By Denise Gallo, Provincial Archivist
(The American Library Association has designated the week of April 27 as Preservation Week. This week, we will highlight preservation projects undertaken by the Provincial Archives over the last two years.)
Elizabeth Ann Seton will have been canonized for 40 years come September 14, 2015. That’s almost as long as the Daughters of Charity in Emmitsburg have had in their archives one of the most important artifacts of that momentous day in 1975 – the banner that hung from the balcony of the Vatican announcing her elevation to sainthood. This year, that very banner, now a part of the collections of the Provincial Archives, became the focus of a preservation project as large in scope as the banner is in actual size – 148” high and 106” wide.
As plans for the canonization commemoration took shape, Archives offered the banner for an exhibit in the museum of the National Basilica of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. Since its arrival from Rome, the banner had been stored as it had been shipped — rolled up in plastic. As discussions with Seton Heritage Ministries progressed about the banner’s loan, it was moved into one of Archives’ exhibit halls where it was unrolled and examined by art conservator Nancy Pollak of Art Care Associates, who was engaged to clean the banner and prepare it for display. With her expert advice, the banner was rolled back up within large white sheets around a cardboard tube and moved to her studio for treatment.
The other critical participants in the banner’s preservation were members of the Daughters of Charity Maintenance Staff, led by George Brenton, Director of Campus Facilities. George and his staff transported the banner to Nancy’s studio, returning it just before the Shrine exhibit was to open on April 11, 2015. Phil Plank, one of Maintenance’s carpenters, built a special frame for it, following specific instructions about type of wood, metal clasps for stretching, and braces to hold the banner in place. Nancy worked painstakingly for an entire day stretching the newly-cleaned banner onto the frame. After it was hung on the museum wall, she completed the final phase by “in-painting” any obvious flaws that would show up under the museum’s lights.
Destined for a single day’s use, the banner was created to be viewed from far below by the multitude of pilgrims in Vatican Square, with artist Giuseppe Ciotti using what is known as “snail’s eye” perspective. Looking at the banner from a different angle, Shrine visitors can clearly see that Mother Seton has unusually large hands which she extends in protection over North America, its geographic details also having been exaggerated to clearly depict the Rockies and the Appalachians. In an attempt to diminish that effect, the banner has been hung as high as possible on the museum wall and is best viewed by standing back at a slight distance.
The canonization banner was the Provincial Archives’ most extensive preservation project to date. The overwhelmingly positive reactions from Shrine visitors as they see the same image of Mother Seton that hung in Vatican Square on Sept. 14, 1975, have made it well worth the time and effort.