Conservation Case Study: Jain Shrine

Indian Jain Shrine

Conservators spent over a year cleaning, conserving and studying the Jain shrine before it could go on exhibition. The Mellon Foundation provided financial support for the examination of the shrine, allowing the materials of the shrine to be studied and dated. Many questions regarding the shrine’s history were able to be answered through this scientific exploration. Take a look at the answers we found below:

How was the shrine cleaned?
First, any flaking paint and varnish was glued back down in place with a glue that does not change the appearance of the paint. Then, the conservators made a custom gel out of three cleaning agents, or solvents, to remove the varnish. Conservators used microscopes to apply the gel to small areas of the shrine. After 10-15 minutes, foam swabs removed the gel and the varnish along with it. Any longer and the paint might dissolve too!

How long did it take to clean the shrine?
Cleaning a 4x4 inch area of the shrine was a good day’s work. Overall, it took over a year for the team to completely clean the shrine.

How old is the shrine?
Conservators used radiocarbon 14-dating to determine the age of the shrine. Radioactive carbon 14 is present in all living things, and scientists dated the shrine by measuring the rate of decay of the radioactive carbon 14 in samples from the wood. The results of the testing gave a range of dates. The shrine was made no earlier than 1455 C.E. and no later than about 1635 C.E., making the 16th century the most likely date of the shrine. The scientific evidence is supported by art historical analysis, which suggests that the style of the shrine’s carvings look most like 16th century work.

How was it used?
Elaborate domestic shrines, like this one, were constructed by wealthy Jain patrons for use in their private homes. They housed a sculpture of a Jina, likely small in scale and made of metal. Shrines allowed Jains to venerate the image daily, just as they would at a large community temple. While cleaning the shrine, conservators found evidence that the shrine had been adorned with garlands made of gold colored tinsel. Pieces of foil were found still attached to the tops of the columns. The tinsel appeared to be made from bronze, a material no longer used for this purpose, suggesting that the shrine was decorated with garlands a long time ago.

What is It Made Of?

Tests determined that the shrine is made out of teak wood. The paint layers were also analyzed to determine the types of paint used. The original paint layer used many different pigments, including red lead and ultramarine, a blue pigment made from ground lapis lazuli. Lapis Lazuli is imported primarily from Afghanistan, so it was very expensive to obtain. Its presence on the shrine suggests that this was an important commission. The shrine was repainted in the 19th century, and the pigments used include: a red lead ground with emerald green, lead white, orpiment yellow, indigo blue, purple pin dyes and a mix of red lead and cinnabar. Other materials were also used on the shrine, such as glass inserts, mirrored glass and gold leaf.

How was it made?
Over 20 pieces of carved teak wood were pegged together with mortise and tenons, wood dowels, and hand-made nails. It was then painted after it was assembled. Some elements were repaired and reattached at various periods of the shrine's history. Later restorations were done with modern, machine made screws.

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