St Martin restored to life

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AFTER more than 18 months of careful restoration a unique Brueghel painting has gone on display in Madrid’s Prado Museum.

There are only about 40 known works of Brueghel the Elder (1525-1569) considered the most important Flemish artist of the 16th century.

So the discovery of called The Wine of Saint Martin’s Day a previously unknown painting is bound to be of major significance, more so when it is the largest ever work undertaken by the Flemish master.

It is only the second known painting by the artist in Spain and it has been granted the privilege of being displayed in a private room until March 25, 2012.

Visitors can not only see the finished painting but are given a video tour of the different stages of the restoration procedure as well as inspect the x- ray images used to pinpoint damaged sections as well as formally identify the artist. The painting – at 148 x 270.5 cm – is twice as large as any other known Brueghel work.

Although the theme is religious the painting depicts a joyful festival, Saint Martin’s Day, celebrated each November 11. Outside a town a variety of figures, typical of Brueghel’s paintings, are crowded together around a large red barrel filling all sorts of vessels. There are beggars, peasants, thieves, the blind, old and young men and women; even a child is seen being given a goblet of wine.

The effect is a pyramid of human life. The detail of the facial expressions, costumes, figures and the careful attention to the background makes this one of Brueghel’s most ambitious genre works. The painting belonged to the family of the Dukes of Medinaceli from the 18th until 20th century.

Its first known owner was Luis Francisco de la Cerda, 9th Duke of Medinaceli (1660-1711), who is thought to have originally purchased it in Italy. It came to the Prado Museum via Sotheby’s Spain in 2009 after being discovered by the assistant director of conservation of the Prado, Gabriel Finaldi.

He had been asked to look at a work in the home of a descendant of the Medinaceli family and by chance stumbled across another painting which despite its poor condition appeared to him to have the distinct Flemish style of Brueghel. He suggested that it be taken to the Prado for restoration with a view to ascertaining its origin with an option to purchase. When it was finally attributed to Brueghel in 2010 using the x-ray technology, the museum had to negotiate the price.

Under Spanish law the painting would not have been allowed to leave Spain and it was acquired by the Spanish Ministry of Culture. The restoration involved a challenging and complex process.

When it arrived at the Prado’s extensive workshop it was covered in a thick layer of polyester varnish which had to be removed together with folds and bulges resulting from previous attempts at restoration.

The original linen support had to be carefully detached from strips that had been glued around the edges using a humidification process. After cleaning the painting was stretched in a frame for restoration.

First tiny pieces of linen were cut to fill the tiny holes caused by damage before the delicate retouching began using pigments to match as Peter-Fieldmanclose as possible the original texture and colours.

The final result has exceeded expectations and this major work will ultimately be added to the Flemish section of the Prado collection and join Brueghel the Elder’s other masterpiece, the Triumph of Death. 

Photo credit: Courtesy of the Prado Museum Madrid

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