The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza restores Fra Angelico's painting of The Virgin of Humility

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The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza restores Fra Angelico's painting of The Virgin of Humility
The restored painting is shown alongside two musical instruments similar to the ones depicted in the composition and an explanatory video on the work carried out by the restoration team.



MADRID.- The Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza presents Fra Angelico. Restoration of The Virgin of Humility, a special installation around this masterpiece from the collection that has just been restored. The painting is once again on display in room 11 and shows the results and conclusions of that project.

Over the past months the museum’s restorers have undertaken a complex process of technical study, identifying the materials used in the work’s creation, taking chemical analyses and obtaining technical images such as X-radiographs and infrared reflectographs, together allowing for a detailed study of the painting. This prior research revealed Fra Angelico’s creative procedures and provided the necessary information for embarking on the restoration with the maximum rigour and respect for the work, which is exhibited alongside two musical instruments similar to the ones depicted in the composition and an explanatory video on the work carried out by the restoration team.

Following its presentation in Madrid the painting will return to the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya (MNAC) where it is habitually on display as part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection on deposit at that museum.

Guido di Piero da Mugello, known as Fra Giovanni da Fiesole or more popularly Fra Angelico (Vicchio, ca. 1395/1400-Rome, 1455), entered the monastery of San Domenico between 1418 and 1421, shortly after initiating his artistic activities as a miniaturist. He began painting triptychs and panels on sacred subjects and by the early 1430s had achieved considerable renown and was considered one of Florence’s great painters. His religious compositions were created the purpose of veneration by those contemplating them and for his own use, and he considered his work a form of prayer.

The Virgin of Humility (ca. 1433-1435) depicts the Virgin and Child and dates from the start of the artist’s mature period. The work is filled with symbolic details, such as the lilies that refer to Mary’s purity and the red and white roses alluding to Christ’s Passion. In contrast to the frontality and use of gold leaf typical of the previous century, here Fra Angelico makes use of a type of light and chromatic range that can be considered Quattrocento innovations. In addition, he employed techniques already experimented with by other painters, such as the use of incisions that help to create the textures and volumes of the draperies.

The panel belonged to the collection of Leopold I of Belgium and was in the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York between 1909 and 1935. In the latter year it was acquired by Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza and after his death it was inherited by his daughter, Countess Margit Batthyáni. In 1986 her brother, Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, acquired it from her for his collection. One of the masterpieces of the Thyssen collection, The Virgin of Humility has only previously been displayed at the Museum in Madrid on three occasions (in 2006, 2009 and 2021) as it is one of the 80 works of the Italian and German schools that have been on long-term deposit in Barcelona since 1992, first at the Monastery of Pedralbes and since 2004 at the MNAC.

Technical analysis and restoration

The aim of restoring the painting was to reinstate its overall atmosphere, re-establishing the subtlety of the flesh tones and the delicacy of the textures created by Fra Angelico. The museum’s restoration team has also been able to reinstate the work’s balance and depth, giving it an appearance much closer to its original one.

The work undertaken has revealed extremely interesting information on the painting; from how it was conceived to how the artist worked, making use of a meticulous pictorial procedure.

Fra Angelico was a methodical and painstaking painter who used his materials in a masterly manner. He first drew the forms in brush then made incisions over the lines, which allowed him to retain those references when applying the paint layer. Technical images obtained during the study of the panel also show that there are few differences between the preparatory drawing and the final work; just a few centimetres in the placing of certain elements such as the Virgin’s eyes and the angels’ wings.

The artist applied the tempera in a complex manner; in order to create luminosity he painted very fine lines in very pale tones such as whites, yellows and greens with which he modelled the light. This is evident in the Virgin’s rosy cheeks and the angels’ tunics. He also used very high quality pigments which have resisted the passing of time.

Fra Angelico created the gilding using gold leaf of considerable purity and thickness, applying it over a layer of red clay or “bole”. The incisions are particularly evident in the haloes, the cloth of honour held up by the angels and the Virgin’s throne. He also completed the areas of flesh with a thin red line that emphasises the volume and which is visible on both the hands and faces.

Frame

The painting’s frame, which has an architectural structure with a semi-circular, arched top, a frieze and pilasters, has also been the subject of analysis and restoration. The X-radiographs made of it revealed that the frame is made up of remnants of other, older ones, joined together on a framework. Dating from the early 20th century, the wood was shown to be stable and the intervention has thus been limited to cleaning. It is likely that the decision to give the work a new frame dates from the time when a metal cradle was added to the back to stabilise the painting’s support.

Installation

The Virgin of Humility is now presented in an original, circular installation that first shows the back of the panel, obliging visitors to move round the display in order to look at the painting. Also on display in the gallery is a lute and a portable organ which are reproductions of the early instruments held by the musician angels at the feet of the Virgin in the composition. Loaned by the Generalitat de Valencia, the lute is inspired by the one depicted in the fresco of Musician Angels (1472) in Valencia cathedral, while the portable organ belongs to a private collection.










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