Medieval altarpiece on view at museum


Some modern detective work has brought new insight into a collection of 15th-century panels that once adorned a church altar in Spain.

Scientific analysis of the medieval panels painted between 1480 and 1500 for the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo has not only revealed underdrawings hidden for around 500 years, but has also elevated the status of an artist who worked on the panels.

Researchers found that a virtually unknown artist named Maestro Bartolome who had worked alongside the better-known Fernando Gallego was responsible for about half of the panels &

and was an outstanding artist in his own right.

"We knew Bartolome worked with Gallego. We didn't know his technique and style and hand was such a quality," said Mark Roglan, director of Southern Methodist University's Meadows Museum in Dallas, where the panels are the centerpiece of an exhibit on display through July 27.

The exhibit features the cathedral's 26 remaining panels, which depict biblical events including Genesis, the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.

"It's been called one of the greatest altarpieces of the 15th century," said Claire Barry, chief conservator of paintings at Fort Worth's Kimbell Art Museum.

The exhibit gives viewers a peek into the past with illuminated copies of the underdrawings, which are the sketches the artists made of the scene before painting them. In a panel depicting Adam and Eve, for example, the Bartolome originally had Eve kneeling next to Adam, but the finished panel shows Eve emerging from Adam's rib.

Those underdrawings, revealed with the help of an infrared camera, have given scholars some insight into the practices of artists' workshops at the time.

Barry, who did the technical analysis on the paintings, said that looking at the underdrawings helped them learn how two workshops came together to work on a piece, how labor was divided and what the differences and similarities were among the artists.

Barry found that the 23 larger "narrative" panels, measuring about — 1/2 feet by 5 feet, were split about evenly between the two artists. But Gallego did all three smaller panels, measuring about 2 1/2 feet by — 1/2 feet, that formed the bottom row of the altarpiece.

She also discovered distinct differences in the work of Gallego and Bartolome. While both were obviously inspired by print sources, Bartolome copied them directly, while Gallego used them more as inspiration. Gallego wrote notes on his sketches to indicate the color he wanted used for certain objects; Bartolome did not.

The workshops were filled with specialists, including people who prepared the wood panels and assistants who would paint scenes sketched in by the artists. There were even artists who specialized in background trees, Barry said.

"This is much more like a corporate activity than we think of today," Barry said.

On loan from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, Barry has been examining the panels at the Kimbell for the last three years.

The idea for the investigation came when Roglan spotted the panels while in Tucson to meet with museum officials.

"I had to sit down and really absorb this enormous beauty that emanated from these panels," Roglan said. "They're really as good as they get."

Charles Guerin, executive director of the University of Arizona Museum of Art and Visual Arts Archive, said that the collaboration has been a way for them to learn more about the panels than they have had since the late-1950s.

"No one knew 100 percent which was done by which artist," said Guerin, who added that the exhibit currently at SMU will open at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in September, after the panels have been returned.

The panels, which Roglan says were a highlight of Gallego's illustrious career, remained in Ciudad Rodrigo, about 53 miles from the university town of Salamanca, for almost 400 years. But sometime before 1800, they were in such bad shape they were no longer displayed at the altar. One of the panels even has a shell hole from the Peninsula War of the early 1800s, said Barbara Anderson, head of exhibition and consulting curator for Spanish and Latin American materials at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

In 1879, they were sold through a dealer in Madrid to a British collector. They ended up a couple years later with a man named Francis Cook and remained at his home outside London until after World War II, when they were eventually sold to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which gave them to the University of Arizona in the 1950s, Anderson said.

Barry said that the panels underwent a major restoration in the 1950s. Work has held up, so only minor treatment was done as they researched the paintings.

"It's remarkable that they've held up for so much time. They surprise you when you see them," said Pilar Silva Maroto, chief curator of paintings before 1600 at the Prado museum in Spain.

Such panels played an important role in 15th-century life, Roglan said. Since most people could not read or write, the prominent display of biblical events on the panels helped educate churchgoers.

"This was in the most prominent space, dominating the whole church," Roglan said.

The research into the panels also helped the Meadows Museum clear up another mystery. One of the paintings in its collection was believed to have been painted by either Fernando Gallego or a relative named Francisco Gallego. After looking at the underdrawings of Fernando's work on the panels, the museum confirmed it was a painting by Francisco, whose work can also be seen in a couple of the Ciudad Rodrigo panels.

Also, it was discovered the panels were painted with oil-based paint instead the tempera and oil mix that was more common at the time in Spain. That knowledge will be helpful for preserving the panels.

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