March 9, 2017
What is the oldest thing in your house? How different is it today from when it was new? Whether it’s a beloved chair, piece of silver, family heirloom or painting, chances are it shows the wear and tear of generations. The object has a history and all of the happy or unhappy accidents, re-varnishings, scars or well-meaning repairs reveal that history (for better or worse). In America, the history of most objects goes back a few hundred years. In the Old World, that time frame is extended.
I first learned this lesson buying a table in Italy. The nice man who sold it to me explained in the slow and simple Italian he uses to speak to a five year old (since he readily knew I would understand little else) “This table is only a little over a hundred years old, it is not an antique.” I nodded like I understood but my definition of old was suddenly and forever revised.
I thought about these things the other day when I was able to see a set of early 15th century panel paintings, owned by the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, that are now in the midst of a fascinating restoration. The long wooden panels are part of an altarpiece that may have been created in Venice or in Southern Italy (on the heel of the boot in Puligia) by painters and craftsman from either Crete or Venice (or both).
The Monopoli Altarpiece found its way to Boston to decorate the home of Dr. & Mrs. Elliot Hubbard in the early 1900’s. It was gifted to the museum in 1937. Dr. and Mrs. Hubbard must have loved collecting Byzantine art because they had many more fine pieces in their home that their son later gifted to the MFA and the Harvard Museums.
The altarpiece was created for the Church of St Stephen, in Monopoli. Its seven panels depict the Virgin and Child in the center flanked by the saints Christopher, Augustine, Stephen, John the Baptist, Nicholas and Sebastian. They look a bit exhausted from their long trip through time. The altarpiece shows the ravages of 500 years of worship, travel, decoration, previous restoration and undesirable framing. It is now undergoing careful examination by art scientists with vast expertise. It has been carefully disassembled, X-rayed, Infra-red photographed, chemically analyzed, microscopically examined and exhaustively catalogued. The care and precision with which this is all happening boggles the mind. Let me give you an example.
The most distracting damage, that in my mind keeps the beauty of these paintings at a frustrating distance, are the brownish brushwork stains tarnishing the golden halos surrounding the faces.
When you look at something undeniably breathtaking, like a Fra Angelico, that pristine (almost trademark) golden halo creates a transparent glow that delights your eye. If you can imagine the messy brown stains, in the images below, restored to a lustrous burnished pure gold leaf flat circle, the beauty of the faces suddenly comes into focus. Turns out the gilding is in two layers; an original layer and then a newer one and those ugly stains are from varnish and oil applied over the gold from a now unsuccessful restoration. And here is where things get even more interesting.
The original gilding was amazingly pure. The MFA’s restorer in charge of the project is Caitlin Breare and she explains, “Of the two gilded layers, the oldest of a much higher quality. The gold used is extremely pure, with almost no trace of silver or copper (so, 24 carat gold). It was applied over a yellow ocher ground, which is a technique used by Cretan gilders, and possibly elsewhere in the East.”
The gilding of the original is called water gilding. Although the layer of gold is amazingly thin, it rests on an almost perfectly flat surface and can be burnished to a rich luster. The newer layer has major flaws. The restoration gilding has the evocative name of “mordant gilding.” Caitlin explains, this mordant gilding used some sort of sticky resin or oil (the mordant) to adhere a poor quality gold. The word mordant comes from a French word meaning “to bite”. It may have looked great at the time but now, the impurities in the low quality gold have tarnished and the resin has turned into that ugly brown sludge reminding me of unfortunate photo repairs done with now cracked and yellowed scotch tape. Astonishingly, it is the actually a good thing that the poor quality gilding was done “mordantly” because now, the restorers at the MFA can gently loosen the “bite” of the mordant layer, remove it altogether and reveal the underlying layer of original pure gold. What a treasure hunt this has turned out to be.
The experts also looked at the backs of the paintings and discovered some intriguing tool marks. These marks, like tiny footprints from the past (think bread crumbs on the path or tracks in the snow) have led the team to a startling realization. Somewhere along the way someone switched the order of the panels. Take a look at the picture below and see if you agree? The tell-tale tool marks indicate St. Sebastian and John the Baptist swapped places at some point in the altarpiece’s journey. The plan now is to put them back where they originally stood and the art historians I spoke with felt confident that this original composition feels less awkward and more pleasing to the eye.
The MFA received a generous grant from the John and Sonia Lingos Family Foundation to do all this painstaking work. God bless them. What a noble endeavor to endow. In these cost-conscious times where museum budgets are in jeopardy and the Arts go begging for support it is gratifying to know work like this can carry on. It raises some interesting questions about the goals of restoration? Is the idea to make the Altarpiece look new? Should that be the goal or should they leave well enough alone and just let the object be in all its imperfect glory? Is original condition somehow better than seeing the battle scars of 500 years?
In this case, the poor quality 19th century frame, the flawed repairs, the wrong panel positions and countless other issues hide the beauty of a masterpiece with the veil of well-meaning but ultimately unsound restorations. Current best practices in the Restoration Arts mandate everything done to alter the work of art should be able to be undone in the future. The ugly now-corrupted mordant gilding was not done intentionally in this manner but, it just worked out happily that it can now be safely removed. Will the restored altarpiece be perfect? Of course not. Perfection with something this old is clearly the enemy of the good.