda tandava (“Dance of Bliss”)—a vigorous dance that perpetually creates, maintains, and destroys the universe, reflecting cyclical notions of time in Hindu cosmology. A host of deities, devotees, and attendants assemble to witness Nataraja’s dance.

In this manifestation, Shiva Nataraja is believed to reside at his cultic home of Chidambaram, about 90 kilometers northeast of Thanjavur. He performs his cosmic dance within an ornate, golden structure that invokes the Kanaka Sabha (“Golden Hall”) at the heart of the Chidambaram temple complex.

Fig 3 Copy

The Kanaka Sabha (“Golden Hall”) at the Chidambaram temple complex

before conservation

This Thanjavur painting—a striking example of the palagai padam technique, Tamil for “painting on a wooden board”—represents the end result of a two-year conservation project. It is very fragile due to its complex multilayered structure, and when it arrived at the museum, time and weather had caused a lot of damage. The structure, a wood panel prepared with two layers of canvas and coated with a calcium-carbonate and clay-based ground—a priming layer—to create a smooth surface, had become so unstable that it had to be stored flat. The ground, paint, and gold layers were separating, lifting away from the support, and actively flaking.

Fig 5

Before conservation

Splits in the panel support and losses to paint and gilding created visually distracting gaps. Scratches and an overall layer of surface dirt further diminished the aesthetic appearance.


My treatment plan prioritized consolidation, the stabilizing of the weakened lifting layers of paint and gilding. This required many days of working under the microscope while applying adhesive to the affected areas. Once the painting was stable, I was able to attend to paint fragments that had separated from the painting. Like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle, I sorted these fragments, measuring 3/8 inch or smaller, by color. I was able to relocate many onto the painting by matching their color and outlines to losses within the composition, as can be seen in the two following images:

Fig 6

Before and after: robe of four-headed Brahma in lower register at left

Fig 7

Before and after: Face of one of the four sages in lower register at right


I then surface cleaned the painting, revealing bold colors and a shimmering gold layer.

Fig 9

Before and after: face of Apasmara, demon personifying ignorance

Fig 10b

Before and after: Apasmara’s arms holding snake

Here’s an image of the painting after consolidation and cleaning:

During Treatment Whole Front 2023 After Consolidation Copy 1

After consolidation and cleaning

reintegrating losses

The next step was reintegrating the damages, which means filling and in-painting the losses to match the surrounding original so that the image looked whole again. The losses and damages were found in three different areas, necessitating three different treatment approaches: in the gilding, along the splits in the wood support, and in the painted figures and details.

Bt Annotated 3 Types Of Damage

The box to the upper left indicates a loss in the gilding; the center right box highlights a split in the wood support; and the box to the lower right shows a loss in the painted figures and details.

In conservation ethics, it is imperative to intervene only when it will not risk damage to the work, and then to make reversible interventions. For this reason I could not reintegrate the losses in the paint, such as in the four sages at the lower right. The surrounding areas were so fragile that filling the gaps would likely have damaged the original. Here, the principle of ‘no intervention’ was applied, and I left the losses untouched. They remain visible as is.

Fig 5

Sanatkumaras (“always a youth”; four sages and sons of Brahma)

The noticeable losses across the splits in the wood support could be reintegrated by filling the cracks and matching the tone with reversible materials.

Reintegrating the losses in the gilding required a creative solution and much experimentation. The artist had created the intricate, low-relief texture of the gilding by piping a fine raised relief pattern with a chalk or limestone paste onto which gilding was applied.

Themalaysianculturegroup Contemporary Artist

Contemporary artist creates a raised relief using a piping bag and then will apply gold foil

Courtesy of the Malaysian Culture Group

Fine outlines were then drawn in black onto the gilding and alternating red and green gems painted on with translucent natural resin-based paint with a drying oil.

When compensating losses in a fully imitative restoration, it is essential to match both the color and texture to the surrounding original. Taking a cast from the original object is a common practice when attempting to recreate a surface texture, but our painting was too fragile to allow this. After much testing with various tools and materials, a solution using air-dry clay was found inspired by my daughter’s school project. I was able to recreate the texture of the gilded architectural elements by carving it into air-dry clay.

Fig 13

Once the textured clay had hardened, I pressed a dampened Japanese tissue into the carved mold, which took on the surface texture as it dried.

Fig 14

I then gilded the textured tissue paper with a 24-karat gold leaf matching the tone of the original gilding in the painting.

Photocopies of the image of the painting printed to scale were very helpful when it came to cutting the prepared tissue to fit the shape of the loss. By cutting out the areas of loss in the photocopy as seen below (where the black of the table shows through) and laying it over the prepared gilded tissue, I was able to cut the right shape of insert, so that the texture would align with the surrounding original

Img 3167 Copy

Box at left shows the photocopy laid over the prepared gilded tissue.

The textured gilded paper fills were then glued into place with a reversible adhesive and toned to match the surrounding aged original gilding. And finally, I recreated the fine black lines and the red and green gems using conservation paints so that the decorative pattern continued seamlessly across the restored areas.

Once this final process had been completed, my work as a conservator was done. Whilst challenging and at times painstakingly slow, this treatment allowed me to stretch my creativity as a technician to find solutions to restore the beauty of this wonderful piece. The painting is now stable and in condition to be displayed in our galleries.

Before and After

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Grab the slider with your cursor. Slide it to the right to see the image before conservation and to the left to reveal the conserved artwork.


This project provided a great opportunity to work with Madhuvanti Ghose, Alsdorf Associate Curator of Indian, Southeast Asian, and Himalayan Art, and to collaborate with museum colleagues beyond the paintings conservation studio, including conservation scientists who analyzed the materials and technique to better understand this art form, and paper, book, and frame conservators who provided thoughts and ideas that were instrumental in coming up with treatment solutions for this complex, multilayered painting. Viewers will again be able to behold the artist’s beautiful rendering of Shiva Nataraja and his attendants in the delicate gilded architecture without being distracted by losses and damages incurred since it was painted in the mid-1800s. 

—Elizabeth Wigfield, associate paintings conservator, Conservation and Science, with contributions by Ross Lee Bernhaut, graduate curatorial intern, Arts of Asia 

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Explore an annotated iconography that identifies all the figures in the painting.



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