Objects of veneration

Several religious and votive objects are included within the collection. To many ordinary people across Medieval and Early Modern Europe the only relief from eye complaints, not withstanding the availability in some areas of travelling oculists, was to be sought through prayer. The devout would claim miraculous cures granted to them via the intercession of, amongst others, Saints Lucia or Odilia. In rural Catholic areas, such as the Austrian Tyrol, the veneration of these saints continues today.

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Haida dish

It is important for the College museum to reflect the absence of optometric provision as much as its progress in the developed world and, to that end, several religious and votive objects are included within the BOA collection, ranging from foil stamps that would have been nailed to Central European church doors through to a ceremonial dish of the Haida Indian tribe from Queen Charlotte Island in Canada (pictured).

Archive photograph of St Odilia statue

One such item, a statue of St Odilia, has itself been subjected to a modern-day miraculous transformation through the work of sculpture restorer Tim Orson.

Our first picture reproduces an archive photograph of this item when it first entered the museum collection.

The carved wooden figure of St Odilia, wearing a religious habit, carrying two bulging eyeballs perched on a red bible, was purchased by the BOA in 1934 from a friend of the museum, Dr. A von Pflugk of Munich. The figure is believed to be the work of a Flemish craftsman although the itinerant nature of those master carvers means that its country of origin could be almost anywhere across Western and Central Europe or Scandinavia.

Detail of Odilia statue surface Further detail of St Odilia statue surface during restoration

A painted lady

Dating from the sixteenth century, or possibly earlier, it was evident that at one time it had had a coating of gold and silver, which had later been covered up with polychrome painting. Tim Orson has now revealed how that restoration, probably carried out in all good faith, was, in fact, detrimental to the condition of the piece. In his workshop he also discovered that the statue had suffered damage consistent with being subject to a severe blast. This causes one to speculate whether it might have been caught up in the First World War or, indeed, an earlier conflict. In the Early Modern period religious statues were frequently targetted by iconoclastic rioters or regarded as loot by pillaging armies.

The restored statue of St Odilia

A Miraculous Transformation

Over several months working in his studio at Newnham on Severn, Gloucestershire, Tim repaired the serious cracks in the statue and fashioned a replacement for the missing left hand. The original block of redwood pine from which the statue is carved had been poorly selected and several of the stress cracks were of long standing. They probably appeared soon after the original work was completed, but more recent cracks had formed due to excessive drying of the object. Tim has also stripped away the over-painting, returning it to its original bright appearance. Wherever possible, traces of the original paint have been preserved. This makes for a somewhat patchy surface but is in compliance with current philosophies of conservation. Employing experts like Tim is necessary because objects do not look after themselves and can continue to decay, even in the museum setting, unless evasive action is taken. Often, as is the case here, the process of conservation adds greatly to the research record surrounding the object, allowing us to understand it all the more. A significant difference from the work of earlier restorers is that the changes Tim has made to the statue are fully reversible, in case scholarship should unearth new theories as to the statue's 'correct' appearance.

Damage to wooden plaque

More repairs 'on the hoof'

Tim has also repaired a bespectacled faun's hoof on a rare 16th century relief-carved wooden plaque by (or after) the Flemish artist Bartolomeus Sprangers (1546-1611) who was noted for his Netherlandish take on Italian models, often mythological in theme. The object was also thoroughly cleaned and coated with a microcrystalline wax. In this case the amount of carving work required was relatively small but the impact tremendous as it made the object displayable once again.

Tim Orson with the St Odilia statue

Our museum is a shrine of the holy saints!

Odilia (born c.720), who is also the patron saint of Alsace, was the daughter of a Frankish nobleman. Supposedly born blind, she recovered her sight miraculously when she was reconciled with her father. Her shrine on the Odilienberg (Hohenburg in the Vosges Mountains) was a site of pilgrimage for the blind and sufferers from eye disease. There are many statues and pictures of her in Strasbourg and the surrounding region.

To find out more about patron saints of those suffering from ocular disease see our page about St Lucia in the Virtual art gallery section. (look carefully and you can also see St Lucia on this page in the painting shown on the wall behind Tim Orson admiring his handiwork on our statue of St Odilia).

You might also be interested in learning about St Jerome, the patron saint of spectacle makers, who features in two of our paintings. (The other one is here).