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This beautifully crafted 14th century sculpture was made by an anonymous artist known as the Master of the Gualino St Catherine.

Umbrian Madonna fact file

Date

Early 1300s

Made by

The Master of the Gualino St Catherine

Made in

Umbria, Italy

Made from

Carved poplar wood with gesso, traces of pigment and gilding

Dimensions

137cm high, base 38cm wide

Museum reference

A.1950.323

On display

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.

The Umbrian Madonna before conservation

Above: The Umbrian Madonna and Child before conservation.

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.

Revealing the layers

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.

Remnants of original paint decoration on the Madonna's throne.

Above: Remnants of original paint decoration on the Madonna's throne.

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

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

A conservation conundrum

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?

Conservator Diana de Bellaigue working on the Madonna

Above: Conservator Diana de Bellaigue working on the Madonna. You can find out more about her work in this blog post.

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.

The Madonna under UV light, which reveals large areas of overpainting. The very dark purple-blue areas were carried out at the museum in the 1960s.

Above: The Madonna under UV light, which reveals large areas of overpainting. The very dark purple-blue areas were carried out at the museum in the 1960s.

Conserved Umbrian Madonna showing underdrawing

Above: The Madonna after conservation, with the underdrawing revealed.

Restoration vs conservation

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.

Christ's hand before (left) and after (right) conservation.

Above: Christ's hand before (left) and after (right) conservation.

The xradiograph of the sculpture shows the nails used in its construction.

Above: The xradiograph of the sculpture shows the nails used in its construction.

CT scanning and xradiography

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.

Cross-sectional images of the CT scan reveal at the ring pattern of the wood the sculpture is made from as well as construction techniques. The red line indicates the position of this cross section.

Above: Cross-sectional images of the CT scan reveal the ring pattern of the poplar wood the sculpture is made from, as well as construction techniques. The red line indicates the position of this cross section.

Revealing the layers

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.

See the Madonna and Child in your home

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.

Next steps

The next step of the research process is to use the results of the paint investigations to produce a colour 3D digital model of the sculpture as it looked in the mid-1300s, and to show its changing appearance over the centuries.

The project is supported by

The Henry Moore Foundation     Association of Art Historians

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