CODART, Dutch and Flemish art in museums worldwide

Pentimento: The Master of Frankfurt’s Virgin and Child

Exhibition: 6 December 2002 - 8 April 2003

See also the exceptionally interesting museum website page on the painting that is the subject of the exhibition.

The term pentimento derives from the Italian ‘to repent’; it is also a technical term that describes the evidence of an artist’s changes to a painting.

The exhibition reveals the fascinating history of this painting, a fifteenth-century Netherlandish work from the Collection, and considers its role in the practices of religious repentance. It is complemented by additional sacred works from the Collection and exquisite, illuminated manuscripts from several Australian collections.

Conservation work has revealed that the artist made significant changes, or pentimenti, before completing the painting; they are disclosed in the exhibition through X-ray and infra-red imaging. The history of the painting’s custody is also uncovered, including its confiscation by the Nazi party for Hitler’s art museum. Research into the history of the Gallery’s paintings has been undertaken as part of a project to research the Nazi-era provenance of works in the Collection and resolve any potential issues of ownership.

The painting

Virgin and Child with Saint James the Pilgrim, Saint Catherine and the Donor with Saint Peter c.1496 is a small devotional panel dating from the end of the fifteenth century. It is the oldest European work in the Collection. More about the provenance of the work is available on the museum website

The subject

The scene illustrates a “holy conversation” portraying the Virgin and Child with selected saints. St Catherine is receiving a wedding ring from the infant Jesus who sits on the Virgin’s knee. St James the Pilgrim kneels behind St Catherine. A donor, who likely paid for the painting, sits at the prayer desk turning the pages of a Book of Hours. St Peter stands behind him and a small dog gazes faithfully at the donor.

The artist

The identity of the Master of Frankfurt is unknown, however he is defined as the artist who painted the Saint Anne Altarpiece for the Dominican Church in Frankfurt, consecrated in 1492. Although his name suggests otherwise, he is firmly associated with the Guild of St Luke and the city of Antwerp. Possible identities for the artist are Conrad Fyol, Hendrik van Wueluwe or Jan de Vos, with van Wueluwe seen as the most likely candidate.

Research findings

The painting is in good condition and has obviously undergone several major restorations in its history. The oak panel has been thinned down to approximately 5mm, cradled and impregnated with wax on the reverse. The cross-braces of the cradle can be seen on the X-radiograph of the panel.

X-radiography

Initial technical analysis of this painting using X-radiography revealed that the male donor seated at the prayer desk was originally a woman. The X-ray image shows the veil and head of the original female donor or saint underneath the head of the current donor. A 1902 exhibition catalogue described the male donor wearing a man’s black coat with white fur trim. This black coat has now disappeared, most likely removed as “overpaint” during a past restoration, revealing a woman’s brown gown. Now a man’s head remains on a woman’s gowned body.

Infra-red reflectography

Infra-red study of this painting shows that the initial underdrawing is quite different from the painting we see on the surface. This is an exciting discovery as paintings from the late fifteenth century usually show little deviation from their careful underdrawing. Old master oil painting technique involved the build up of transparent layers of paint on a reflective white ground, and changes were avoided as they could be seen through the layers above.

It appears that the figure seated at the prayer desk was originally accompanied by St Joseph and St Cornelius. St Joseph has become St James the Pilgrim by overpainting his bare head with a shaggy hat and scallop shell, removing his shoes and adding a long staff. By overpainting his horn with a key, St Cornelius has become St Peter. As the donor figure changed, so did the symbolism of the whole painting. The identity of the original donor is not yet known, but ongoing research may answer this pivotal question.

As well as highlighting changes to the symbolism within the painting, the infra-red reflectogram illustrates the underdrawing style. The lines are generally confident and fully resolved with no searching for contours evident. This suggests tracing from an existing pattern and, given that the Master of Frankfurt managed a busy studio, this is likely.

Studies of other underdrawings by the Master of Frankfurt reveal that he usually used a brush rather than dry charcoal, which appears consistent with the Gallery’s painting. Other consistent stylistic traits include the folds in the drapery being drawn with straight lines; parallel marks for areas of shadow; and the use of two simple lines indicating eyes, lips and a nose, with the upper lip given as a broad stroke. This information is critical to placing the work authentically in the late fifteenth century and to the studio of the Master of Frankfurt.

Ultra-violet light imaging

An inspection under ultra-violet light reveals splits in the panel and dark areas of retouching, probably from a 1959 restoration.

Paint cross-section analysis

A paint sample the size of a pin-head was taken from the edge of the panel near St Peter’s glove for paint cross-section analysis. Looking at the cross-section from the bottom up, the thick white ground layer was found to consist of calcium carbonate which is typical of a fifteenth-century Netherlandish chalk ground. Usually the drawing layer is directly on top of the ground, as we see in this cross-section. The thin black line above the ground consists of carbon black. There is usually a very thin oil priming layer on top of the ground and underdrawing so that the underdrawing remains visible. As we see in this cross-section there appears to be a thin white layer consisting of lead white and calcium carbonate above the drawing layer. The blue layer above this is the image layer and is mostly likely to be azurite. The layers above are probably later restorations.

Conclusion

Physical evidence of pentimenti (the artist changing their mind) is a rare and always fascinating find. New research has highlighted changes previously invisible, allowing a reassessment of the iconography of the panel. Particularly important is the detail now available of the underdrawing line. Distinction of the possible use of a brush and some freehand drawing implies variance from a speedily traced pattern, and gives some credence to part of the drawing being undertaken directly by the Master.

Catalogue

John Murphy, Pentimento: the Master of Frankfurt’s `Virgin and child’: an essay in repentance, Brisbane (Queensland Art Gallery) 2002.