Conservation Blog

Work begins on a 16th century Southern German altarpiece

July 2014

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At the beginning of the year the NMS Conservation Department started work on a 16th century Southern German polychrome church altarpiece which is destined for display in Norwich Castle Keep. So far, the altarpiece has undergone extensive investigation and analysis by the NMS Conservation Department and a student of University College London. The altarpiece features three painted and gilded standing figures carved from lime wood. The central figure can clearly be identified as the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ in her left hand. The painted blue back of the altarpiece is decorated with the remnants of gilded tracery and small paper stars. Hinges on either side of the altarpiece suggest it would once have had doors. Our analysis appears to show that the figures once gleamed with silver and gold gilding and would have been quite a spectacle when seen in the flickering candle light of a medieval church.

Investigation has confirmed that the altarpiece has undergone several campaigns of restoration over the last 500 years. Several layers of over-painting have been identified, dating from medieval to modern Victorian. These paint layers can be seen on the ‘Dexter’ figure (the figure on the right) where some of the modern blue paint on the robes was removed in the 1980’s, revealing the red paint underneath. The altarpiece has suffered considerable damage in the past from pests, damp and environmental fluctuations and the painted surface of all three figures is flaking away and without intervention will lead to irreversible loss.

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On the left the ‘Donor’ figure showing a layer of blue paint under the patterned Victorian restoration. On the right, the ‘Dexter’ figure showing a red and silver gilt layer of paint exposed in the 1980’s

Whilst our conservators are working to stabilize and clean the altarpiece, there are a variety of valid opinions as to what should be done in terms of further treatment. The altarpiece is a rare and important example of medieval polychrome sculpture and is to be displayed in a medieval context surrounded by medieval objects. This has lead some to argue for the removal of the later over-painting to reveal the earlier medieval paint preserved underneath. Although the opportunity to see the medieval paintwork is intriguing and exciting, others believe that the modern over-painting should be left intact as it is part of the objects long history of restoration. Both of these arguments have pros and cons. We cannot be certain how much medieval paint remains, so in removing the later paint layers, there is a risk that we could make the altar piece figures look worse. Also, once exposed, the medieval paint layer may be vulnerable to further deterioration.

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Top right image shows an area of the Virgin Mary’s cloak before cleaning and the image bottom right show the area after cleaning.

Complex choices such as these often occur during conservation work. Conservators are regularly faced with ethical dilemmas and need to make careful judgements as to how far treatments should go. We must also consider the expectations of visitors, researchers and other stakeholders. In the case of the altarpiece, if the modern over paint is removed to reveal the earlier medieval colours, that physical layer of history is forever lost.

Currently, we are discussing a compromise in which we continue the treatment started in the 1980s on the ‘Dexter’ figure, and leave the modern over-paint on the other figures. In the mean time, we are working to clean and reveal the wonderful, and original, gilded cloaks that adorn each of the figures.

We would love to hear your thoughts on the altarpiece, its treatment or any other conservation issues. You can comment on and follow the treatment and investigation of the altarpiece on the Conservation Department’s twitter feed @ConserveNMS

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