This interdisciplinary project explored the history of a 14th century sculpture attributed to an Umbrian artist known as “Maestro della Santa Caterina Gualino”.

Project outline

The Madonna and Child is a key exhibit in the Art of Living gallery, which opened in July 2016 as part of a major transformation of our Art and Design galleries.

Madonna and child after conservation

Above: The Madonna and Child after conservation.

In April 2015, the Henry Moore Foundation awarded £8,000 to National Museums Scotland to enable a technical analysis of the Madonna and Child, a sculpture attributed to an Umbrian artist known as “Maestro della Santa Caterina Gualino”. It is the only known Madonna and Child attributed to the Maestro outside Italy. This blog post by Dr Luca Palozzi of the University of Edinburgh explains more about the Maestro.

This beautifully crafted 14th century wooden sculpture preserves the remnants of a once richly painted and gilded surface providing clues to its original appearance.

Our in house team worked with colleagues from Edinburgh and Glasgow Universities to research and develop our understanding of the sculpture and to authenticate its attribution. Wood species identification, carbon dating and CT scanning were undertaken, confirming that the sculpture was made from poplar in the early 14th century. Pigment analysis enabled the paint stratigraphy to be mapped, showing the evolving appearance of the Madonna through the centuries. With this comprehensive body of knowledge, we undertook a radical treatment approach, removing large areas of overpaint and modern repairs.

This was an interdisciplinary project in which the conversation team worked very closely with the project curator and art historian who explored the history and context of the object with the help of a Museums and Exhibitions Grant from the Association of Art Historians.

In addition to the situation of the object in art history, the project curator sought to clarify where the Madonna had been before being bought by the museum. It was discovered that the last owner of the Madonna had been Sir Michael Sadler, the famous patron and collector of post-impressionist painting. In his later years, Sadler had developed a largely unresearched passion for sculpture and been guided in this by the avant-garde London gallerist and dealer Sydney Burney, from whom the Madonna had come. Exploring the context of her purchase and display in Sadler’s Oxford home alongside “A bas-relief from Nineveh, a bronze of Zadkine [and] an Aztec mask in black stone”, the  resulting understanding of what Sadler may have seen in the sculpture was essential in informing decisions to remove the overpainting after acquisition.

This blog post by Dr Rachel King explains more about the project.

Project aims

  • To uncover and document the hitherto unexplored structure, polychromy and technique of the work
  • To test scientifically the art historical stylistic understanding of the piece and its attribution
  • To share our findings with the public by regularly producing online updates on the project and to encourage feedback
  • To create a robust conservation strategy based on the scientific analyses
  • To display the conserved piece in the museum using project findings to aid interpretation.

Future ambitions

Our analysis and conservation treatment revealed what appears to be an underdrawing directly on the carved woden surface of the Madonna’s face. Further testing is now required to confirm the authenticity of what could be a fascinating and rarely perceived aspect of manufacture.

We are seeking to use our findings to go back in time, creating a digital colour reconstruction of the statue as it would have looked in the 1300s and during its subsequent repaints, which we will share with the public online.

Project team

Diana de Bellaigue – Artefact Conservator
Lore Troalen – Analytical Scientist
Xavier Dectot – Keeper of Art and Design
Heather Caven – Head of Collection Services

External contributors

Rachel King – Glasgow Life
Luca Palozzi – University of Edinburgh
Mark Richter – University of Glasgow
Tobias Schwarz – University of Edinburgh

Analyses

You can find out more about the scientific analyses in this blog post by artefact conservator Diana de Bellaigue.

CT scanning and xradiography

 The sculpture underwent computed tomography (CT) and xradiography at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh.

Above: The sculpture underwent computed tomography (CT) and xradiography at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, University of Edinburgh.

The Xradiograph on the left shows nails used in the construction. The image on the right, constructed from CT data by Dr Thomas Challands, University of Edinburgh, highlights the separate wooden pieces used in the construction.

Above: The Xradiograph on the left shows nails used in the construction. The image on the right, constructed from CT data by Dr Thomas Challands, University of Edinburgh, highlights the separate wooden pieces used in the construction.

Cross sectional images of the CT scan allowed us to look at the ring pattern of the tree as well as construction techniques. The red line indicates the position of this cross section.

Above: Cross sectional images of the CT scan allowed us to look at the ring pattern of the tree as well as construction techniques. The red line indicates the position of this cross section.

Wood species identification

Wood sample location

Wood species ID carried out using microscopic analysis of the wood structure by Dr Theo Skinner confirmed the wood to be poplar, a species commonly used for carving in Italy during the 14th century.

Above: Wood species ID carried out by Dr Theo Skinner using microscopic analysis of the wood structure confirmed the wood to be poplar, a species commonly used for carving in Italy during the 14th century. 

Wood samples under the microscope

Above: This analysis was done by comparing microscopic features with known examples. The sample was then sent to Oxford to be carbon dated at the Oxford Radiocarbon Accelerator Unit where the wood was dated to the very early 14th century.

Analysis of polychromy using resin mounted polished cross sections

Microscopic paint samples were taken and resin mounted.

Above: Microscopic paint samples were taken and resin mounted.

The samples were analysed at the museum using a Scanning Electron Microscope.

Above: The samples were analysed at the museum using a Scanning Electron Microscope.

Polished paint cross section showing the original paint layers and the numerous subsequent repaints on the Virgin’s robe.

Above: Polished paint cross section showing the original paint layers and the numerous subsequent repaints on the Virgin’s robe. 

Art historical, historical and technical research hand in hand

Collaboration between art historian, museum scientist, conservator, and external experts contributed to the success of the project

Above: Collaboration between art historian, museum scientist, conservator, and external experts contributed to the success of the project.

Conservation

Tracking the modern repaints

Above: The Madonna before conservation (left) and photographed under ultra-violet light.

Using this central image taken under UV light by Neil McLean, Museum Photographer, we were able to track modern repaints and remove them to reveal more of the original sculpture beneath, including what seems to be an underdrawing on the Virgin’s face. While there are other examples of underdrawings on sculpture of the period, they have been subject to little scrutiny. Verifying the authenticity of our underdrawing is a further aspect of research we would now like to undertake.

3D digital model of the Madonna and child

Above: 3D digital model of the sculpture.

The Digital Design Studio in Glasgow produced a 3D digital model of the sculpture. We plan to use this model to present the sculpture’s changing appearance through the ages. By mapping the results of the paint investigations we will produce a colour 3D digital model of the sculpture as it looked in the mid 1300s as well as its changing appearance over the centuries.

Supported by

The Henry Moore Foundation     Association of Art Historians

Explore more

Blog
Blog posts about the Umbrian Madonna

Discover more about this fascinating conservation and research project, exploring the history of a 14th century sculpture of the Madonna and Child.
Read
Back to top

Discover the story of Scottish pop music as we take you on a musical journey from the 1950s to the present day in our new exhibition.

Members go free!

Book now