Research on 15th-century Spanish altarpiece unlocks 500 years of secrets

For the first time in the United States, researchers have undertaken an extensive study of a 15th-century Spanish cathedral altarpiece, and in the process, have unlocked 500 years of secrets involving art, literature, history and religion. Their findings, along with the entire group of stunning, historically significant paintings that comprise the altarpiece, will soon be on view in a special exhibition at the Meadows Museum at Southern Methodist University.

“Fernando Gallego and His Workshop: The Altarpiece from Ciudad Rodrigo, Paintings from the Collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art, will be on display through July 27, 2008. It focuses on 26 surviving panels from the main altarpiece for the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo in Castile, Spain, created between 1480 and 1500. The research findings, which include scans and X-rays of the paintings’ underdrawings, will be on exhibit along with the panels, which have survived earthquakes, war, neglect, sale and re-sale before reaching the Meadows Museum.

The panels, in oil and tempera, are considered one of the most important groups of artworks produced in late 15th-century Spain. They depict major events from Genesis, the life of Christ, and the Last Judgment, and are remarkable for their size (some nearly 5 feet tall and 3 1/2 feet wide), number and sheer beauty. They rank among the most ambitious works by two of Spain’s most gifted painters of the period: Fernando Gallego and the hitherto virtually unknown Master Bartolomé. Such “master painters” often commanded large and dynamic workshops with apprentice artists, working together to undertake monumental commissions like the Ciudad Rodrigo altarpiece.

The panels have undergone two years of research and technical analysis at the Kimbell Art Museum under the direction of chief conservator Claire Barry – including infrared reflectography, ultraviolet light and X-rays – prior to their exhibition at the Meadows. Methods such as infrared have only become available in the past 25 years or so, and their application to the art field has vastly improved processes to obtain images of underdrawings. Scholars have discovered, under the painted layer, initial drawings by the artists that don’t always match the final paintings, revealing how the artists changed their ideas as they worked. Also discovered on the panels have been handwritten notes indicating color choices. Differences between the techniques and styles of Gallego and Bartolomé have been revealed, allowing scholars to identify for the first time which works were created by which artist’s workshop. In the process, Bartolomé has been shown to be not simply a follower of Gallego but a master painter in his own right, one who could be ranked among the top Spanish artists of the period.

Such findings are significant for providing a glimpse into the inner workings of the artists’ workshops of five centuries ago, for little or no documentation from the time exists. (It was not until 1503 that methods for permanent and systematic archiving of documents were first officially established in that region.)

“In this project, we’ve combined both art and technology in the service of scholarly research to help unravel a 500-year-old mystery,” said Dr. Mark Roglán, director of the Meadows Museum. “For the first time in the history of these paintings, we are able to reveal their underdrawings, and glimpse how the artists worked and their creative process. In addition to the catalogue, we will produce a lecture series and international scholarly symposium to help showcase these findings to the public.”

The history of the panels’ survival over the centuries is worthy of a novel itself.  They overcame neglect, earthquakes, war – one of the panels still bears a hole from cannon fire by Wellington’s troops when they stormed Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812 – sale and re-sale, and a trans-Atlantic ocean voyage, and then underwent years of restoration in a bunker during the Cold War, before their arrival in Tucson, Ariz., in the 1950s. “The fact that they survived for 500 years as a group and in such excellent condition makes them all the more extraordinary,” Dr. Roglán said.

The panels are part of the Samuel H. Kress Collection and were given to the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson in 1957. Their exhibition at the Meadows Museum marks the first time they have been displayed outside of Tucson in the 50 years since, and is made possible by a generous gift from The Meadows Foundation, with additional support for the study and publication from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in New York.


About the Meadows Museum

The Meadows Museum is a division of SMU’s Meadows School of the Arts. It houses one of the largest and most comprehensive collections of Spanish art outside of Spain, with works dating from the 10th to the 21st century. It includes masterpieces by some of the world’s greatest painters: El Greco, Velázquez, Ribera, Murillo, Goya, Miró and Picasso. For information, call 214-768-2516 or visit the museum’s Web site at www.measowsmuseumdallas.org.

The Samuel H. Kress Foundation devotes its resources to advancing the history, conservation and enjoyment of the vast heritage of European art, architecture and archaeology from antiquity to the 19th century.

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