Two angels shown above Christ's crucified body cannot bear to look at him and cover their eyes and mouths.
This panel and 'The Virgin and Child' had been separated since at least 1926, and probably many centuries before that. They were recently recognised as having originally formed a diptych. They were painted by an unknown, probably Umbrian, painter in about 1260. 'The Man of Sorrows' (formerly Stoclet Collection, Brussels) is among the earliest surviving examples of that image in Italian painting.
Dillian Gordon: This was a very exciting occasion for the National Gallery. A photograph of ‘The Virgin and Child’ had been sent to Joanna Cannon at the Courtauld Institute and she recognised that it belonged with ‘The Man of Sorrows’, which at some stage of its life has been thought to be Venetian. She’s a friend of mine and when I heard about this I thought it would be an exciting opportunity for the Gallery to acquire these panels because we have very few paintings of the 13th century.
It was always going to be a complicated process because the two panels were obviously in different collections and they hadn’t been together for probably over 100 years. So we were hoping that the owners of each panel would agree to sell to the National Gallery and we could bring the two panels together. And there was a very exciting period over Christmas 1998 to January 1999 when we were negotiating and finally we were successful and the two panels came together.
And of course there’s absolutely no question that they belong together. The backs are painted with imitation porphyry with hooks which definitely fit together and on the front you can see that the punching on both is identical. And the virgin is gesturing towards her child and looking sorrowfully out at the spectator, knowing that the child will be crucified and that he will end up as ‘The Man of Sorrows’ on the Cross.
Miranda Hinkley: So you’ve sort of got life and death on one side and the other.
Dillian Gordon: Yes, very much so. The child, infant Christ as a baby in his mother’s arms, and then the adult Christ with his arms folded in suffering outlined against the Cross, and the angels above are covering their faces in mourning.
Miranda Hinkley: Dillian, you mentioned that originally it had been thought that figure of Christ was thought to be of Venetian origin; has the process of reuniting these panels shed new light on their origin?
Dillian Gordon: Yes, that’s another very exciting aspect. ‘The Virgin and Child’ is unquestionably Umbrian and by putting the two together and realising that in fact ‘The Man of Sorrows’ is Umbrian as well, there are several comparative examples of Umbrian painting, particularly of course with crucifixes, where we can show it’s an Umbrian painter. It’s, of course, an anonymous painter and we don’t know who it was painted for. It’s an object for private devotion. It would have been something that you could perhaps slip into a leather case and travel around with and then open and use for your private prayer. One of the most unusual aspects of this painting is the very elaborate punching that you have all up the borders and around the Virgin’s halo. It’s extremely delicate and, as I say, unusual, for a 13th-century painting at this stage. It becomes much more common in later paintings.
Miranda Hinkley: Very, very delicate isn’t it? You’ve got floral motifs and intertwining plant forms and stems curling round, but each one is very, very delicately done. How would that have been rendered?
Dillian Gordon: The artist would have had an iron tool which he would strike into the gold leaf and depending on the pressure the result would be very slightly different, so sometimes the punches look slightly different but they’ve been made with the same tool.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, when this piece arrived here at the National Gallery, it was in quite a different state to the condition it’s in now. Martin Wyld, you’ve been working on it here in Conservation. Tell us about the condition it was in when it arrived.
Martin Wyld: Well, we could see that it was in very good condition, but it was quite obscured by probably several hundred years worth of varnish and wax polish and dirt settling on it, and at some point when the panels were still together, we think that someone had tried to clean up the figures of Christ and the Virgin and Child and they seem to have pushed all the dirt into the punch marks and incised lines, so instead of having a sort of sparkly punch-marked and incised background, they were like a series of sort of black full stops all over it, and that was the main difference.
Miranda Hinkley: And how have you worked to clean that off?
Martin Wyld: Well, I had to do most of the work under a microscope because as you can see some of the punch marks are about a millimetre across. I’ve been able to use some sort of white spirit and solvent mixed together to soften the black deposits in the punch marks, and then scrape them out with a sharpened stick, working under a microscope at about 15 times magnification. It has taken quite a long time, but I think it’s been well worth it.
Miranda Hinkley: Originally these would have been hinged together so that you could actually close the whole thing up like a book. When you’ve finished the cleaning process how is it going to be presented to people?
Martin Wyld: As they were before, which is they’ll be clamped to a padded backboard right next to each other, which is how they would have originally been seen.
Miranda Hinkley: Well, it’s very exciting to have such exquisite workmanship reunited so visitors can see it as it would have originally been.
Dillian Gordon: You’re quite right. There’s nothing like it in the collection and, indeed, really there’s nothing like it surviving in the world. There are comparatively few 13th-century paintings still surviving in private hands, so we were extremely lucky to be able to buy this. These are objects which in their own right as independent panels are very beautiful and of course reuniting them has made them an object which is absolutely unique.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Dillian Gordon and Martin Wyld.