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The Death of Saint Francis Xavier

Veronica Stern c.1740-1750

watercolor on parchment

12.3 x 20.4 cm

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, IL 

This small painting attributed to Victoria Stern is one of a pair of cabinet miniatures that retain their original eighteenth century frames. The thin paint layers are bound in a plant gum medium and are in delicate condition. Small pockets of active flaking were present across the surface. The painting was generally susceptible to flaking and loss. 

Identified and attributed works by Veronica Stern are rare, but her personal and family relationships put her in the center of a prestigious milieu of artists. The Sterns were a family of German artists and architects who moved to Rome where Veronica was admitted to the artistic Academy of San Luca in 1742. [1] 

The compositions of her two miniatures closely follow earlier paintings by Giovanni Battista Gaulli, called il Baciccio, and Carlo Maratta. My research has shown that these painting are both located in the church of Sant'Andrea al Quirinale in Rome, where they were placed during the church’s seventeenth century construction by architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini. The original provenance and commissioning of the miniature copies from Stern is unknown.


The fact that Stern copied the paintings from a church with notable architecture is interesting as her father Ignaz Stern, and brother, Ludivico Stern, were often employed on creating architectural schemes for interiors. They frequently painted copies after desirable Italian painters and it seems that Veronica was often employed to reproduce paintings in miniature scale. 

During the 1740’s Stern is documented as working for the Catholic Stuart princes during their exile in Rome when they employed her to produce miniatures based on larger portraits. [2] These portraits exhibit many of the same techniques used in the Art Institute’s miniatures. 

Left: The Death of St. Francis Xavier by Giovanni Battista Gauli and its architectural setting in Sant'Andrea al Quirinale, Rome. 

The goal of my treatment has been to stabilize the raised edges, lifting flakes of the painting. This condition is most severe in localized areas of high gloss, which might be due to an artist applied coating of extra binding medium. Despite its previous characterization as an oil painting, small tests showed that the paints were sensitive to moisture. FTIR Analysis confirmed that all paints and the white ground layer below are bound with a plant gum, characteristic of watercolor paints or gouache.


Gelatin at 1% in water was selected as an appropriate consolidation material based on conservation literature from treatments of flaking in medieval manuscripts. [3] During tests, gelatin was applied with and without priming the substrate using ethanol. In both cases slight swelling of the parchment was observed from the water absorption, but after drying no deformation remained. Applying ethanol before the gelatin encouraged the consolidant to travel further into cracks in the paint and ground. Paper dental tips were used to absorb any excess adhesive while a thinned bamboo skewer was used to apply gentle pressure to raised flakes. I have continued to refine this method as I work across the surface. After finishing consolidation, fills or inpainting may be added as necessary to compensate for lost areas. 


Before Treatment, Raking Light

After Consolidation, Raking Light

[1] Noack Fried, Translation by Elizabeth Wigfield “Die Künstlerfamilie Stern in Rom,” Monatshefte für Kunstwissenschaft, 13, no. 2 (1920), pp. 166-173. Published by Deutscher Kunstverlag GmbH Munchen Berlin
Stable URL:

[2] Edward T. Corp, The Stuarts in Italy, 1719-1766: A Royal Court in Permanent Exile. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, 297-299.

[3] Abigail B. Quandt,“Recent Developments in the Conservation of Parchment Manuscripts,” The American Institute for Conservation Book and Paper Group Annual, vol. 15, 1996.

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