The Virgin and Child are seen in an almond-shaped aureole or mandorla (from the Italian for 'almond') of cherubim, the second of the highest order of angels representing Divine Wisdom.

This work is one of many versions of a design that has sometimes been associated with Perugino. The  great popularity of this composition awaits explanation, but, with its gold background and Christ’s gesture of blessing, it may be intended to evoke celebrated depictions of the Virgin and Child housed in important churches in Rome.

In particular it resembles an ancient icon in the Roman church of Santa Maria Maggiore believed to have been miraculously painted by St Luke. These variations, although omitting the book that Christ holds in the original, were probably thought to contain something of the miraculous power of the original, which was therefore multiplied.

Some of these pictures have been ascribed to Antonio del Massaro, known as il Pastura. This attribution is not certain but the presence of a revered copy of the Santa Maria Maggiore icon in Viterbo (between Rome and Perugia) where il Pastura worked may be relevant.

Close examination
Conservator Britta New: 'The Virgin and Child in a Mandorla with Cherubim'
6 mins 28 secs
Transcription

Miranda Hinkey: When a painting returns to the Gallery after time away in Conservation, its newly cleaned and restored colours are often a revelation. Members of the Conservation team spend a lot of time carefully restoring pictures to their former glory – and it shows. Far less visible, however, is the painstaking effort that goes into repairing what’s underneath the paint surface, which – before canvas became all the rage in the 16th century – was usually a panel made of wood. With this month’s theme in mind, I visited conservator Britta New to find out more, and began by asking her why the team have made caring for panels a speciality.

Britta New: Well, it’s a very important part of our collection. We’ve got about… a third of the works here are actually on panel and the Gallery’s developed a number of different tools and techniques that we can use in their care.

Miranda Hinkley: So why might a panel end up down here for repair then?

Britta New: Well, most of our panels are made from oak or poplar, and each of them have got their own characteristics, but they’ve all got a cellular structure that moves in response to changes in temperature or the moisture content of the air, and we often talk about panels breathing – they contract and expand over periods of time and they can warp in and out as well. At the moment, we’re quite happy with a curved appearance and we tend to allow panels as much freedom of movement as possible.

Miranda Hinkley: So this is where the panel looks as though… I mean, it’s literally curved, it’s slightly sort of buckled, almost…

Britta New: Yes, it tends to bow out in the centre and push out so that it’s got a three-dimensional appearance, rather than a very flat plane like a canvas painting. And as I say, we’re quite happy with that nowadays, but particularly the Victorians didn’t really like that – they wanted to get their paintings to behave themselves and stay flat, and they went to really quite some lengths to get the panels to behave.

They’d often plane down the reverse of a painting, which would make it thinner and more flexible, and then they would stick a wooden lattice structure, what we call a cradle, to the back of the panel and that was designed to keep it flat. The problem was another development in the 19th century was the advent of domestic heating systems and these can make the environmental conditions, like the moisture in the air, fluctuate wildly and this is the sort of thing the panel would be very reactive to. A thinned panel painting would be even more reactive and so the idea of thinning and cradling the painting actually caused an awful lot more problems than having just left the painting by itself.

Miranda Hinkley: And there’s a piece that you’re actually working on at the moment, aren’t you, this 'Virgin and Child in a Mandorla', which is by a follower of Perugino, and that was in a similar condition, wasn’t it? I mean, it almost looks like a kind of corset, strapped to the back of the panel.

Britta New: Yes, it’s as if the panel has been put into a straightjacket. This is exactly what happened to the painting in 1890 when it was last treated and over time the panel had begun to move but it was held firm by the cradle. It began to take on a corrugated appearance relating to the position of where the cradle batons were on the reverse and where the panel had then tried to shrink against the painting, it literally pulled itself to pieces, and it formed these splits that over time became wider and wider. The last photographs we’ve got of this painting were taken in the 1950s and they show some hairline fractures that when I began work had actually developed into open splits.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’ve got these fixed points at the back where the painting is actually attached to the cradle, and those bits are held firm and it’s the bits in between that suffer, and that’s where the splits occur.

Britta New: Yes, precisely.

Miranda Hinkley: So you’re about in the middle of the conservation process now. Can you explain what’s happened so far? It looks like you’ve got a scrapbook here of what’s happened with this panel.

Britta New: Yes, it’s useful to keep documentation of all the work that we carry out. The old varnish was very thick and dark and this was first removed with solvents, and then we glued a tissue paper to the front of the panel, which just protects the paint film while the structural work is being carried out. The cradle was then very gradually pared away from the back using gouges and a metal strap and any remaining glue that was holding the cradle to the panel originally was swollen with a poultice and could then be removed. After we’d removed the cradle, we took off the tissue so that we could see the paint film and then we could make sure that when we did the repair everything would be correctly aligned.

If we don’t do the repairs very well and make sure the surface levels are in alignment and the levels of the painting don’t match up either side of the split, then it’s very hard to disguise that during retouching. Getting the right surface is incredibly important. We had to work on each split, one by one, so we applied the glue and then clamped the splits in position until the adhesive has cured and just worked along the panel until everything was repaired.

Miranda Hinkley: And you’ve actually got a quite hefty piece of machinery to help with this clamping bit of the job.

Britta New: Yeah, we’ve got a special clamping table that was actually designed by my predecessor and it looks a bit like a medieval torture implement, but actually it can do some very delicate work. It can hold the panel in position while we’re working on it and apply varying levels of pressure while we’re working on it at different areas of the panel and just make sure that we can make sure those levels are correct.

Miranda Hinkley: And that’s the stage you’re at now; what happens next, Britta, how do you get this piece back into the collection?

Britta New: Well, we’re in the process of making an auxiliary support for the painting, basically just to support it during framing and handling. It’s basically just a backboard that’s made from the same material as the body of an aircraft because it’s light and it’s inert, and the painting is placed on that with a series of foam blocks behind it. The foam blocks can compress to take up any movement that the painting has and that will provide adequate support for this painting.

Miranda Hinkley: And so presumably that makes it much safer when people come to pick it up and move it around?

Britta New: Yes, absolutely, it’s very important because it’s not just us that will be handling it.

Miranda Hinkley: So once you finish the tray, then presumably the painting goes to restoration and any touching up is done?

Britta New: Yes, I’ll take it back upstairs and then begin the filling and retouching and then it will be able to go back on display, which is quite exciting. Every time you work on something, you spend so long, you actually get to know it really really well, and mentally it becomes your painting, so I suppose when it goes back on display it’s a particular thrill to see something that you’ve worked on up in the Gallery.

Miranda Hinkley: Well, we’ll look forward to seeing it again upstairs. Britta, thank you very much.

Britta New: Thank you.

Key facts

Artist
Full title
The Virgin and Child in a Mandorla with Cherubim
Date made
about 1480-1500
Medium and support
Tempera on wood
Dimensions
46 x 32 cm
Acquisition credit
Presented by Queen Victoria at the Prince Consort's wish, 1863
Inventory number
NG702
Location in Gallery