It begins! The conservation of Murillo’s Virgin and Child in Glory

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Detail image before treatment of Virgin and Child in Glory, c. 1673

Upon viewing Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s altarpiece Virgin and Child in Glory at the Walker, I admit, I was a bit overwhelmed by the subject staring down at me. However, after it arrived in our paintings conservation studio and was removed from its brightly gilded frame, the painting was subdued yet quietly powerful.  And in need of some care and attention...

A detail image illustrates some of the noticeable alterations to the surface, dark spots visible across the putto. These are aged retouching; work done by a past conservator or restorer to replace areas of loss or damage in a painting.  These sometimes discolour over time and can affect how the painting is read in the present day.

Olympia Diamond, Paintings Conservator, positioning the digital x-ray plate over the painting and inline with the x-ray unit on the floor.

Before I began any practical conservation treatment on the altarpiece and the oil study, I recorded the current condition of the paintings through careful observation with my eye, and photographically. Fully documenting the works helps me as a conservator to understand the paintings and their individual issues.  It also provides time for me to observe all aspects of the work to assess different approaches for the forthcoming treatment.

The paintings were photographed from the front and back.  We also took raking light photographs, which is when the light source is put at an angle to the work of art to reveal varying textures on the surface of the painting.  In the specific instance of the Virgin and Child in Glory, it helped identify the difference in texture where the central section of the altarpiece had been cut out. For more on the fascinating history of the painting, take a look at this earlier post.

In addition to photographic documentation in normal light, I use specialised equipment to observe the painting with ultraviolet light (UV), infrared reflectography (IRR) and x-radiography.

These are scientific aids for the examination of paintings and can help to reveal information about earlier painting stages, initial sketches, and a painting's support:

X-ray image of Madonna and Child. The black line around the heads is where the canvas was cut and there is now a loss in the canvas.

UV light allows to me observe what is on the surface of paintings as materials exhibit characteristic fluorescence colours when exposed to ultraviolet light.  UV can also be used to identify areas of retouching and to determine different types of varnish present on the surface.

IRR is a technique used to look through paint layers and can be helpful in viewing underdrawing or compositional changes at early painting stages.

As you can see the X-ray images of the Virgin and Child in Glory allowed me to see the extent of loss around where the central figures were

cut out of the original canvas. X-rays are hugely vital to my work as they allow me to record structural changes, losses or damages to the support as well as compositional changes by the artist.

To find out more about these techniques, take a look at this post, which explores the investigation work that was carried out on the Italian Renaissance painting, 'Madonna Suckling the Child'.

More posts to come as treatment progresses!