"The fact that this large-scale work is damaged and dirty makes it impossible to assess its true value in terms of its quality and execution." - Dirk De Vos on the three panels in: Hans Memling. Het volledige oeuvre, Antwerp, 1994, p 289
At the start of the restoration project in 2001 the three paintings, which together are called
Christ Surrounded by Musician Angels, were in poor condition and could deteriorate
Moreover, because they were damaged and dirty, their true value could not be assessed.
Therefore the restoration serves a dual purpose:
- To preserve the three works for the future.
- To improve the images optically and rediscover their true value.
The restoration project has also provided an ideal opportunity to gather information about the age of the wood, the materials and the techniques used.
The main problem areas at the start of the project in 2001
- The system of battens (cradle) on the back was blocked so that the oak panels - which were themselves in good condition - could no longer expand and contract. This was something that could have resulted in dangerous tension.
- In some places the gilding and paint layers were lifting. There even was the risk of them flaking off. This was a hazardous situation and it required urgent attention.
- There were losses in the original gilding and paint layer.
- The varnish was thick, uneven and yellowed.
- There were unsightly retouchings and areas of overpainting. All this detracted greatly from the artistic quality of the works.
What does the work involve?
A preliminary scientific examination got under way some time before the start of the restoration. Processes such as X-raying and infrared reflectography were used to obtain information about the condition of the original paint layers, the painting technique, the underdrawing, and the solubility of the varnish and overpainting. The paintings were also photographed in great detail in order to have a record of their condition before restoration.
The restoration work is intended to rectify the problems outlined above:
- Because the paint layer was so vulnerable, it first needed to be fixed. Any other intervention would have been irresponsible.
- To restore the panels to 'working order' and treat the wood where necessary.
- To remove non-original, unsightly elements such as yellowed varnish and darkened retouching. This is a complex, delicate and long-drawn-out business, requiring the greatest care and constant consultation. Microscopes and scientific research will be used in the cleaning process.
The restoration respects the age of the paintings. A thin layer of the old varnish will be left, and of course, irreversible changes of colour in the original paint layer will be left untouched. Respect for the original material and for Memling's intent is all-important.