On site and in the atelier

The man responsible for the gable paintings

Marco Rebel inspects and restores the triangular paintings from the Chapel Bridge and the Chaff Bridge.

Restorer with arachnophobia

He has worked on most of them at some time or other. The paintings in the gables of the Chapel Bridge and the Chaff Bridge are Marco Rebel’s works, too. Read about why spiders of all things make his job so difficult.

He knows almost every single centimeter of the roughly 100 pictures that hang in the gables of the Chapel Bridge and the Chaff Bridge. Marco Rebel is a trained conservator and restorer (University of Applied Sciences (UAS)). The works he dedicates himself to conserving are the picture panels. He has also helped with the restoration of the over 200 gable paintings from the lost Court Bridge. “I was allowed to work on my first picture panel during my internship at a restorer’s in Lucerne,” says Rebel. “It is a beautiful and important job.” Rebel has produced a roughly ten-page report for each picture, documenting all damage, abnormalities, changes and hazards. “The Monument Preservation Department decides if and when a panel should be restored based on this report on its condition.”

You can tell that the painting has seen many, many years go by. And yet it’s still legible.
Marco Rebel, Konservator-Restaurator FH

Nothing’s there by chance

To Marco Rebel, each picture panel has its own charm. “I’m always surprised at how good a condition the paintings are in – despite fluctuations in the climate, the wind and rain, and the impact of man and animals,” says the restorer. “The incredible information hardware that’s been preserved for us is fascinating.” Certain colors are not as bright as they once were. “But the content is still all there. Even if most people have forgotten how to read pictorial language,” comments Rebel. “Sometimes I have trouble myself. But it’s interesting when you read about it in books.” In the 67 picture panels of the Chaff Bridge, wealth and position are depicted symbolically through, for instance, clothing. “The information is very intertwined. Nothing’s there by chance; it’s all planned and deliberate.”

When too much of a good thing is bad

The triangular pictures are painted on wood. Wood works. “There’s movement through fluctuations in temperature and this also damages the painting,” says Rebel. Before the paint flakes off, it lifts slightly. That’s the moment the restorer presses it back down and fixes it with a paint brush and binder. “We’re basically very conservative and don’t do too much to the painting. Preferably every now and then rather than just once and then doing the wrong thing,” says the restorer. “Sometimes, too much of a good thing can also be bad.” Normal conservation and restoration, with all the work steps, color drying and consultation with the Monument Preservation Department, can take up to three or four months.

Tourist can hardly believe that the paintings are the originals. When they say that that could only happen here in Switzerland, it does make me feel a little proud.
Marco Rebel, conservator-restorer UAS
400 years...
is the age of the paintings on Lucerne’s wooden bridges

The inspection round

The restorer inspects and cleans every single picture on both bridges twice a year. He records defective areas and checks whether damaged spots have changed. Marco Rebel keeps a record of every single picture. He cleans away any minor soiling on site without further ado. This is called “conservation”. It includes everything that has to do with the preservation of the paintings. If a painting is badly damaged in several spots, he suggests to the Monument Preservation Department that it be restored. Depending on their state of preservation, the Monument Preservation Department gives him the go-ahead for one to three paintings per year.

Marco Rebel restoring a triangular picture.
Marco Rebel restoring the painting “The Empress,” which can normally be seen on the Chaff Bridge, in his atelier.
Ivory black – this historic color is made from burnt bones and is still used today.
Marco Rebel, conservator-restorer UAS

Colors have changed

The restorer uses aging-resistant color pigments only. He retouches the painting as it is now in its current condition, not how it was 400 years ago. In the past, colors were sometimes used that were not lightfast. These colors have changed over time. If the restorer were to use the same colors, they would eventually change again. “The most expensive color is lapis lazuli, a color pigment that comes from the stone of the same name. It is as valuable as gold. And that is why it was also weighed in gold and used very sparingly. Today, synthetically produced ultramarine blue is used instead.”


The restorer’s tools

  • Small brush for removing dirt
  • Cotton swabs for precise cleaning
  • Paint brush for pressing the original color down and for painting
  • Aging-resistant color for retouching
  • Camera for capturing the actual condition
  • Raking light, which often helps to show up older contours
  • UV lamp for revealing previous retouches
  • Infrared camera makes previous changes such as overpainting or preliminary drawings visible and penetrates deeper into the paint than UV light
  • Nitrogen chamber for tackling woodworm

The enemies of the bridge paintings

Hanging in the gables of the Chapel Bridge and the Chaff Bridge, the triangular paintings are exposed to hazards. But they still belong on the bridges in Marco Rebel’s view.

Should the originals be displayed on the bridges or in a museum? Marco Rebel has heard this same question time and again. Many foreign tourists are also surprised to discover that the paintings on the Chapel Bridge and the Chaff Bridge are the originals. “The works are in an astoundingly good condition given their age and the elements they’re exposed to,” Rebel says. “If you were to rip them out and hang them up in a museum, they’d lose their function and their effect.” The paintings were made for the bridges.

That said, Rebel spots any damage at all to them. “Sometimes it hurts when I see that a picture is covered in pigeon droppings again. I’m glad when I can remove the droppings straight away on site, as otherwise the aggressive acid in the droppings eats into the paint.”

The causes of damage to the paintings

  • Pigeon and sparrow droppings
    Especially when the birds have a nest somewhere, they leave droppings all around.
  • Vandalism
    Bits of broken glass from bottles, for example
  • Spider droppings and webs
    Spiders’ webs can stick very stubbornly to the surface of the paintings.
  • Woodworm
    The insect feeds on wood and lays its eggs in it.
  • Extreme dampness
    For example, the spray from the Reusswehr (Reuss Weir)
Twice a year...
... Marco Rebel inspects the condition of the triangular paintings on the bridges

“They send a shiver down my spine”

Marco Rebel loves his job. But there is something that tests him to his limits, and that is all the spiders under the bridges’ gables. “I have a phobia of spiders,” he reveals. On his inspection rounds he has to clean and remove all the spiders’ webs from the paintings under the gables. “That’s the worst bit about it for me.” Especially in the fall after the insect-eaters have filled their stomachs over the summer. “By then there’s a dense tangle of cobwebs. They really send a shiver down my spine.”

One day on the Chapel Bridge, two on the Chaff Bridge – that is how long the cleaning and conservation work usually takes. They are three tough days for Rebel: “It takes some getting used to for a person who doesn’t like spiders. Though I am actually curious about how old and where in the life cycle they are. I just to prefer to find out from a distance.” To keep that distance, Rebel has made his own gadget for removing spiders’ webs. “Before I only had a short rod, and that was a bit too close for me. The new ones are longer and thicker. Necessity is the mother of invention,” says Rebel, laughing. If you come across Rebel on the bridges, you will find him covered up in gloves, an apron and a cap.

Brush up your knowledge about Lucerne’s wooden bridges