Detail showing the darker damaged paint on St Michael's face. The light patch is a cleaning test.
Why would the original image have been overpainted?
The visible painted surface of the 'St Michael and the Dragon' is presumed to date from the 19th or early 20th century. This paint is thickly and crudely applied and covers the original painting entirely.
It seems that the painting has been badly damaged and, in order to disguise the damages, the whole surface has been repainted, probably more than once. Some damages are visible on the surface, for example the deep scrape across St Michael’s face and mouth, other damages are hidden beneath thick layers of overpaint.
Looking underneath the overpainting
Our conservators made a number of cleaning tests to different areas of the painting, to examine the original paint and how it differed from the overpainting.
After the vegetable fibres were glued to the panel, it was coated with several layers of gesso that were dried, and then rubbed down to a very smooth surface. On top of this the artist would have drawn his design, probably in a water-based black paint. The underdrawing, which is clearly visible in infra-red images of the painting, is a simple bold outline, probably drawn freehand rather than traced or copied from another picture.
Infra-red images showing the drawing of the face and feathers
The most extensive drawing is in the wing feathers, which comprises a simple outline of each feather with a central stem, as you can see in the infra-red image of part of St Michael's wing below.
Underdrawing is missing in parts of the composition which have suffered heavy damage, including St Michael’s hand and mouth. The drawing of his left eye and the distinctive flourish at his nostril, shown in the infra-red image of the saint's face above, show a competence undetected on the crudely overpainted surface.
Infra-red image showing drawing of foot, with plating detail
The original paint is so completely concealed that details such as the articulated plating at his foot and the buckles and seams at his thighs are surprising in their clarity. The drawing of both details is clearly visible in the infra-red images shown here. Once the buckle was located in the underdrawing, a small cleaning test removed the layers of paint covering it to reveal the original painted buckle, which is no longer visible in the painting after being obscured by later overpainting.
Infra-red image showing drawing of buckle on thigh Original painted buckle, revealed by a cleaning test
After the drawing the artist would have put a layer of red bole on the areas to be gilded. The gold was laid on in very thin ‘leaves’ and burnished. Decorative punchwork was made in the lettering and halo. Silver leaf was laid over bole on the area of the breastplate, and probably the rest of the armour.
Finally, pigments were mixed with a drying oil, possibly linseed oil, and painted in simple layers of strong colour.