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The Prado Museum and Patrimonio Nacional today signed a collaboration agreement covering the technical study and restoration in the Museum's workshops of Rogier van der Weyden’s The Crucifixion, one of the jewels of the prestigious collection of Flemish painting accumulated by Philip II. This work has been held since 1574 in the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial and, along with The Descent from the Cross, currently held in the Prado, is one of the supreme examples in Spain of the work of the master of Tournai. This project is part of the Prado Museum’s restoration programme, which has been sponsored by the Fundación IBERDROLA since 2010.
Rogier Van der Weyden (Tournai 1399/1400 –Brussels 1464) was, along with Jan van Eyck, the most important painter in the Netherlands in the mid 15th century and his work exerted a profound influence on artists of the era and until well into the 16th century. The unrivalled execution of his compositions, the elegance of the poses and proportions of his figures, and the profoundly dramatic nature of their expressions are just some of the qualities that earned him his reputation as a grand master of universal painting.
Rogier painted The Crucifixion, probably in around 1460, four years before his death, for the Carthusian Monastery of Scheut near Brussels, an institution with which he had close links. According to the documents in its archives, the work was sold by the monastery in 1555, but the precise identity of the buyer is unknown. The work is thought to have been acquired by the Governor of the Netherlands, Mary of Austria, better known as Mary of Hungary, before her departure to Spain with her brother, Emperor Charles V, although it could also have been bought directly by her nephew Philip II, who was also in Brussels in 1555 (from August). One way or another, the work formed part of the Spanish royal collections from that time.
The vicissitudes experienced by this magnificent work in the Monastery of El Escorial –the changes of location within the building, the enforced transfer to Madrid during the Napoleonic, etc.- took their toll on this exceptional oak panel comprised of thirteen thin panels – the customary practice for this type of Flemish panel in the 15th century - whose large scale made it truly unique at the time.
The study and restoration of The Crucifixion by Weyden will be carried out by the Prado Museum's restoration team in conjunction with experts from Patrimonio Nacional. The Museum will employ the know-how acquired during the restoration of other panel paintings in recent years, including the restoration of The Descent from the Cross by the same artist, which was carried out in 1993. The project will entail a thorough and complex study of the work in order to determine the best way of proceeding with the conservation and restoration work. The complexity of the task means that the two institutions will be entering uncharted territory and the project is an event of supreme importance in the fields of art history and conservation.
The agreement signed today by the two institutions, which together hold most of the works from the Spanish royal collections, underlines their unwavering commitment to the preservation of our artistic heritage and further strengthens the links forged in their collaborations in recent years. The restoration of The Crucifixion is expected to take around two years and, once the project has been completed, the work will be exhibited for three months in the Prado Museum before being returned to the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial.
The Crucifixion by Rogier van der Weyden, Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Spain has the good fortune to hold two of the just three works by Rogier van der Weyden that have been historiographically documented, both owned by Patrimonio Nacional: Descent from the Cross (around 1435), held at the Prado Museum, and Crucifixion (1456-1460), held at the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The third, the Miraflores Altarpiece, which was donated to the Miraflores monastery by John II of Castile in 1445, is currently held by the Gemaldegalerie in Berlin.
Upon its arrival in Spain, Philip II decided to install The Crucifixion in the chapel of the Palace of Valsaín (near Segovia), before it was transferred to its final destination in the recently-built Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where it was officially delivered in 1574 and installed on the largest altar in the sacristy. The work remained here until the sacristy was redecorated by Diego Velázquez in 1656, prompting its relocation to the Choral Library until its significance was rediscovered at the end of the 19th century. The Crucifixion was the transferred to the visitor zone of the Monastery of El Escorial, where it could be admired in all its magnificence.
The major restoration carried out by the Prado Museum between 1945 and 1947, helped change the widely-held view of critics specialising in Rogier Van der Weyden that the condition of the work was so poor that it was almost lost. But the removal of the numerous retouchings, some of which were scandalously raised and which concealed a large part of the pictorial surface, revealed that large parts of the scene were in relatively good condition and made it possible to restore its impressive artistic beauty and technical mastery.
The latest intervention on the TheCrucifixion, as part of the collaboration with the Prado Museum, will permit a series of very important conclusions to be drawn, enhancing knowledge of this key work and returning it to its original state. The technical study prior to the restoration will shed light on the true physical state of the painting and provide insights for the intervention process to be carried out by the restoration team. The initiative will take advantage of the latest technologies employed in the restoration of artworks including macro photography, reflectography. infrared techniques, radiography and stratigraphic analysis. Following this initial technical stage, which will last several months, work will start on the process of treating the complex wooden support and on the main restoration project. This will involve specialist personnel from the Prado Museum and Patrimonio Nacional. The scientific assessment of the team of curators from both institutions will also be essential as this will provide the historiographical and documentary information most closely associated with the work.
Carmen García Frías, curator of painting, Patrimonio Nacional
Report on the condition of The Crucifixion
The Crucifixion by Rogier van der Weyden is a large-scale work (244 cm x 193 cm) comprised of 13 oak panels on which the preparatory layer and pictorial surface are situated. Therefore, and in line with practice in the recent intervention on the Adam and Eve panels by Dürer, the project will be a collaboration between the restorer of the support and the restorer of the pictorial surface.
Upon completion of the technical studies and analysis, the aim of which is to increase technical documentation of the work and to provide support for the restoration work, the first step will be the treatment of the support.
A support of this size, built with horizontal panels, is inherently structurally fragile because the entire weight of the panels above is borne by the one immediately below. This has created huge tensions whose effects include distortions in “tile” form on the painting.
As regards tears in the support, although at first glance there appears to be a single crack dividing the painting into two halves, closer examination reveals a host of fissures, many of which are coincident with the joints of the panel. These tears have been caused by the pine grid frame, an inappropriate system employed in an attempt to flatten the support and achieve a uniform surface. Unfortunately, these cross-bars prevent the natural movement of the wood, and the enormous tensions created have caused the panels to separate and cracks and holes to appear. Many of these had already been treated at least once, as is evidenced by the retouchings and losses on the pictorial layer.
The fitting of this wooden “prison” and the restriction of the support with the frame resulted in a regular and natural curvature of the wood into three "tiles" that are clearly marked on the surface and distort the reading of the scene.
Cracks, losses and wear on the pictorial layer have been worsened by the cleaning work carried out in successive treatments. The most severe deterioration in the pictorial surface appears to be concentrated on the lower half of the work closest to the viewer. It is essential that the unity of this area is restored as it suggests the depth of the scene and contains the three figures that form the composition.
The entire surface shows evidence of significant retouchings that have altered over the course of time, causing numerous opaque stains. The dense yellowish retouchings that cover both the losses and original painting are visible to the naked eye and have altered, for example, the texture and cold tonalities of the stone at the base of the cross and the dark tones of the wood of the cross, which now appears opaque and dense, concealing the qualities and transparency typically found in the paintings of Van der Weyden.
The damage caused by the retouchings is most apparent in the white robes: here large areas of repainting extend their bluish tone beyond the losses, invading the original painting, distorting shapes and altering volumes.
However, the best preserved paint is noted in the flesh tones of the figures. Here again damage and the effects of retouching are apparent, especially on the body of Christ, which shows significant wear on the original shadows on the legs and bluish stains from retouching, completely altering the perception of weight and volume.
(Summary of the report produced by the team from the Restoration Department of the Prado Museum, led by Gabriele Finaldi, Deputy Director of Conservation and Research)