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© Ans Brys

Christ on the Cross with Donors regains colourful splendour

The monumental triptych Christ on the Cross with Donors  by Quentin Matsys (1456/66-1530) is being restored. At the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels, a team of specialists is subjecting the work to a thorough examination. Surface dirt, the yellow varnish and previous retouching have now been removed. The masterpiece has now been revealed as Matsys intended.

High-quality landscape

In recent weeks, KIK-IRPA's conservators have taken great care over the altarpiece, Christ on the Cross with Donors by Quentin Matsys (1456/66-1530) which was painted between 1500 and 1520. They have removed surface dirt, yellowed varnish and previous retouching from the panels. The result is a feast for the eyes! The work once again shows its original clarity. Not only have the colours regained their shine, but many details that were faded by the varnish are now visible again. Thus, there are many new things to discover in the landscape in the background.  This scenery full of nature and architecture continues on the three panels and appears - without visual disturbance from the varnish - to be of a very high quality. In fact, the landscape painting is similar to that on other prominent works by Matsys, such as the Joiners' Guild Altarpiece (1511, Antwerp, KMSKA) and the St Anne Altarpiece (1509, Brussels, RMFAB). 

The hand of the painter

Without varnish and previous retouching, the altarpiece reveals interesting information about Matsys' painting technique. His very fine brush strokes are now visible to the naked eye. Here and there we even discover a fingerprint in the paint surface. In addition, we can now see that Matsys used a "tampon technique" to intensify the colours and textures of robes. With a dabbing motion, he (or a painter from his studio) applied a coloured glaze to the coloured ground layer. The result is a pattern of tiny dots, a kind of pointillism avant la lettre.

Veronica becomes Maria

Another striking detail that stands out is the bright red mouth of Mary of Egypt, the saint on the right panel. Why is her mouth so large and red? The way in which altarpieces were manufactured may offer answers. The composition was first recorded as a drawing, a kind of sketch. Using Infrared Reflectography (IRR), specialists at the KIK-IRPA were able to visualise this secondary drawing. The most surprising discovery is that Mary of Egypt was painted over a Saint Veronica. This Saint Veronica is fully elaborated on the secondary drawing, with her distinctive hood and shroud. Her mouth was slightly open, but for Mary of Egypt, Matsys opted for a closed version. Veronica's mouth was then painted over and filled with a thick red brush stroke.

New marriage or changing fashions?

Why did Matsys change the patron saint of the donor? Perhaps the patron's first wife died before the triptych was finished and the husband remarried. If this was the case, a new patron saint had to appear on the scene. Or was an earlier commission from the studio withdrawn and they decided to reuse the already painted panels? Of course, Matsys then had to adjust the patron saint of the commissioning party. The fact that the patron's hair length - kneeling on the left panel - was also changed supports the second hypothesis. Was a new male client pictured here? Or is it simply a case of changing fashions? Finishing an altarpiece often took several years. And prevailing fashions were also changing rapidly in the sixteenth century.

Next steps

The restoration of the work proceeds in stages. In the next phase, it is the turn of the frames. Conservators will also scrutinise the back of the work. The back is currently covered with a thick layer of wax. Often the backs of the side shutters were painted with simpler (or less important) representations. The altarpiece was solemnly opened only on Sundays and holidays. So most people saw only the closed shutters. Was this also the case for Matsys' altarpiece? Is there a painting lurking beneath the wax layer on the back? We'll keep you posted!

The conservators at work

Rare and indispensable

In the autumn of 2023, Christ on the Cross with Donors will return to Antwerp. Initially, not to Museum Mayer van den Bergh, but to the MAS. The work will be showcased in the temporary exhibition Rare and Indispensable: 100 Masterpieces from Flemish Collections (31 Oct. 2023 - 25 Feb. 2024). The exhibition celebrates the 20th anniversary of the Flemish Masterpieces Decree.

Exceptionally, 100 such masterpieces from all over Flanders are being brought together under one roof. In addition to the Christ on the Cross with Donors, no fewer than 12 other works from the Museum Mayer van den Bergh's collection will be on display there, including Christ and St John the Apostle that is also currently in the KIK-IRPA for restoration. This large number of loans shows the exceptional quality of the works Fritz has managed to bring together.