Christmas surprise found under painting

Conservators have discovered a nativity scene underneath a damaged 16th century painting depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist. The canvas on wood panel painting is in the collection of The Bowes Museum, originally acquired in the 19th century by museum founders John and Josephine Bowes. Bowes Museum curators have been working with conservators from Northumbria University to assess its condition and treat the deteriorating wood structure behind the painted canvas.

Art Conservator Nicky Grimaldi and forensic scientist Dr Michelle Carlin, are now examining the painting to determine its age, background and history.

Nicky said: “It is clear that the painting is in a poor condition and has been for some time. The panel behind it is made up of several pieces of wood and where these join together there has been significant paint loss over the years.

“Our initial aim was to understand why this is occurring and recommend solutions to ensure the painting can be protected for years to come.

“The first stage of most investigations of this kind is to carry out an x-ray to understand what is going on underneath the layer of paint we see on the surface. That was when we realised there was more to the painting than we originally thought.”

Clearly visible on the x-ray is the Christ child with a halo and rays beaming off his manger, angels, a haloed figure kneeling beside him with an outstretched hand who may be one of the Three Magi. Harder to discern are the outlines of other figures and what might be the stable in the background.

As Nicky explains: “It was common practice to apply gold leaf to these type of religious paintings and in the x-ray we can see that gold is present in the halo around the baby’s head.

“Incredibly we can see lines over the x-ray image which we believe to be preparatory drawings, showing where the painting was probably copied from an original drawing (cartoon).

“Those lines were subsequently filled with another paint layer such as lead white which allows them to be visible on the x-ray.”

The painting will be analyzed further by Northumbria experts. Samples of the paint will be tested for chemical composition and the latest technology from scanning electron microscopes to infrared reflectography will be deployed.


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Comment by Emily
2019-12-26 13:48:37

Yes, I can see the Magi as well. His hand is holding a boxed gift, and he is wearing a turban, encircled with a perfect circle. To his left on the floor, I see cherubim. Joseph is another figure I see to the left of the painting, aged, and leaning on his staff. In the center is another figure with outstretched arms, but no definition for the head. This is very cool. Thanks for sharing this. These board paintings are the most difficult to conserve, as there is no canvas, just pigment on a substrate on a board. The conservation usually involves planing the backsides of the boards until just the slimmest thickness of wood is left holding the pigments together. Then the painting is somehow fastened to a stabilizer. If there is an update on the conservation method, I hope it is published.

Comment by Scott Glen Young
2019-12-26 22:58:17

I see kneeling donors at the base with their coats of arms behind them.

Comment by scott Glen Young
2019-12-27 20:41:32

PS: Matthias Grünewald (c. 1470 – 31 August 1528) created the Isenheim Altarpiece c 1512 to 1516. The Madonna in the Nativity scene of the altarpiece shows similarities to the way the Madonna is shown in the x-ray. Mainly in the volume of the figure and part of the pose.

Comment by Jim
2019-12-30 13:20:47

Frankly I’m incensed.
Artists ought to use better, single-piece boards as substrates.

Comment by Dr.Cajetan Coelho
2019-12-30 14:14:39

The Nativity Scene with the child Jesus, Mary and Joe keeps the artists creative and constructive in different cultures and times. Saint Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223 at Greccio. For Francis, the poor Jesus was central at Christmas and not materialism, gift-giving and gift-receiving.

Comment by Chester
2019-12-30 16:17:01

A certain neglect about the details of the painting, plus the underlying nativity scene, i.e. their identity and creation, the poor condition, the origin of the underlying wood and style(s) leaves me a bit puzzled.

The depicted town looks (mostly, but with exceptions) “Italian”, in addition to “John” somebody else is being decapitated in the background, and here the head is being passed over to two ladies.

The Italian Wars, often referred to as the Great Wars of Italy and sometimes as the Habsburg–Valois Wars, were a long series of wars fought between 1494 and 1559 in Italy, and maybe we are watching an ordinary War-Crime put in a religious context.

The Nativity Scene, however, bears much more than the rather mediocre outline sketch. John Chrysostom was appointed Archbishop of Constantinople in 397AD. The feast was introduced in Constantinople in 379, in Antioch by John Chrysostom towards the end of the fourth century, and in Alexandria in the following century, cf.:



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December 2021


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