John Rita has taken on his biggest endeavor as an artist.
The 55-year-old Altoona oil painter-entrepreneur has been restoring what he calls "an historic" oil-on-canvas painting: "The Assumption of the Virgin Mary Into Heaven" by 19th-century Italian artist Filippo Costaggini. At 18 feet tall and 10 feet wide, it is the "largest free-standing" oil painting restoration he's ever done.
Rita, co-founder of Albert Michaels Conservation Inc. and co-owner of Albert Michaels Gallery in Altoona, has been restoring the painting since mid-July with three other artists: Ted Holland of Duncansville, Shawn Vennell of Philadelphia and Jeff Johnson of Harrisburg.
Mirror photo by Gary M. Baranec
Altoona artist and co-founder of Albert Michaels Conservation, Inc., John Rita poses during the restoration project.
The painting belongs to the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church in Lancaster, which is also known as historic St. Mary's Church.
The painting depicts the assumption, or raising up, of the Virgin Mary's body into Heaven after her death, as proclaimed by Catholic dogma, Rita said.
It portrays "an empty tomb with apostles standing all around it ... and there she is with angels all around her as she is raised up into the sky. It's a very symbolic kind of thing," he said. "This is the centerpiece of the church."
The restoration process was labor-intensive, he said, adding it involved removing the varnish overpaint implemented as part of a botched restoration attempt in 1992 and re-varnishing the mural with neutral materials to fill in missing portions of the painting as well as laminating the canvas.
"A great portion of the original mural had been completely painted over. It was done so improperly ... pieces had been torn away from it ... it ended up looking like an undulated, topographical map. We had to fill those pieces in."
Johnson, who is co-owner of Albert Michaels, said the artists' main objective was to maintain the integrity of the painting while they restored it.
"We can't put anything into it that wasn't the original artist's intent. We can't falsify it in any way," he said. "We no longer call this process 'retouching' - we call it 'inpainting.' We're not painting over anything, we're just painting in the little spots that are missing."
"We are the first to see this painting in 100 years," Rita added. "What we've uncovered hasn't been seen by human eyes in the better part of 100 years. We get to see [Costaggini's] work as it truly was meant to be seen, and that's very exciting."
He described the painting as "dark and atmospheric."
"The colors are very bright and vibrant, but the overall theme is very dark," he said.
Rita said he and Johnson gleaned information about the painting from online research and the church's historical archives.
Costaggini, who died in 1904 at age 65, was a multi-faceted artist from Rome, who is known mainly for his fresco work on the United States Capitol rotunda in 1889, Rita said.
"He was also working in Lancaster throughout the whole process. Congress was paying him $10 a day to work in the Capitol ... not enough to live on," Rita said. "He had a background in churches, so when he was commissioned to do the 'The Assumption" he accepted the job. He not only painted the mural, he designed the church's interior decorations. He had a hand in the whole process."
The painting will be taken back to Lancaster on Tuesday and installed above the church's main altar, he said.
Rita and Johnson were commissioned by Tina Skubon, parish manager at the 160-year-old church, to restore the painting.
"We checked their references and they were fantastic. They've been phenomenal to work with," she said. "They fell in love with this project and are vested in it. I have total trust in them. This painting was in pretty bad shape. They could've stopped with what they initially said they were going to do, but they couldn't."
She estimated the cost of the painting's restoration to be $36,000.
"It was from money we saved from the church and, in this case, we had a person step up and give about half of that."
Getting the large painting out of the church wasn't an easy task, Rita said, adding six men had to roll it out of the church onto a truckbed with a makeshift easel. The painting, along with the specially made apparatus, weighed several hundred pounds.
"We could roll it very loosely and suspend it on a tube of a very large diameter that was supported by a beam," he said. "It was free-hanging so it wasn't lying on the roller itself. That way we wouldn't have to lay it flat on the bed of the truck. Instead, it would just swing with the motion of the truck."
The men also had to glue tissue to the "face" of the painting to keep it from falling apart, he said, calling the entire moving process "a logistical nightmare."
"It was a pretty unnerving experience considering [the painting's] historical value," he said.
Johnson, whom Rita hired 23 years ago as an apprentice, said he hopes to enlighten the church's parishioners with the painting.
"I'd like people to understand the true historical significance of the piece and realize this artist actually came up to Lancaster to paint it," he said.
"The true beauty of this painting was lost, and for us to be working on restoring it was great. It's kind of a hidden treasure that no one knew about, and we're able to bring it back to the people."
Mirror Staff Writer Jimmy Mincin is at 946-7460.