Restoration of stucco ceilings completed

Jan Verbeke’s team spent months restoring the refectory of Park Abbey. They painstakingly restored the stucco ceilings that were created by artist Jan Christian Hansche. “Everyone was amazed at our patience.”

Jan Verbeke in de refter.

Jan Verbeke (65) studied architecture in Ghent. “That’s also where I did my first stucco restoration, after completing my studies. I had rented student digs at the Caermersklooster, and in its sacristy I preserved and restored the Rococo stucco among other things. So yes, I have experience with monasteries,” he says with a smile.

Stucco ceilings by Jan Christian Hansche

In Park Abbey, Verbeke focused on the stucco ceilings created by master carver Jan Christian Hansche. “There are two rooms at Park Abbey for which Hansche carved historical stucco ceilings: the library and the refectory. They are unique works of art that date from the end of the seventeenth century.”

Jan en zijn team aan de slag aan het plafond.

“The stucco was applied to a wooden batten, which was nailed to the heavy beams with wrought-iron nails. On this slatted structure, Hansche used lime mortar to create impressive scenes featuring human and animal figures,” Jan Verbeke explains.

The stucco of the refectory had long shown serious cracks, and as a result the ceiling risked sagging. “Some parts of the stucco also came off here and there, due to people moving about in the building. There was a threat of severe damage.”

Back to the original layer

The works started in September 2018. Jan Verbeke and his team soon noticed that there was water ingress through the side of the ceiling. “Together with engineers in this field, we looked at how we could solve this problem. The rotten beams were removed and replaced by new, epoxy beams. That was a dangerous job, because the stucco could have fallen from the ceiling.”

The intention behind the restoration was to expose the original layer of paint on the ceiling. “The stucco has been overpainted a number of times over the years, blurring the initially finely detailed carving. We carefully removed the layers of paint, right down to the stucco, making the details visible again.”

This process involved soaking the individual layers of paint with damp compresses and scraping them off with scalpels. “It was painstaking work, but we could see it steadily evolving. Everyone was amazed at our patience.”

I do this work out of love for the pure craftsmanship of a bygone era
Jan Verbeke

Jan Verbeke’s team of four worked day in, day out. “This enabled each of us to do our own portion of the work and ask one another questions whenever necessary. It was only once all the layers of paint had been removed that we were able to assess the cracks properly. We then fixed the original parts with a thin liquid stucco mortar that was identical to the mortar originally used.”


Is Jan Verbeke an artist? In addition to his technical and scientific background, he most certainly has the soul of an artist. “I do this work out of love for the pure craftsmanship of a bygone era. They don’t make things like this anymore. We are happy to be able to restore such unique pieces. Each operation, each treatment is studied and discussed in detail before we carry it out.”

The restoration of this stucco ceiling may only be part of the ongoing restoration, but Jan emphasises its importance. “The fact that this task is reserved for specialised restorers is further proof that everything in the abbey is treated with great respect. The city of Leuven opts for quality. We have therefore ensured that our work on the ceilings will retain its beauty for future generations,” Jan Verbeke concludes.

Now that the ceiling is done, further work will be done on restoring and finishing the rest of the refectory. This includes paintwork, which will take an additional year to complete. Visitors will be able to admire the refectory again in 2021.
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