London’s National Gallery recently moved a monumental altarpiece by Renaissance master Filippino Lippi. It is 6’8″ high, 6’1″ wide and weighs 526 pounds, so this was no easy feat. The team captured it on video to give people a glimpse of the complex systems and technologies requires to handle fragile works of this scale.
The altarpiece depicts the Virgin Mary breastfeeding the infant Christ while Saint Jerome and Saint Dominic kneel at her feet. The setting is a hilly, verdant landscape. A lion fights off a bear on the left. On the right is a small church. Tiny figures of a man and donkey in the center background may be a reference to the family’s Flight into Egypt.
The tempera painting on poplar panel originally stood in the church of San Pancrazio in Florence. It was commissioned by the Rucellai family, wealthy Florentine wool merchants, around 1485 who installed it in the chapel adjacent to their personal funerary chapel. During the Napoleonic suppression of the churches in the early 19th century, the altarpiece was removed from the former church (San Pancrazio was made the seat of the city lottery in 1808) and returned to the Rucellai family who had originally commissioned it. They sold it to the National Gallery in 1857.
The National Gallery moved the altarpiece from Room 59 to Room 11 earlier this year. Room 11 is smaller and octagonal, which makes maneuvering the space challenging, but even removing it from the long, wide wall of Room 59 posed enormous risks. Thankfully the National Gallery’s staff is up to the task, having custom-designed mechanical aids capable of moving so large, heavy and priceless an artwork. These sorts of devices aren’t available at Lowe’s. As Thomas Hemming of the museum’s Art Handling Team puts it in the video, “Everything’s very bespoke because it’s a very niche kind of requirement to move pictures.”
Thanks to these custom rigs, paintings of all sizes can be moved quickly and securely through the building to a new location, and temporarily stored before they are reinstalled. It is very cool to see them at work.