Historical process undertaken for historical painting

As visitors gaze through a glass window, restorers work diligently to preserve one of Portugal’s national treasures. Paintings, microscopes, x-ray machines, trays, tools, computers, picture frames and tables fill the space, all set up to do this important work.

The “St. Vincent Panels” being restored at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon. (Courtesy of the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon)

Since June 1, 2020, an international group of experts has been analyzing, digitizing and retouching one of Portugal’s most important cultural artifacts: the “St. Vincent Panels” (c. 1470). In Portuguese, the work is known as “Painéis de São Vicente”. Everyone can watch in real time as conservation experts restore the polyptych (multi-panel painting) at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal.

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Front facade of the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon. (Public domain)

It is estimated that the artwork originally may have had 12 panels, six of which are now lost. The six panels that make up the work have been separated for the restoration process. Incredibly, most of the wood that supports the panels has survived the original structure.

International restoration effort

The technical difficulty of restoration is to preserve the original work: repair the damage of past renovations and find the original work, without damaging the painting or giving an incorrect historical or aesthetic result.

Fortunately, with the latest 21st century technology available to restorers as well as experts in other fields, the process is easier. Technical assistance arrived from two specialized laboratories: the HERCULES Laboratory of the University of Évora and the José de Figueiredo Laboratory of Lisbon, which helped to analyze the painting and suggest the best way to restore it using of their equipment.

International consultants have also arrived to help. Art historians and conservators-restorers have come from the National Gallery in London, the University of Ghent in Belgium (Ghent is the city that houses the famous Altarpiece of Ghent), the Central Institute of Restoration in Belgium, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Prado Museum in Madrid.

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The “St. Vincent Panels. (Courtesy National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon)

Experts first examined every inch of the six panels to record any paint damage over time. This preparatory work determined the best approach to preserve the original composition and restore the original vivid colors. After recording previous restorations completed before 2020 and any damage caused by time, the restorers began the second phase, which is now underway.

Since the 16th century, the panels may have undergone up to six restorations. The main objective of the restorers and the museum is not to harm the integrity of the painting. Restorers want to bring back the brighter colors of the paint and retain as much of the original piece as possible.

Careful progress

The experts remove the old layers of varnish to see the correct chromatic range of the panels and discover the original colors used in the painting. To see the different layers and color usage, conservators use UV lamps to record any difference in fluorescence; this allows them to recognize the different layers and the use of colors.

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The image on the left is the central left panel of the “St. Vincent panels. Saint Vincent, dressed in red and gold and holding a manuscript, stands in the center surrounded by prominent figures from Portuguese society. The image on the right comes from from the fifth panel with painted figures of friars, monks, knights and nobles (Courtesy National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon)

During the UV process, experts noticed blue layers of color under red layers. Blue completely changed the paint, as red is one of the predominant colors of the panels. The experts also saw all the retouched areas and the materials used at different times. For example, the paint has been cleaned several times with an acid pH solution during previous restorations, which has damaged part of the paint.

The old restorers, before the 1910 restoration, had used layers of varnish that did not match the colors originally used by the painter. The current restoration team applied varnish to parts of the panels to find out which parts to clean, to see what colors were actually originally used by the painter and what was added during later renovations.

The next step for museum conservators was to use X-rays to reveal things invisible to the naked eye. For example, they discovered faces painted above others. The X-rays guided the experts in the selection of the methodology to choose for the specific scanned areas of the panels.

Mysterious collective portrait

The panels were discovered in 1882 in the monastery of São Vicente de Fora, in the Alfama district of Lisbon. The panels were then exhibited at the National Museum of Ancient Art, after being restored in 1910 by the Portuguese painter Luciano Freire.

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Sculpture by Nuno Gonçalves, royal painter to the court of King Afonso V. (Harvey Barrison/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The panels are attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, royal painter to the court of King Afonso V. The painting – oil and tempera on oak – is believed to have originally formed part of the Saint Vincent Altarpiece in Lisbon Cathedral, known as the name of Se.

Pictorially, the painting is considered one of the first group portraits in Europe in the 15th century. Collective portraits were rare during the European Renaissance, and most were not as expressive as this one. The panels are also noteworthy because they are one of the few paintings that depict Portuguese society in the 15th century.

To this day, there is speculation among scholars regarding the precise identities of the characters and the meaning of the panels as a whole. The artist has depicted a large group of figures in this artwork. They are 58 in total gathered around Saint Vincent of Zaragoza, martyr of the 3rd century and patron saint of Lisbon. Saint Vincent is represented twice: on each of the two largest panels in the middle. On either side are two narrower panels filled with more numbers.

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The first three panels of the “St. Vincent Panels. (Courtesy of National Museum of Ancient Art, Lisbon)

The panels show figures from the Portuguese court in the 15th century and from the Portuguese nobility, as well as knights, friars and monks of different religious orders, councilors and other unidentified figures. The painting presents a ceremonial, contemplative and solemn setting, as shown by the poses of figures with hands joined as if in prayer. Social groups have expressive gaits, elaborate costumes and accessories.

age of greatness

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Sign at the entrance to the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal. (Public domain)

The “St. Vincent Panels” has great significance for Portuguese identity because of the period in which it was painted: the Age of Discovery. The Portuguese call this time “the Age of Discoveries”. It was a time of economic and cultural growth for the nation, and an era of great maritime exploration and expansion.The most common interpretation of this painting is that it celebrates the achievements of Portuguese expansion in South Africa. North during the Aviz dynasty, the second dynasty of Portugal between 1385 and 1580.

Several figures in the painting indicate the age of discovery. More importantly, the painting’s namesake, Saint Vincent, who was the patron saint of sailors on expeditions, was adopted by the Portuguese people. According to legend, the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (circa 1106-1185), found the relics (remains) of the saint and brought them to Lisbon. It is not shown in the table.

Another figure possibly depicted in the panels is Henry the Navigator, one of the most important figures of the early Age of Discovery. In 1895, Portuguese art historian Joaquim de Vasconcelos identified the old man wearing a burgundy hat on one of the central panels as Henry the Navigator. However, the identification of many characters, including Henry, in this polyptych is still debated and heavily debated.

To document this historical restoration, the Portuguese newspaper Le Public (O Público) has been following the process for three years, in partnership with the museum and the Millennium BCP Foundation (Fundação millennium bcp). Through video footage, photographs, articles and interviews, the newspaper shares the restoration process with its readers. A team of journalists regularly visits the ‘restoration house’ to check on progress, and the newspaper has a page dedicated to the panels and their restoration.

Restoring the “St. Vincent Panels” represents a chance to restore an artistic heritage in Portugal.

The restoration process can be seen live at the National Museum of Ancient Art in Lisbon, Portugal until December 31, 2022.

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