Re-imagining, designing, constructing and painting a 15th century triptych in the
manner of the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend.
"....It is another world entirely, and it is enclosed within this
one, with a peculiar geography I can only describe as infundibular. " He
paused for effect. 'I mean by this that the other world is composed of a series
of concentric rings, which as one penetrates deeper into the other world, grows
larger. The further you go, the bigger it gets. Each perimeter of this series
of concentricities encloses a larger world within, until, at the center point,
it is infinite. Or at least very very large".................
John Crowley 'Little,Big' Edgewood page 48
Finding, researching and
assembling the elements of the ‘collage’.
The word ‘collage’ or
‘assemblage’ of existing fragmentary ‘found’ elements into a new configuration
or whole is an accurate description of an aspect of the creative process
involved in copying, following or working in the style of the Master of the St
Ursula legend. Working in the workshop or circle of the artist implies a
contemporary context in or near the atelier of the master, whilst following,
copying or working after the style of the painter at a later date has a long
history in the production and re-production of works of art, with many great
masters themselves, like Rubens, producing copies or versions of works by
earlier masters like Titian.
Rubens’ attitude towards reproducing an
image was very different to the way we have come to view copies of Old Master
paintings today. It was the Romans who first replicated artworks, copying Greek
sculptures, and repetition was considered the best way of learning throughout
the medieval period. During the Renaissance, the cult of the artist’s identity
grew so that copying a work was as much an education as a means of honouring
Even the idea of faking or
forging the work of venerated earlier artistic style has been a practice since
the Renaissance with artists as venerated as Michelangelo, early in their careers,
establishing their technical and artistic credentials through creating works
convincingly in the style of antique Roman sculpture passed off as genuine to
admiring collectors. His celebrated statues of the sleeping Eros and Bacchus are
cases in point.
also copied drawings of the Old Masters so perfectly that his copies could not
be distinguished from the originals, since he smoked and tinted the paper to
give it an appearance of age. He was often able to keep the originals and
return his copies in their place.”
Vasari, ‘The Lives of the Artists’
The references below explore the
issues of forgery and the ethics of restoration:
Laurence Shafe: ‘The Genius of Art Forgery’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1hgOsVxaM0
Fake - not fake:
restorations-reconstructions-forgeries: the conservation of the Flemish
Primitives in Belgium, ca. 1930-1950Exhibition: 26 November 2004 - 28
‘With this project, the Groeninge Museum takes the important
initiative of prompting a public debate about the grey area between restoration
and forgery – the first debate of its kind and one that is likely to prove
controversial. In view of the composition of the Bruges collections and the
history of how they were assembled, this exhibition concentrates on the Flemish
Primitives. The central subject is the work of the Flemish painter, art dealer
and restorer Jef van der Veken (1872-1964), who is
regarded as one of the founders of the restoration of old paintings in Belgium.’
Jef van der Veken (1872-1964)
‘Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur’
Whilst I had no intention to fake
or forge a 15th century Flemish panel painting, I was interested in
this tradition of learning from old masters by making an ‘authentic copy’ so to
speak, by using similar historical technical methods of construction and
following as closely as possible the practical processes of painting from the
ground up to get closer to the mind and spirit of the artist and the work, and
experience a tangible sense of connection to the historical past. This reconstruction was also partly inspired
by the examples from the Hamilton Keer institute, but unlike the students at this prestigious institution, I approached my project in a freer more intuitive and creative way rather than with a strictly academic and scientific method.
I was lucky in that I could study
closely at first hand the actual paintings by the Master of the St Ursula
legend in the Groeninge Museum in Bruges alongside making use of often
excellent museum the digital resources online.
I chose to create a triptych with
a central panel of the virgin and child flanked by angels with inner side ls
representing the annunciation ‘en grisaille’ by freely adapting several works
by the Master of the St. Ursula legend which came from different contexts into
a configuration which he is not known to have made but which he could
conceivable have done.
The outer panels with their calligraphic text were based on a work by Hugo Van de Goes which was probably assembled in its current form in the 19th century from different works.
The Virgin and Child with Angels.
Portrait of Ludovico Portinari
The panel on the left,
which I used for the central panel of my triptych, is of ‘The
Virgin and Child with Angels’ currently in the Fogg Art Museum,
Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was the companion to the now separated right hand
panel, the portrait of Ludovico Portinari with a view of Bruges in the
background, from a votive diptych. This right-hand panel is in the Philadelphia
Museum of Art. Lodovico
Portinari’s powerful family represented the interests of the Medici in
Flanders. Hinged to Portinari’s portrait, the painting would have offered
intimate, perpetual access to the Virgin and Child, who are made present in an
image of visionary splendor.
Both paintings are by
the Master of the Legend of Saint Ursula, active in Bruges c. 1470 - c. 1500. Little is known about the Master of the Saint
Ursula Legend, so called by the art historian Max Friedländer as an emergency name after a series of
panels in the Groeninge museum in Bruges, and certain
stylistic similarities between works attributed to him. It is likely that this
anonymous painter lived for a while in Brussels and later moved to Bruges, as
his style includes references to Rogier van der Weyden, Hugo van der Goes and
Hans Memling. A 15th century Bruges painter who might be the same
artist has been identified as a certain Pieter Casenbroot who was registered in the Bruges guild
of saddle makers and sculptors in 1460.
For the side panels I needed to find an
appropriate flanking subject by the same artist that would fit the proportion
of the central panels of the Virgin and Child. An annunciation theme seemed the most likely to
fit the theme and format, and there were several possibilities I considered
using as references. The first that I
looked at came from the two opposite panels at the top of the large side panels
of an altar piece (in their closed state) by the same master of the Saint
Ursula legend in the Groeninge museum in Bruges. These were painted ‘en
grissaille as trompe l’oeil sculptures in niches. On the opposite side the
panels in their open state reveal the polychrome narrative sequence of events
from the life of Saint Ursula. The large central panel of the altar piece here is
of course missing.
|Outer side panels in closed state ( with the annuciation figures at the top)|
|Inner side panels in the open state with scenes from the legend of saint Ursula |
For the outer panels in a closed
state I needed something that would match the scale and proportion, be
appropriate to the theme of inner subjects of the Virgin and Child and
Annunciation but also create a contrast with the juxtaposition of word and
image, and a play on the idea of the incarnation. (‘Et verbum caro factum est’-
‘And the word was made flesh’). The painting below, with it’s calligraphic text
on the inner part of the side panels, attributed by the National Gallery to a follower
of Hugo Van de Goes, was probably assembled in its current form in the 19th
century from different works. The
complexity of working out how to get this transferred onto a gold or copper
leaf ground by working in the negative space between the letters was an
Left hand panel text Ave Sanctissima Maria m[ate]r Dei Regina Celi porta Paradisi Domina Mu[n]>di pura Singularis
tu es Virgo Tu sine pec[cat]o Concepta concepisti Ih[esu]m sine o[m]ni
Hail, Most Holy Mary, Mother of God, Queen of Heaven, Gate of Paradise, Mistress of the world, thou are a uniquely pure virgin; yourself conceived without sin, you conceived Jesus without any stain.
Right hand panel text
Tu Peperisti Creatorem et saluatore[m] Mundi In quo non Dubito libera me Ab omni malo Et Ora pro Peccato Meo Amen.
You have borne the Creator and Saviour of the World in whom I do not doubt. Deliver me From every
evil and pray for my sin. Amen.
The practical stages of the process.
I was able to use the seasoned wood remaining from of the salvaged solid oak paneled doors which we used in the house to construct the panel, along with some recycled carved mouldings to create the engaged frame.
Once these were measured, cut, glued together and any gaps filled and sanded down to a smooth surface it was necessary to glue the linen down, prepare it with the rabbit skin size and then give it several coats of gesso made with the same rabbit skin size and plaster.
Once the central panel was prepared I created a box cradle to support it and take the hinges for the side panels which I also then measured and matched, with appropriate mouldings, repeating the linen, sizing and gesso process to prepare the painting surface.
I was then ready to begin the gilding and painting of the central panel - first with a 'verdigris' layer, or a painting ' en grisaille ' in a water based medium to work out both the design and the tonal balance. For the gilding I used a water gilding process on top of the red clay bole. Before painting I traced out the basic outlines of the design as a basic guide.
The process of building up layers of transparent oil paint on this original monochrome tonally painted surface surface took a very long time. The colour had to be built up slowly to build the right intensity of hue and tonality to match the original. I was using modern oil paint rather than oil paint made from the traditional materials like cinnabar, malachite, lapis lazuli, or lead white, (which are still produced by the German company Kramer, and which I am using on another similar project below mixed with egg tempera).
|Traditional egg tempera panel with gold leaf and traditional materials, cinnabar, malachite, lapis lazuli, from Kramer paints. |
I was still able to practically envisage something of the original painting process necessary to produce such a panel.
For the details like the face, hair, and in particular the jewels on the collar of the Virgin I was able to closely study the works in the Groeninge Museum at first hand to try to understand better the paint application. The painting below of Saint Veronica was especially helpful for the jewels.
|Saint Veronica with the Sudarium by the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend.|
Oil on oak panel 1480-1500
|Detail of the face of Saint Veronica with the Sudarium by the Master of the Saint Ursula Legend. |
|Detail of angels on right hand side of the central panel |
|Details of the faces of the Virgin and child |
As the central panel progressed I had to work out how to get the highly elaborate, stylized text for the outer side panels into place using gold and copper leaf, and to begin painting the figures 'en grisaille' for the inner part of these panels. After scaling up and producing a detailed tracing of the text for each panel, I gilded the central sections in copper leaf and transferred the text to water gilded surface, under which I had placed a yellow bole, carefully painting the negative spaces between the letters a Indian ink 'lacquer', working in reverse to the normal way of painting calligraphy. This was a very slow and laborious process but with some persistence it was effective, in keeping the letters with their shiny metallic finish set off against a black ground.
Working out the scaled-up tracing of the letters ready to transfer onto the outer panel
The yellow bole in place on the right-hand panel ready to receive the copper leaf to provide the 'gold' surface for the lettering. The left-hand panel with the Angel Gabriel fully painted 'en grisaille'
The almost completed infilling of the negative spaces between the letters, working in reverse to produce a gilded calligraphy.
The trompe l'oeil engaged frame 'carved' mouldings painted in oil paint on the flat raised moulding on the outer right-hand panel.
The final assembled panels in place awaiting the hinges and below, hinged and hanging on the same recycled solid oak door panels it is actually made from which have also been re-purposed as wood paneling in the hall to match the doors.
Copy, egg tempera on panel (on the chest) and Original tromp l'oeil oil on panel on the wall, both Genuine Illusions !