In Your Midst

The Making of a Masterpiece
The Cathedral's Renaissance Treasure at the Seattle Art Museum

March 2004

Florence, Italy. 1456. For painters, it was perhaps the most exciting time in the history of the world. It was the age of Botticelli, Donatello, Fra Filippo Lippi, and Fra Angelico. They were breaking through the limitations of Gothic style, and every day new horizons were opening up, new ways of seeing. Moreover, business was booming: commissions flooded into successful studios from churches, government offices, and private homes.

On Friday, August 6, 1456, Bartholomeo Lucha Martini visited the workshop of 37-year-old Neri di Bicci, the third in a distinguished line of Florentine painters which included his father and grandfather. Di Bicci was a highly successful artist with a team of apprentices (from four to six at any given time) working under him in a spacious studio; he was also a careful and pious businessman, who for some twenty years kept a diary recording all his commissions, large and small, a diary dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary. On that day, Di Bicci wrote: “I undertook to paint… one small square-shaped altarpiece… Our Lady with Our Lord at her neck and on each side are three saints… Our Lady in fine German blue and the halo with stars in fine gold.”

Seattle Art Museum conservator Nicholas Dorman has painstakingly removed the effects of a drastic 1950s restoration.  Here he points to a long crack where two panels of the painting have become nearly separated from each other.  As he continues work on the painting, this crack will be mended.

Dorman holds an image of a pre-restoration St. John the Baptist next to the restored face of the saint.  The heavy-handed "overpainting" done in 1950 is clearly visible.  The hair and beard were thickened and heavy shadows added to the eyes and nose, completely changing his expression.  Notice also how the halo was repainted.

The 1950s "overpainting" removed from the faces of saints Luke, Bartholomew, and Lawrence revealed wonderfully delicate countenances and expressions.

During restoration, Dorman discovered that the knife in the hand of St. Bartholomew was originally overlaid with a rare "silver leaf," long since corroded.

Close examination reveals how the original drawing differed from the finished painting; look at the thumb of the infant.

Assistants prepared a panel for the painting: four rather thick (1 3/8”) panels of poplar wood, joined and sanded smooth. This surface received several coatings of gesso, layered until it was as smooth as polished ivory and brilliantly white. Designs were transferred to this surface from preliminary “cartoons,” sometimes by pouncing a perforated drawing with carbon powder; sometimes by incising an image onto the gesso; bolder artists drew freehand on the white surface of the panel. Egg tempera was the medium of the day (oils, brought from Northern Europe, would soon revolutionize Italian painting). This was a painstaking technique which required building up colors, from dark to light, by means of tiny strokes. These strokes dried rapidly and hence could not be mixed on the panel itself.

The colors themselves were of the highest possible quality and came from every corner of the earth. Some pigments were as carefully guarded as gold leaf. Ultramarine, the rich blue which DiBicci used for the Blessed Virgin’s mantle, was made from the finest lapus lazuli, quarried in faraway Afghanistan, transformed by a singularly tortuous process into rich pigment. These pigments were mixed by the artist in an emulsion of egg yolk.
In Neri Di Bicci’s workshop, every new commission was also a teaching tool, and undoubtedly the Madonna and Child with Saints is the work of many hands. DiBicci’s pupils included notables like Francesco Botticini and Cosimo Rosselli. The custom was for the master to paint the faces of the Virgin and Child himself.

According to Di Bicci’s journal, his workshop turned out some 400 commissions in twenty-five years, which averages just 23 days per work. We can guess, then, that before the year was out, a completed altarpiece was delivered to Bartholomeo Lucha Martini.
What happened next? After 1456, the altarpiece’s five hundred “hidden years” began; during this long stretch its provenance is unknown. Scorch marks here and there indicate that it was in use as an altarpiece; and in the 19th century the painting was put into a new, Renaissance-style frame.

The painting reemerges into recorded history in 1950. In honor of the centenary of the Diocese of Nesqually/Seattle, St. James Cathedral underwent a major renovation and redecoration. At this time the Madonna and Child with Saints was unearthed and hung on the east wall of the Cathedral Chapel (the beautiful stained-glass window was walled over to accommodate it). The painting had been thoroughly refurbished for the occasion: a long crack where two of the poplar wood panels had become nearly separated from each other was filled in with gesso. This crack, running across the noses of the saints, led to the repainting of their faces and halos: the beautiful gold leaf was painted over entirely with ordinary gold paint, while the beards and faces of the saints were overpainted, freshening the overall appearance of the painting but completely concealing (and sometimes badly distorting) the delicate brushwork of DiBicci’s workshop.

Now, thanks to the generosity of Dr. Alec Clowes and Dr. Susan Detweiler, two good friends of Father Ryan, this Renaissance treasure is being restored at the Seattle Art Museum and will be the centerpiece of a special exhibition of Renaissance Devotional Art beginning March 25, 2004 and continuing through June 13, 2004.

Restoration has been a painstaking work of many months: in some ways just as painstaking as the work of DiBicci in painting the altarpiece, and certainly more time consuming. Nor is conservation an exact science. Nicholas Dorman, chief conservator at the Seattle Art Museum, must constantly balance the desire to restore the work to what he imagines the artist intended, with the need to preserve some sense of the painting’s history and the hands that have touched it over the centuries. At the same time, the painting must remain an object of great beauty suitable for devotion in our time.

Dorman has gone over the painting centimeter by centimeter, front and back, repairing, removing layers of paint and varnish, revealing long-hidden beauties. The gold paint which covered the gold leaf background had to be flaked off little by little with a scalpel—the gold leaf being water soluble, a solution could not be used to remove this surface without destroying the gold underneath. The paint which covered the egg tempera portions of the painting was swabbed off with a special solvent, a tiny portion at a time, with a cotton swab.

The restoration not only makes for a much more beautiful painting: it also reveals DiBicci’s artistry in new and fascinating ways. The restoration, Dorman says, “has brought to light Neri’s delicate and refined rendering of the Madonna and Child and of the faces of the saints, showing him to be more than merely an interesting historical figure and revealing... subtlety of execution.” Art historian Elizabeth Darrow adds: “The Virgin and Child with Six Saints is not merely a valuable commodity or a fascinating artifact for study. Its primary purpose remains, as it was five hundred years ago, to bring solace and inspire thoughtful meditation.”

This is a unique moment, a rare meeting of the Seattle Art Museum with a living piece of art, a Renaissance painting that still serves the purpose for it was painted: to inspire love and devotion for the infant Christ and his blessed mother Mary. 

This article is deeply indebted to a new, richly illustrated book about St. James' DiBicci altarpiece, to be released in conjunction with the exhibit at SAM.  Renaissance Art in Focus:  Neri di Bicci and Devotional Painting in Italy includes articles by art historian Elizabeth Darrow and conservator Nicholas Dorman, and will be available in the Cathedral Bookstore.  The SAM exhibit opens on March 25, 2004.  Our meditation on DiBicci's Madonna and Child with Saints continues in the "Image of the Divine" in this issue.

Maria Laughlin is the Office Manager at St. James Cathedral.

Link to other articles in the March 2004 issue


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