This beautifully crafted 14th century sculpture was made by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Gualino St Catherine.
The Master of the Gualino St Catherine
Carved poplar wood with gesso, traces of pigment and gilding
137cm high, base 38cm wide
Art of Living, Level 5, National Museum of Scotland
Did you know?
The real name of the Master of the Gualino St Catherine remains unknown. He was named for his beautiful wooden sculpture of St Catherine, currently in a private collection in Turin.
Bought in 1950 from the collection of Sir Michael Sadler, no other Madonna and Child by this enigmatic artist can be found outside of Italy and only a few others are in public hands. The majority of pieces linked to the Master are still preserved in situ in churches in both Umbria and Abruzzo, and continue to play a role in popular devotion today. You can find out more about the Master in this blog post by the University of Edinburgh's Dr Luca Palozzi.
Not only is the sculpture's maker elusive, but the Madonna herself holds many secrets, with remnants of a once richly painted and gilded surface providing clues to her original appearance. A multidisciplinary team at National Museums Scotland used technology to reveal how the sculpture was constructed and once opulently decorated, and how it has been repainted and repaired over the years.
Conservators then had to decide whether to undo past work to reflect more accurately the sculpture’s original state.
The Madonna has been painted many times over the course of her existence. Yet traces of the original decoration remain, suggesting that originally she was opulently adorned with gold and richly painted brocades. The paint layers have since degraded and flaked away in large areas, revealing the fine wood carving beneath.
Scientists at National Museums Scotland have studied the paint layers to try and establish how many colour schemes can be identified and which pigments were used. As well as being repainted while on display in church, the Madonna was also restored in the 1960s after entering the museum collection.
By studying the Madonna under ultraviolet (UV) light, our conservators could see that large areas of her dress and face had been painted over in the 1960s. A decision was made to remove this paint because it was historically inaccurate, but the team knew this was a bold decision: would the Virgin look as appealing without eyes to hold the gaze?
Eventually, the decision was made to remove the layer. The results were revelatory: a previously hidden underdrawing was exposed on the Virgin's face, possibly used by the painter to map out his design before applying the paint.
CT scanning revealed that one of Christ's hands had been remodelled during the restoration work carried out in the museum workshop in the 1960s. This was a time when ‘restoration’ rather than ‘conservation’ was more in vogue. Generally, conservators at National Museums Scotland leave previous alterations made to objects intact, as part of the object’s history. However, new research showed that this modern repair was inaccurate and misleading, and so the remodelled fingers were removed. A drill hole revealed during this process may suggest that the Christ and Virgin were originally holding something, a lily perhaps.
To investigate its structure, the sculpture underwent computed tomography (CT) and xradiography at the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies at the University of Edinburgh.
This film shows how the sculpture was created and may originally have looked. You can find out more about the research behind the film here.
You can see the Madonna and Child come to life in the BBC's Civilisations Augmented Reality app. Find out more and download the app here.