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The sculptural group of Christ and St John the Apostle gets make-over

Christ and St John the Apostle (± 1300) by Master Heinrich von Konstanz, one of the museum's masterpieces and outright public favourite, is currently being examined and restored at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK-IRPA) in Brussels. A team of specialists have been studying the wooden sculpture from top to bottom, which has produced some surprising results. Unfortunately, the restoration process will take longer than expected: more research (and thus more time) is needed to clean the sculpture and restore the colours used - the polychromy - to their full potential.

One block of walnut

Radiographic examination has confirmed that the entire wooden sculpture was carved from a single block of wood. So the walnut tree from which the statue was carved must have been quite a tree! And probably a surprise to many museum visitors: the sculpture is hollow. Looking at the sculpture from behind, you can see a large cavity that was not visible due to the usual positioning in the museum - Jesus and John sitting with their backs against the wall. Nail holes in the wood indicate that this cavity was covered with a back plate, as was common in Gothic sculpture. The sculptor's range of working tools have also left their mark: the wooden surface shows that gouges, rasps and tillers were used. The sculptor's intense hard work is almost palpable ...

Polychromy in layers

The polychromy on Christ and St John the Apostle is characteristically Gothic with its use of gold leaf, reds, greens and blues. The trimming on the robes of Jesus and John is decorated with three different motifs that are painted black. Gold leaf was widely used on religious statues. Due to the reflection of light, the sculptures themselves seem to emit light, which enhanced the devotional experience. Unfortunately, with Christ and St John the Apostle, it is particularly the (gilded) colour splendour that is very much subject to wear and tear. The edges of the many holes show how the polychromy was built up in multiple layers. This gives us an insight into the process of how the sculpture was made.

We can see, for example, that the wood was prepared with cloth on the Jesus figure and with parchment on the John figure. They served as buffers to protect the polychromy from knots and the shrinkage of the drying wood. A thick primer, often applied in several layers, then levelled the canvas and parchment. It was the perfect foundation for the gilding and multi-layered coloured finish. The painting is believed to be entirely original, although the throne bench has undergone a major repaint.  The original brick red with green was covered here with a painted marble imitation with carved out pointed arches. The dating of this overpainting is as yet unknown.

Worn knees and healthy cheeks

In addition to wear on the polychromy, the wooden statue also shows substantial damage. Evidence includes woodworm holes, cracks, gaps, build-ups, discolouration and dirt. The sculpture is completely permeated with a greasy wax-resin mixture, applied during an earlier restoration in 1951. There is also a disturbing brown and semi-transparent layer present that was applied in the past to mask gaps and damage, but has since developed numerous stains.

The polychromy has disappeared altogether on the knees of Jesus and John. Currently, as an artifact in a museum, the sculpture group may not be touched at all. For centuries, however, Christ and St John the Apostle formed part of a very lively cult, which included touching. It is not inconceivable that the Dominican nuns of Sankt Katharinenthal touched the sculpture group during their prayers (for example, the knees) in order to experience their faith spiritually as well as physically. Together with the brilliance of the polychromy, it must have been a transcendental experience. Another curious detail is that on the cheeks, there is no sign of cracks or wear: Jesus and John still have a healthy, evenly pink blush.

More time needed

The restoration process is a gradual one. To restore the sculpture to as much of its original glory as possible, further research is called for. For example, the restoration team must look for an appropriate cleaning method. The highly fragile polychromy and the nature of the damage make treatment a difficult and delicate undertaking. As a result, the restoration will not be completed by the opening of the exhibition Rare and Indispensable in October at the MAS, where the sculpture will be on display.

Rare and Indispensable

In the autumn of 2023, Christ and St John the Apostle will be returning 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 October 2023 - 25 February 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 Christ and St John 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 Quentin Matsys' Calvary triptych, which is also currently at KIK-IRPA for restoration. This large number of loans shows the exceptional quality of the works Fritz has managed to bring together.