The Power to Preserve and Protect

The Power to Preserve and Protect

The Holy Family Statues, donated from the estate of Dr. David Lawless and Mrs. Maria Pilar Lawless.

The Holy Family Statues have returned for Easter! Housed in their new environmentally secure display case, these 17th century sculptures overlook The Gerry and Anna Maier Special Collections Reading Room from their vantage point atop a vintage letterpress cabinet. This sculptural arrangement is of Spanish origin in the Baroque style reminiscent of Juan Martinez Montanes created at a time when veneration of the Holy Family consisting of the Child Jesus, The Virgin Mary, and Saint Joseph was emergent. The carved wood statues are enlivened through polychrome, gilding, and ornate flowing robes that signify movement and embrace. Ornamentation and evidence of a rich, lush tapestry effect known as estofado (the method that produces the illusion of sumptuous textiles) add to the visual splendor of this portable retablo altarpiece art once displayed in a Spanish church for devotional purposes.

Alberta Art Installation completing the finishing touches on the display case.

Preservation of these fragile statues is essential for longevity, legacy, and object integrity. This valuable religious art representative of the Catholic faith has survived over 350 years and a transatlantic voyage from Europe to Western Canada. The museum quality vitrine provides climate control to protect the figures from airborne pollutants, pestilence, strong light sources, and excess movement. The skilled artistry evidenced in the multilayered polychrome technique with a rich combination of gesso, oil paint, tempera, varnish, and gold leaf onto the wooden structure leaves the Holy Family vulnerable to the elements of time. This can be seen in hairline cracks to the figures’ exterior, absent extremities, bore holes, and areas of intermittent paint loss. This imperfection due to a journey through time adds to the historical significance of these treasures that resonate in importance to the present day. Preservation protects legacy to pave the way for the cultural achievements of the past to shed light on the present and the future.

Blog Post Written By: Catherine Carlyle, Library Services Specialist

Catherine joined the StMU Library team in April 2018. Prior to joining StMU she managed physical and electronic collections for libraries and cultural institutions in Canada and England. Notably, the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, and Harrow Libraries, London, England. Her interests lie in living cultural heritage, preservation of collections, and art history.


Fulton, Gordon. “Heritage Conservation”. The Canadian Encyclopedia, 23 June 2016, Historica Canada. Accessed 15 April 2019 .

Jones, Joseph R. “Xavier Bray. The Sacred Made Real. Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700.” Seventeenth-Century News, vol. 69, no. 1-2, 2011, p. 82+. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 16 Apr. 2019.


Photographs courtesy of Taylor Gittins, St. Mary’s University.

The Holy Family Statues, estate of Dr. David Lawless and Mrs. Maria Pilar Lawless.

The Hamilton MFG. CO Letterpress, donated by Mr. Don Turgeon.

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