When one of Poland's leading art conservationists arrived in San Diego with an interest in learning modern American preservation techniques, it must have seemed like a match made in heaven for the Mission San Diego de Acala.
The mission had a collection of paintings and wooden figures that needed restoring, but it could not afford to hire an expert.
Through what Msgr. I. Brent Eagen calls "a gift from heaven," the expertise of Andrzej Lojszczyk of Warsaw became available to the Catholic diocese of San Diego.
In time for the celebration this weekend of the 217th anniversary of the mission's founding, Lojszczyk has completed restoration of several of the artworks.
Lojszczyk is head of the workshop on techniques and technology of mural paintings at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts and a senior lecturer in its conservation department. He is on leave from both positions. He and his wife, Eva, an art historian, are well-known in Poland for their painstaking restorations of paintings and statues at several of their country's most venerated monuments. The buildings include the Royal Castle in Warsaw and the famed Paulite Monastery at Jama Gora in the city of Czestochowa, the site of the Black Madonna statue to which most Polish Catholics make pilgrimage.
The couple arrived in San Diego earlier this year for an extended stay with Eva's mother, who lives in the area. On a visit to the Mission for Sunday Mass, a friend introduced the Lojszczyks to Eagen, chancellor of the San Diego diocese.
"They invited me to have tea at the mother-in-law's home and showed me some of the work that he (Andrzej) had done, some original and some restored," Eagen said.
"We have a relatively small art collection at the mission but, as small as it is, it is significant and badly in need of conservation," Eagen said. The diocese could not afford to hire experts, even those locally involved in conservation, because of the high costs often involved in such painstaking, detailed work, he said.
But when Lojszczyk expressed an interest in working while in the United States, the diocese was able to obtain a high level of expertise at relatively modest cost. Lojszczyk saw the chance to help conserve mission objects as a way to pick up ideas about preservation techniques not yet common in Eastern Europe.
"It thrills me that we are now going to be able to preserve the collection for many more years with a person of his skills," Eagen said. "It's a beautiful association."
Lojszczyk said that he realized he "could not just sit and do nothing" while in San Diego. In an interview with the help of an interpreter, the wiry, animated artist recalled a 1977 visit to California during which he had expressed a hope to someday work in a pleasant, non-urban environment such as Monterey.
"But (the San Diego) Mission, this is fine," he said, laughing.
Although the San Diego Mission's history is colonial Spanish Catholic--far different from the centuries of Catholic influence in Poland--Lojszczyk said that he developed a strong base of knowledge about religious art and its historical context from his preservation projects in Poland.
"The Paulite Monastery in Czestochowa has an enormous collection of art on a world scale," Lojszczyk said. "So therefore religious art and its atmosphere is not at all strange to me. I also well understand the specifics of religious art," explaining that such objects differ from those in museums because they are meant to spur a specific emotional reaction on the part of worshipers.
Lojszczyk spent a large portion of his time between 1978 and 1985 at the 600-year-old monastery, helping to restore murals, sculptures and paintings, including 45 paintings from the first half of the 17th Century and the entire interior of an important chapel. The interior included restoration of stucco work along the ceiling vaults and wooden altars, a particularly difficult job because of the inability to re-create precisely the materials used centuries ago.
Lojszczyk noted that, in helping to restore mural paintings from the early 19th Century at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, destroyed during World War II, he was unable to determine how a red pigment had been made. "It perhaps was with an iron compound no longer available so we" had to substitute, he said.
Further, because photographs of the murals taken in the 1920s were incomplete, Lojszczyk had to use his imagination while adhering to the general style as much as possible.
"It's a difficult question, that of what philosophy to bring to restoration or conservation," he said. "You must look at each problem separately and determine what still exists, then re-create the history of the technique, and also determine which aspects are more important to follow through. You must take as much as possible into consideration."
A major difference between his work in Poland and that at the mission stems from the much longer historical framework in Europe.