Angels under the scanner
The first thing you have to do when embarking on any restoration is carry out a preliminary examination.
An in-depth examination of Jean Fouquet’s Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim was carried out at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles between 28 January and 1 February 2019. The masterpiece from the KMSKA was the most eye-catching work in the museum’s Renaissance Nude exhibition.
Madonna Surrounded by Seraphim and Cherubim is the right-hand panel of the world-famous Melun Diptych. The aim of the study was to provide researchers with answers to several art-historical and technical questions. What is the Madonna’s position? Is she standing or sitting? What technique did Fouquet use to achieve the marble effect? Which materials did he employ and how did he construct the painting?
Getty conservators and experts worked with Gwen Borms, head of the KMSKA restoration workshop, to perform the examination at the J. Paul Getty Museum’s conservation department. If you’d like to know more about this approach, the daily report of Gwen, our conservator, offers a unique glimpse behind the scenes.
Once the exhibition The Renaissance Nude had finished, conservators inspected the condition of Fouquet’s Madonna before moving it to the Getty Museum’s conservation workshop. Researchers carefully removed the painting from its frame, to see which zones lent themselves to further examination by MA-XRF scanning.
An extensive study was carried out in the afternoon using a microscope. This gave rise to numerous interesting questions, for which the research team hopes to find more answers. The researchers determined which areas of the painting it would be interesting to scan. There were two such zones: the portrait of the Madonna and Christ together with a blue and a red angel’s head. Because of the possibility of earthquakes, Gwen and Getty conservator Laura Rivers remained with the painting to keep it under observation.
On the second day, the research team took the painting to the Getty Conservation Institute. On arrival, the panel was placed horizontally under the scanner to scan the passage with the Madonna’s portrait. This scan took six hours. The team then made a detailed image of the crown, a scan which took about two hours. The painting was subsequently returned to the conservation workshop.
That afternoon, Stephan Kemperdick, curator of the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin, shared his findings and art-historical thinking regarding the left-hand panel of the Melun Diptych: Etienne Chevalier with St Stephen. He had already performed a similar study. Comparison between the two panels is interesting in terms of identifying both similarities and differences.
On day three, the research team scanned the figure of Christ.
On the fourth day of the research week, the team conducted a Fibre Optics Reflectance Spectroscopy (FORS) examination. The FORS technique supplements the scans and is used to detect organic matter.
A discussion was held in the afternoon with Nancy Turner, senior manuscript conservator at the Getty, to compare the use of materials in the painting with a manuscript by Jean Fouquet.
On the final day of the research, the team took X-ray images of the painting as a whole and a detailed image of the Madonna’s head. The latter is interesting, as it revealed that no white lead is present in the zone in question. The research team hopes to use the overall image to obtain more information about the structure of the panel. An infrared image was also made, which revealed minor adjustments in the underdrawings. At the top of the crown, for example, more pearls are visible in the infrared image than Fouquet ultimately painted. Christ’s finger has been moved and Fouquet narrowed several of the arms of cherubim and seraphim in the painting.
To round off the study, the researchers examined the painting once again under the microscope and took macro photographs. The aim here was to gain a better understanding of some of the aspects that stood out during the examination and to identify any links between the results of the different studies.