Did you know that bacteria can be one of the greatest friends of art lovers? This is because bacteria can help restore a painting’s patina. “Its what?” Its patina – its natural sheen and luster – which is often lost through age and use. For bacteria to restore a painting’s patina, they must be trained. This leads us to a couple of questions: How in the world do you train bacteria? And what does this have to do with our Christian faith?
Well, actually, the first question is more amusing than the answer itself, because the question alone invites images of rewarding microorganisms with a treat for doing what you want them to do, similar to you training a dog or cat to obey a command. (Sorry, did I say cat? As if you can train a cat to do anything!).
The answer is more straightforward: One “trains” bacteria by growing them in a culture containing a substrate one desires to eliminate. That will become clearer when you hear the unique method used to restore 17th-century frescos in the Church of Santos Juanes in Valencia, Spain, which were painted by Antonio Palomino on the vaults and presbytery of the Santos Juanes Church in the late 17th century. Their subjects include the Virgin Mary with the moon under her feet, John the Baptist and John the Evangelist, the Patriarchs, the Glory of the Sacred Trinity, the saints of the Apocalypse, the church’s patron saint San Vicente Ferrer and the choirs of the Virgins and the Patriarchs.
These great works of art were damaged by a fire in 1936. They continued to deteriorate because of white incrustations growing on them, caused by the buildup of crystallized salts after the fire. They were further harmed by a botched restoration job in the 1960s, when workers used animal glue to reattach parts of the murals – glue that has since hardened into an insoluble layer of gunk. Standard chemicals for removing the salt and glue aren’t advised because they are too toxic and are likely to damage the paint itself, as would physically scraping off the offending substances.
But a creative solution has been found. Biologists from the Centre for Advanced Food Microbiology and restorers from the Institute of Heritage Restoration – both divisions of the Polytechnic University of Valencia – have joined to “train” a strain of the harmless Pseudomonas stutzeri bacteria to eat salt and glue but not paint. And it turns out that these little bugs have quite an appetite for art.
Imbedded in a gel that restorers brush onto the frescos, these bacteria immediately gobble up the salt and glue. Ninety minutes later, the paintings are rinsed with water and dried, killing the bacteria and revealing the clean painting underneath. Mike Olson, writing in Wired magazine about the fresco-restoration process, said, “For the Pseudomonas, every masterpiece is the Last Supper.” Probably he meant that simply as a wry comment, but there’s a theological appropriateness about it as well, which brings us to our second question: “What does this have to do with our Christian faith?”
Hmmm. An agent of restoration dying to render others clean and whole. Where have we heard that before? Obviously, one dying in order to restore others is a New Testament theme in the person of Jesus Christ; but restoration is an important theme song in the Old Testament as well. Thus, the writer of Psalm 130 declares, “For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities” (v. 7).
Now, of course, ancient Israel needed redemption. Israel, whose citizens, and especially whose leaders, seemed often to turn away from the covenant God made with them, had a deep need to be returned to a state of holiness before the Lord. But we, too, have a great need for restoration. We have only to consider what the word implies to see and understand this – that something has deteriorated from its original condition.
Consider this question: “What has deteriorated in your life? Your health? Your marriage? Your relationships? Your reliability? Your hopes and dreams? Your faith? Your sense of peace? Your confidence? Your resolve to live a holy life?” Anytime we say something like “My __________ [fill in the blank] isn’t what it used to be,” we’re identifying a specific aspect of our lives where restoration is needed.
We can, of course, make any one of these deteriorated parts of our lives the subject of prayer, such as asking God to restore our health, or help us reconcile with a friend, or enable us to find inner peace and so on. The Bible tells of such restorations taking place in a single area of life. On one of Jesus’ visits to the synagogue in Capernaum, for example, he encountered a man with a withered hand. Jesus told him to stretch out his hand, and when the man obeyed, “his hand was immediately restored” – making him physically whole. However, there’s no mention of restoration of any other dysfunctional aspect of that man’s life (Mark 3:1-5).
The Bible also shows that some works of restoration have to be of our own doing. Zacchaeus, when graced by Jesus’ attention, resolved to make whole anyone against whom he had inflicted financial deterioration. He said to Jesus, “Look, half of my possessions, Lord, I will give to the poor; and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will pay back four times as much” (Luke 19:8). That’s restoration and then some!
However, the Bible gives examples of a broader restoration as well. Consider the case of the paralytic who was lowered through the roof of a house where Jesus was teaching. The man was seeking restoration of the use of his legs, of course; but before doing anything about that, Jesus said to him, “Your sins are forgiven.” He went on to heal the man’s body as well, enabling the man to take up his mat and walk. So, when the man left that place, it was not only his legs that were restored, but also his peace with God (Mark 2:1-12).
Commenting on the healings in the New Testament, Edwin Hui, a professor of bioethics and Christianity at Regent College, notes, “Especially in the New Testament, physical healing is not considered to be a complete restoration of human well-being. Complete healing must take place on the basis of redemption, which brings forgiveness of sins, reconciliation with God and renewal of relationships with others.” This gives us another way to think about what’s worn down in our lives. Is it a single aspect about which we need to pray, or is it a symptom of a larger deterioration affecting who we are on a deeper spiritual level? If it’s the latter, then we need to ask God to redeem us again.
If some places of our lives become soot-covered by a firestorm, incrusted with sin growth, or dulled by a hardened heart, we may be pessimistic about whether any kind of deep restoration is even possible in order to restore our patina. But, of course, the “impossible” is where God’s work is often seen most clearly. Consider God’s words to Jewish exiles in Babylonia, spoken through Jeremiah. God first characterizes their plight, saying, “Your hurt is incurable, your wound is grievous. There is no one to uphold your cause, no medicine for your wound, no healing for you.” But then God says, “For I will restore health to you, and your wounds. I will heal [. . .] I am going to restore the fortunes of the tents of Jacob, and have compassion on his dwellings.” And the result? “Out of them shall come thanksgiving, and the sound of merrymakers” (Jeremiah 30:12-13, 17-19).
When we think about restoration in our own lives, it’s important to see that the Bible is not talking about putting something back in its exact original condition. A good way to understand biblical restoration is by analogy with property restorations. Dwight Young, for many years an officer with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, writes about coming upon a preservation-revitalization project that, as he saw it, had gone too far. Actually, it was impressive, he declared, to see a row of old buildings gleaming like new after decades of neglect. “Brickwork was freshly scrubbed, woodwork newly painted. Signs advertised cheery apartments on the upper floor. At street level, some of the storefronts were already occupied, while others were decked with ‘opening soon’ banners [. . .] It all looked bright and hopeful [. . .] and disturbingly brand new.”
Young went on to say that such preservation misses the basic concept. “Instead of just doing what’s needed to keep a building’s integrity, stability and usefulness, we’re all too eager to slam it with the architectural equivalent of a face peel, a tummy tuck and a hefty dose of Botox.” The beauty of an old building, Young explains, is that it’s old, and stripping away all evidence of its age is disrespectful.
We pause here to note that the restoration work on the frescos in the Valencia church is not aimed at making them look like they did the day the artist completed them. Rather, it’s to remove grime, repair damage and stabilize them so that their inherent beauty and message – and even their age – can be seen and speak to today’s viewers. Which brings us back to the word “patina.” Young reminds us that patina – the sheen produced by age and use – is a highly desirable commodity, not just in Chippendale chairs, but also in buildings. And, we would add, in Christians. Our Christian patina, developed over time and perfected with age, is a vital commodity that needs to be constantly protected and restored.
God’s promise of restoration is not to return us to a state of naiveté or unthinking discipleship. Neither is it a spiritual tummy tuck, merely lopping off the useless weight we carry in our souls because we feed them with things that don’t properly nourish our spirits. Rather, when we seek restoration from God, the Lord grants us wholeness – where the beauty of our scars, the wisdom from our struggles and the empathy from the dark valleys we’ve walked enable us to live in deeper peace and gratitude and confront life as it is with hope.
This kind of restoration is what the author of Psalm 51 sought when he prayed, “Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:12). Joy of our salvation and a willing spirit: that’s patina; that’s sheen and luster. As Christians, if our lives and spirits have deteriorated for whatever reason, we need to ask God to restore our Christian patina – our Holy Spirit sheen and luster. After all, we want to be Christians with a joyful heart and a willing spirit, because that’s who we’re called to be.
And, ultimately, we need our individual patinas restored because God has called us, as Christ’s Church, to be in the restoration business for the world, as this closing illustration reminds us:
“An old story circulating in the Netherlands tells of an ancient church, older than the Reformation. Its sanctuary, like so many others that had come through that turbulent period, was austere and simple, with plain, whitewashed walls.
“The people of that church had a tradition, so old that no one remembered its origins. As worshipers entered the church, they would stop and silently bow in the direction of one particular whitewashed wall. No one knew why. They just did it. It was tradition.
“In modern times, it was decided to renovate the church. The restorers began to strip the accumulated layers of whitewash off the interior walls. When they got to this particular wall, they discovered a fresco that had been hidden under successive layers of whitewash. It was a beautiful, centuries-old painting of Christ.
“No one in the parish was old enough to have remembered it. Yet, everyone had been bowing to it, without recalling why. It was the restoration experts who had revealed the truth behind the tradition.
“Many in our culture still bow to the traditions preserved in the church, but without recalling why. This is tradition without truth, reverence without referent. An unchurched couple shows up with their new baby, figuring baptism is something they want, but without knowing why. An unbelieving neighbor, vocal in his unbelief, climbs a ladder each year to hang Christmas lights from the eaves of his house. A family whose loved one is dying asks the hospice chaplain to stop by and “say a few words” by the bedside. What words? They’re not exactly sure, but they figure the chaplain will know what to do.
“Maybe the role of the church in a postmodern age is to provide the restoration experts society needs to recover its soul.” May we be such a church!