Conservation Ghost Story: The Tale of the Haunting Stain

Hans Weiditz’s Athena and Arachne from Von der Artzney Bayder Gluck. 1532. Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts. 

Hans Weidtiz’s Athena and Arachne is a ghoulish print. Over 450 years old, this woodcut depicts the haunting story of Arachne, a mortal woman who challenged the goddess Athena. In return, Athena transformed Arachne into a spider. It’s full of haunting images, including Arachne as a spider in the web, Athena looming in the bushes, and even creepy creatures in Athena’s kneecaps. 

But what really terrified the paper lab conservators was a particularly ugly and disfiguring stain. When they began treatment, it was clear that this stain had been haunting the print for a long time, and it wasn’t going to leave its home easily.

The conservators turned to their favorite weapon of choice: water. They are skilled at manipulating water in so many different ways - the stain didn’t stand a chance! The first maneuver to battle this stain was slant washing. They put the print on a wet, channeled fabric at an angle. After a short amount of time, they saw brown discoloration slowly coming out of the print, meaning they were pulling out the stain! Or so they thought. The print lightened, but the stubborn stain remained. 

Yellow discoloration washing out of the print during slant washing.

As the fog rolled in over the museum, they tried a few more tactics: blotters (thick absorbent paper which, when wet, will pull stains out of the print), a suction table (trying to literally suck out the stain), and a water bath. Though all of these techniques cleaned the print, nothing was enough to completely remove the stain. 

Trying to suck out the stain on the suction table.

At this point, it was the end of the day and darkness was starting to fall on the museum. The stain may have won the first round of this battle, but the cliffhanger ending remains untold—to see the results, visit the print in The World in a Book: The Nuremberg Chronicle and the Art of German Renaissance , opening at the Legion of Honor on January 9, 2016.

--Anisha Gupta, Graduate Intern in Paper Conservation

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