Nova Scotia

Century-old murals marred by Halifax Explosion painstakingly restored

It's unclear why the murals were covered with white paint in the 1950s, but the art conservator working on the restoration says Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica sustained quite a bit of damage during the Halifax Explosion in 1917. She hopes to have the work finished by Christmas.

Shards of glass from Halifax Explosion found embedded in Saint Mary's Basilica mural

Jennifer Fotheringham, an art conservator, has been working on the restoration of the mural at Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica since June. She hopes it have the work completed by Christmas. (Amy Smith/CBC)

High above the altar at Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica in downtown Halifax, Jennifer Fotheringham perches on scaffolding, a surgeon's scalpel in her right hand.

Painstakingly, she scrapes the sharp blade against the wall, chipping away tiny eggshell-like fragments of white paint.  Underneath, five, century-old murals, hidden from view since the 1950s, have emerged. 

In the middle panel is Mary, being assumed into heaven, with two angels on either side.

The murals are a hundred years old. The middle panel shows Mary, ascending to the heavens, with two angels on either side. (Amy Smith/CBC)

It's a project Fotheringham, an art conservator, has been working on since June and plans to complete by Christmas.

"Lesson number one was how to change a scalpel blade," she said Tuesday in an interview with CBC Nova Scotia News at 6. "We went through boxes, boxes and boxes all summer long."

The frescos were first painted in muted shades of pinks, blues and earth tones.

Jennifer Fotheringham, an art conservator, has been working on the restoration of the mural at Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica since June. She hopes it have the work completed by Christmas. (Amy Smith/CBC)

And as she removed the white layer of paint that covered them, Fotheringham discovered something else.

Embedded in the walls were colourful shards of glass, remnants of the Halifax Explosion, which shattered the church's stained glass windows.

The day after the 1917 explosion, a major snowstorm hit Halifax, and those broken stained glass windows left the artwork exposed to the elements.

This is what the murals looked like before the restoration work began. (Submitted by Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica)

"You can see a drip pattern vertically through the image," Fotheringham said, pointing to the fine lines of paint. "That is where the rain and the ice froze on the surface of the painting and then damaged it subsequently."

There are small white patches on the art, where the paint can't be revived so Fotheringham is mixing fresh paint and gold leaf — 23.5 carats — to blend in with the original works.

Fotheringham said it's unclear why the murals were covered up in the first place.

"There's different feelings about it. One was to make them look better because they were obviously damaged and it was easier and quicker to paint them white," she said.

"Another view is maybe it was a message from the Vatican to tone down the grandeur in the Basilica and to make it more plain and bring it back to the message of prayer."

Father John Williams, who retired earlier this year as rector of the cathedral, said he had seen pictures of the murals, but never in person. (Amy Smith/CBC)

Father John Williams, who retired earlier this year as rector of the cathedral, said he had seen pictures of the murals, but never in person, so the idea of bringing a piece of Halifax history back to life was something he and others in the church wanted to explore.

"Every cathedral should have these kinds of images, I think to remind us of our past, as well as to celebrate our faith in the present," he said.

"It's wonderful. They complement the stained glass window in such a way that the whole mosaic becomes alive in a way that we hadn't seen before."

About the Author

After spending more than a decade as a reporter covering the Nova Scotia legislature, Amy Smith joined CBC News in 2009 as host for CBC Nova Scotia News as well as Atlantic Tonight at 11. She can be reached at amy.smith@cbc.ca or on Twitter @amysmithcbc