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Research by KIK-IRPA Laboratories

Figurines Holy Family

Art & History Museum, Brussels, European ethnology collection

Authors of the report: Lieve Watteeuw and Roosje Baele (KU Leuven)

Report date: 21 October 2021

Research keywords: Devotion, wax, figure devozionale vestite (in cera), devotional cabinets, bell jar

Art Historical background

Wax proved to be a popular material for the serial production of sculptures of saints during the ancien regime. Some convents (for instance Sisters of Saint-Clare and Carmelites) have made them until recently, but most conserved wax figures date from the 19th and the 20th century. In some convents in Germany, recipes for the preparation of wax were written down ( Abbey of Montorge (Freiburg), Notkersegg (Sankt Gallen) and Eschenbach (Luzerne)). These recipes were for their own use. In this way knowledge could be passed on, besides the fact that objects were exchanged, and certain individuals travelled from monastery to monastery to share their technical knowhow. Wax was bleached first with turpentine, white lead and carmine, which emphasized the sacral meaning of the devotional object. Then, the wax – melted at 80-90 °C - was cast into moulds (either in plaster, wood or ceramics). Depending on the size of the figurine, the moulds consisted of two parts: one part for the front, and another for the back of the figure. Mostly, the provenance of the moulds is difficult to trace, probably, these were not made by the nuns themselves but bought from craftsmen. By the beginning of the 20th century, moulds for separate parts (hands and heads) were produced, which could be ordered by the convents via catalogues. In France, some secular workshops were also well known for their wax figurines (or "cire habillées"), particularly the workshops in Nancy (for example the brothers Guillot), Angers and Nevers.

In our regions only hands, busts and feet were executed in wax, notably the visible parts of the body. Unlike in Germany where the sculpture was entirely cast including the clothing; the figures were dressed and decorated with silk, small beads, gold and silver metal thread. In Germany, these figurines were a part of the so-called "Klosterarbeit": devotional objects were produced in convents, especially in the women's convents, as part of their religious duties. From the 16th-17th century, richly decorated mangers in wax (ichnographically derived from the Birth of Christ) were made; via the convents and courts these objects found their way into popular piety. The devotion of the Christ Child has a long tradition, not in the least in monastic context where statuettes were made in polychrome wood, terracotta or pipe clay. For example, sisters who entered the convent in Germany (17th-19th centuries) were expected to donate a statuette of a standing Christ Child (depending on their family income), executed in wax and sometimes dressed in garments of silk and brocade. From the second part of the 19th century on, religious wax sculptures were generally protected by bell jars. According to Knippenberg (1985), the figurines under a bell jar have their roots in 18th-century devotional cabinets which proved to be popular for private devotion. The dressing (precious textiles) and decoration (dried or self-made flowers) of the saint figurines were done by beguines or nuns. In their turn, these cabinets are derived from the 16th-century Enclosed Gardens, like the ones in Mechelen. In the first instance, these figurines, whether in a cabinet or under a bell jar, were conceived as a devotion to Our Lady, decorated with flowers and beads. The glass would protect, then, the content from damage or dust.

Literature review

Andlauer, Jeanne. Modeler des corps : reliquaires, canivets et figures de cire des religieuses chrétiennes, unpublished doct. Dissertation. Lille: Atelier de Reproduction des Thèses, 2008.

Angeletti, Charlotte. Geformtes Wachs. Kerzen, Votive, Wachsfiguren. Munich: Callwey Verlag, 1990, 51-52.

Aptel, Claire. Les cires habillés nancéiennes. Tableau de cire et d'étoffes. Nancy: Musée Lorrain, 1989.

Berthod, Bernard and Elisabeth Hardouin-Fugier. Dictionnaire des arts liturgiques XIXe-XXe siècle. Paris: Les éditions de l'amateurs, 1996.

Bernasconi, Gianenrico. "Pour une histoire technique de l'artisanat conventual. Fabrication et échange des Klosterarbeiten (XVIIIe-XIXe siècles)." In Editions de l'EHESS – Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 3, 183 (2018): 143-166.

Blanquart, Patrick. "Cire d'abeille et objets de devotion." In Ruches et abeilles: architecture, traditions, patrimoine, published by Gaby Roussel and Jean-Marie Mestre, xx-xx. Nonette: Editions, Créer, 2005.

Galley, Nicolas. "Poupées de cire, poupées de songes." In Au-delà du visible. Reliquaries et travaux de couvents, published by Yvonne Lehnherr et al, 45-51. Fribourg: Musée d'art et d'histoire Fribourg, 2004.

Geybels, Hans. Het heiligenbeeldje. Een biografie. Antwerpen: Halewijn, 2015, 33, 85.

Knippenberg, W.H.T., Devotionalia: religieuze voorwerpen uit het katholieke leven. Eindhoven: Bura Boeken, 1985, 155-169

Knippenberg, W.H.T, "Stolpen IV (slot)." In Brabants Heem, 24 (1972): 23-28.

Lacroix, Laurier. "Les petits Jésus de cire." In Cap-aux-Diamants (la Revue d'histoire de Québec), 32 (1993): 28-31., traditie wordt nog steeds verdergezet)

Le Gac, Agnès, Teresa Isabel Madeira, Marco Stanojev Pereira et al. "Challenging wax-cast figurine serial production unravelled by multi-analytical techniques." In JAAS, 30 (2015): 790-812.

Lehnherr, Yvonne & C. Schuster-Cordone eds. Au-delà du visible. Reliquaries et travaux de couvents. Fribourg: Musée d'art et d'histoire Fribourg, 2004.

Marinus, Albert. Le folklore belge, Tome III. Turnhout: Editions Brepols, s.d., 234-257.

Utrecht 1982. Vroomheid per dozijn. Utrecht: Catharijneconvent, 1982.

Figurines Holy Family

Art & History Museum, Brussels, European ethnology collection

Authors of the report: Victoria Beltran, Andrea Marchetti, Karolien De Wael (UA)

Report date: 25/11/2021

Research keywords: sequins, brass, degradation, microenvironment

Material Technical Research

This object includes sequins attached to the figurines. Interestingly, these sequins show very different degradation degree and, based on the observation by naked eye, they can be classified in two groups I) corroded and II) not corroded.

The sequins seem to be made of brass and attached with a nail, which has the same size and the same degradation degree in all the sequins. However, the sequins are placed on different surfaces: sequins from group II are placed in a figurine made of straw covered with a red fabric or in another one made of cardboard covered with a white fabric. On the other hand, the sequins from group II are placed in a figurine of straw covered first with cardboard and with a white fabric on the top. Since all the sequins have a similar shape we assume that they have the same age and, being all of them attached to the same object, we assume that they have been exposed to the same environment (humidity, temperature, type of light, etc). Consequently, the initial hypothesis is that the specific materials where the sequins are attached (microenvironment) have a strong influence in their degradation reactions.

This hypothesis has been verified by the analysis of two differently degraded sequins and the materials where they are attached. Raman spectroscopy will be used to analyze the degradation compounds of the sequins, which allows to characterize a wide range of inorganic materials. FTIR spectroscopy will be used for the materials used to build up the figurines in order to avoid the fluorescence normally associated to organic materials in the Raman spectra.

Analyzed sequins (a: top, b: bottom). 1: degraded, 2: non-degraded


The main goal of this research is to decipher the different degree of degradation of the sequins and the role of the microenvironment in this process, specifically which precise factors have induced the degradation. This will allow to optimize the preventive conservation of these materials.

Materials and methods

The FTIR spectra were collected with a spectrometer Bruker Alpha II equipped with a DTGS detector and a diamond ATR accessory. A total of 128 scans have been accumulated in each sample, using a resolution of 4 cm-1 and a wavenumber range between 4000 to 400 cm-1. The spectra showed have not been corrected in order to avoid any kind of distortion.

Raman spectroscopy measurements were performed by means of an InVia Qontor Microscope (Renishaw) under a 785 nm laser, considering the effective range of 150-1000 cm1. At each point, 5 accumulations were collected during 10 seconds each one. The spectra showed have not been corrected in order to avoid any kind of distortion.

The optical microscopy (OM) observation was performed with a Nikon Eclipse LV100 microscope.

Raman spectra of the degradation products found in sequin 1 (red) and sequin 2 (black)

Results and discussion

As it can be seen in the first figure, the degraded sequin has corrosion products (blue/green materials) that are more abundant in the regions closer to the nail. These degradation products have been analyzed by Raman spectroscopy showing the presence of degradation products based in copper (sulfates and copper phosphates, related to the band at ≈990 cm-1) [1] Although these compounds can be found in a larger extend in the most corroded sequin, the related peak is also visible in the less corroded sequin so it can be assumed that the degradation products are similar in both samples. On the other hand, the degradation products found in the nail are mainly iron oxides and iron hydroxides [2] . There are some differences in the precise composition of the nails in each sequin but, like in the degradation products, the main compounds are similar.

Raman spectra of the degradation products found in the nail of sequin 1 (red) and sequin 2 (black)

The fact that similar degradation products have been observed allows to assume that the degradation process in both sequins is analogous (and it is probably similar in the remaining ones), although the degradation degree is higher in certain sequins.

The textile where the sequins are attached have been analyzed by FTIR spectroscopy. Results show that all textiles contain protein (bands at 1625 and 1522 cm-1), probably related to silk. However, the textile of the figure where the sequins are more degraded also contains cellulose (broad band centered at 1012 cm-1). This difference can probably explain the different degradation degree of degradation of the sequins, since the sorption of water of cellulose is higher than silk. [3,4] This factor is probably combined with the fact that the most corroded sequins are attached to thicker parts of the object, which can retain bigger amounts of moisture. Thus, despite the environment was similar for all the sequins, the difference in the microenvironment was strong enough to promote a faster degradation in the sequins that can compromise their physical appearance/integrity.

FTIR spectra of the textile where the sequins were attached. Blue and red spectra correspond to the figures where the sequins are not corroded, green spectrum corresponds to the figure where the sequins are corroded


The Raman spectra demonstrated that degradation products of the analyzed sequins are similar, this allows to assume that the degradation mechanism is comparable. However, the degradation degree is more advanced in a specific group of sequins: this is probably explained by I) the higher water sorption capability of the textile where the corroded sequins are attached (a mixture of silk and cellulose compared to pure cellulose), and II) the higher volume of the object in the regions where these sequins are placed, which allows to retain more moisture. This increase of moisture in the microenvironment of the sequins probably induced a faster degradation of the nails and, later on, the corrosion of the sequins.

These results allow to demonstrate the importance of the microenvironment in the conservation of the sequins even when the environmental conditions are similar.


[1] Downs, R. T. "The RRUFF Project: an integrated study of the chemistry, crystallography, Raman and infrared spectroscopy of minerals." Program and Abstracts of the 19th General Meeting of the International Mineralogical Association in Kobe, Japan, 2006.


] Colomban, P., Cherifi, S., & Despert, G. (2008). Journal of Raman Spectroscopy, 39(7), 881-886.

[3] Jeffries, R. (1960). J Text Inst 51:T340–T374.

[4] Zhang, X., Wyeth, P. (2007). Applied spectroscopy, 61(2), 218-222.