The devotional works of art in the National Gallery are now divorced from their original contexts and in many cases are only fragments of much larger decorative programmes that ornamented religious institutions throughout Western Europe.
The Gallery's curatorial, scientific and conservation departments frequently develop special research projects in order to better understand the original appearance, location and function of paintings in the collection.
Curators have a variety of ‘tools’ for investigating the history of a painting, such as provenance and archival research, iconographic identifications and connoisseurship. Their research is informed and supported by the technical examinations conducted by conservators and scientists which investigate artistic processes and materials. These examinations can assist in making attributions and reconstructing dismembered works, such as fragmented altarpieces.
Below is a selection of case studies of religious works which demonstrate the different tools used and types of research conducted at the Gallery which contribute to a better understanding of the paintings within their intended devotional and artistic context.
Studying Raphael: division of altarpieces
The 'Procession to Calvary' by Raphael in the Gallery’s collection was once part of a much larger ensemble of paintings that formed an altarpiece made for the Convent of S. Antonio in Perugia. This case study reconstructs the original appearance and context of the fragmented altarpiece.
Read the case study Studying Raphael: division of altarpieces
Anatomy of an altarpiece
This interactive webpage reveals the component parts that make up a polyptych or multi-panelled altarpiece. Using Giovanni dal Ponte's 'Ascension of John the Evangelist' altarpiece as a model, the page enables you to click on individual elements to learn more about the specific terminology and function of each.
Restoring Leonardo’s Virgin of the Rocks
Following years of collaborative research into the artistic intent and painterly techniques that lay behind Leonardo’s altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan, the Gallery carefully removed a degraded layer of varnish to reveal the artist’s distinctive modelling of light and dark. This study discusses how the restoration of the altarpiece rendered Leonardo’s extraordinary sculptural effects visible once again.
This study examines the subject, artistic style and mysterious aspects of Leonardo’s altarpiece for the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan.
Image above: detail from Raphael, The Procession to Calvary, about 1504-5