Social Sciences Panama , Panamá, Thursday, May 27 of 2021, 09:23

Microscopic wood analyses reveal source of cathedral altarpiece

Timber anatomy studies help inform conservation and restoration decisions for historical monuments, and may provide previously unknown information about the artistic techniques or materials used in the past

STRI/DICYT The Metropolitan Basilica Cathedral Santa María La Antigua in Panama is a national monument. Possibly dating back to the late 18th century, it has survived fires and termite damage. To understand the origin and history of the cathedral’s wooden structures and contribute scientific knowledge for conservation and restoration decisions, a team that included the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI) and collaborating institutions analysed its wood and identified its sources.


Not all wood is equal. Some woods tolerate certain environmental conditions better than others, and different woods have different maintenance and repair needs. In the case of the Cathedral altarpiece, all records are believed to have been lost in a fire, but word has it that it was made of cedar. In order to regain some of the missing information, the team took small samples for analysis from the areas permitted by restoration workers. This did not shed light on the exact year it was sculpted, or the artist, but did allow for identification of the tree species used.


With splinter samples under the microscope, STRI intern Janitce Harwood discovered that the original altarpiece was carved from mahogany (Swietenia Jacq); but that the restoration was done with a local cedar species, Cedrela odorata.


“Both species belong to the same family, which could cause confusion,” said Harwood, a biology student at the University of Panama, with training in botany. “At first glance, mahogany wood is reddish and has a pleasant aroma; cedar wood is yellow to reddish in color and has no scent. During the restoration work, the workers were hesitant to use cedar, but this was the information shared by the church.”


She also examined splinters from a wooden sculpture of Saint Andrew. According to churchgoers, it was carved out of guayacan wood (Handroanthus guayacan). But Harwood’s analyses confirmed that although it was a species in the genus Handroanthus Mattos, its anatomical features are most similar to those of guayacan.


“Janitce is an expert in using microscopic details of wood anatomy to identify different species of trees, and the restoration experts were delighted to work with her to identify the original source of wood,” said co-author William Wcislo, STRI senior scientist and science advisor to the director who also participated in the restoration by identifying bee nests covered in gold leaf.


Other than informing conservation and restoration decisions for historical monuments, wood anatomy studies may also provide previously unknown information about the artistic techniques or materials used and clues about the types of timber species that were common in the past.


“This is a contribution to the knowledge about the Cathedral, a national historical monument that is part of our heritage, and a testament to the flora of Panama and how our ancestors used it in the past,” Harwood said. “Perhaps there are not many wooden altars left in Panama. Now, most of them are built with marble. This may be the first study of this kind to be carried out in this part of Latin America.”


Members of the research team are affiliated with STRI, the University of Panama and Dalmática Conservation and Restoration. Research was funded by STRI and Panama’s National Secretariat of Science, Technology and Innovation (SENACYT).



Harwood, J., Tribaldos, W., Lobo, S., Wcislo, W. (2021). Wood identification of the altarpiece and a sculpture of the Cathedral Basilica Santa María la Antigua. European Journal of Science and Theology.