NATHANIEL SILVER: I can imagine walking into this church shortly after this painting was finished. The door closes behind me. The room is almost entirely dark save for the flicker of a few candles. And in the glimmer of that small light, I can see some gold flickers at the front of the room. I advance up the aisle of the church and reach the high altar. I light a candle, and in the illumination of that moment, am cast back in awe by a two-story painting that rises above me, shimmering with gold. I kneel down and offer my prayers before it, to the Virgin and Child depicted in the center of the painting and to all of the many saints that surround them. It is an awe-inspiring moment.
GIANFRANCO POCOBENE: The conservation treatment of the painting was undertaken to remove old discolored varnishes. During the course of that cleaning, we realized, of course, that there were older restorations which no longer matched the original paint surface. We also discovered during the cleaning that in portions of the painting—for example, in the rocky cliff and the ground below the horse—there was more extensive damage than we realized.
What we had was really just the underdrawing and a bit of the original paint remaining. We were fortunate that we had old archival images that showed the painting’s condition when Gardner purchased the painting. Based on that image and looking carefully at the surface of the painting, I was able to reintegrate the rocks in a way that made them more complete than they had been left in the 1930 restoration.
So as we restored the painted surfaces, we realized that it would be necessary to improve the appearance of the gold. This meant that in a few selected areas in the gold leaf background—the sky—we reapplied some gold leaf. Also the pastiglia which sits proud of the paint surface would be areas that would be easily rubbed by cleaning solutions, so we had lost the effect of the gold leaf on those. Again in those areas we did not apply it wholesale to those reliefs, but actually applied it in a very selective way to hint at what that surface should look like. So it still has an aged look, but we’ve increased the amount of gold ornamentation to make it a much more vibrant and glittering surface.
GIANFRANCO POCOBENE: Infrared imaging is a technique that we use in conservation to examine works of art and what we’re trying to do is discover the use of underdrawing, which can be very important sometimes in questions of attribution or just further understanding how the artist created the work of art. The technique has been in conservation for over fifty years and it basically employs cameras that have been modified to be able to detect wavelengths in the infrared region.
The analogy would be like night vision that the military uses to look at what’s going on out in the field. In this case, we have a camera in the conservation lab that has been specially modified to allow us to take both a color image and an infrared image and it’s used in this case to be able to overlay the two images. It only works, however, if the artist used a carbon-based drawing or painting medium. In this case, it’s like a bone-black pigment that was used. If, for example, the artist had used a red chalk, the infrared imaging would not be able to detect that. It would be basically transparent and we wouldn’t be able to see underdrawing.
You might notice as you’re exploring the infrared image that the outlines of the horse’s head, for example, are consistent, and you might ask the question, “Am I looking at an underdrawing or am I looking at something on the surface?” In fact, you’re looking at both. There was an underdrawing line there that Crivelli subsequently went over again with lines to emphasize and make those edges even more stark. It’s a technique that he employed on a lot of his paintings, where he would go back over the contours and heighten them with these dark lines to give it more emphasis.
GIANFRANCO POCOBENE: Tempera is a kind of paint that was used extensively in the early Renaissance in Italy and a lot of other places until the advent of oil painting which was something Jan Van Eyck was credited as having invented. Pigment is basically mixed up into a medium of egg yolk and applied to the surface with thin hatch marks and strokes. It’s very different from oil paint. It’s not a material you can blend and mix on the surface. You have to be very deliberate and apply these strokes of paint and keep moving because if you go over the surface that’s just been applied, you’ll make a mess of it. For example, in the ear of the horse, you’ll see very distinct white lines hatched across the surface to create the form and highlight of the ear.
GIANFRANCO POCOBENE: During the restoration of this painting, we realized that the complexity of his technique was far greater than we had imagined. For example, for the cabuchon—the jewel—in Saint George’s forehead, you can see that there is gold leaf on that ornament. But he actually went in after the gold leaf had been applied and applied a glaze of red—a transparent glaze to give it a very jewel-like effect. This really reminded us of Crivelli’s extraordinary talent at painting. It’s something that most of us as conservators are always in awe of in terms of the technique and how extraordinary it really is and how difficult it is to replicate that kind of work.