The Portland Art Museum presents an exhibition that brings together eight dispersed 14th-century paintings, and a recreated missing panel, so that the altarpiece can be seen and appreciated as one magnificent work of art. This reunion allows visitors to see the Museum’s Resurrection of Drusiana in its original context. Donated by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1961, the painting is one of the finest Early Italian narrative scenes in the Pacific Northwest.
“This type of exhibition is staged very rarely, so visitors should take advantage of this special opportunity to see one of the Museum’s early Renaissance paintings in its magnificent original context,” said exhibition curator Dawson Carr, Ph.D., The Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art.
Ghissi worked in the Marche, the mountainous Italian region between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea. The St. John Altarpiece is most extensive ensemble of his work to have survived, but its original location remains a mystery. It was made in the 1370s following a typical format for chapels and small churches, in which a large central image of the Crucifixion is flanked by smaller narrative scenes. In this case, eight episodes are devoted to the life of John the Evangelist, who was most likely the patron saint of the church. True to the spirit of the burgeoning Renaissance, each scene is depicted with great clarity, drama, and humanity, and the ensemble demonstrates that Ghissi was consistently a masterful storyteller.
During the 19th or early 20th century, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed apart because individual panels could be sold more lucratively to art dealers and collectors. In time, all of the known elements entered U.S. museums. Portland’s painting and three panels in the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) were the gifts of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Three additional panels are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the central Crucifixion is in the Art Institute of Chicago. After more than a century of separation, the paintings are now reunited in this exhibition, first displayed at NCMA last fall, that retells the story of this Early Renaissance masterwork.
Because the ninth painting has never been found, Dutch conservation specialist Charlotte Caspers was employed to re-create it using 14th-century materials and techniques. Caspers worked with NCMA Curator of European Art David Steel and Chief Conservator William Brown to determine the probable subject, composition, coloring, and other details; then she created the panel with the same type of pigments and gilding used by Ghissi 650 years ago. The exhibition includes a video of the process along with an extensive display documenting all of the pigments and other materials used.
The bright, gleaming new panel would look out of place alongside works that had aged for centuries, so Duke University mathematicians developed algorithms to age Caspers’s work digitally using the crack patterns and faded colors of the original panels as a guide. A photograph of the virtually aged ninth panel will be installed to complete the St. John Altarpiece. The Duke team also used Casper’s panel to calculate algorithms to reverse the effect of aging on the original panels. The resulting images will be displayed, along with Casper’s panel, to give visitors an impression of the altarpiece as it would have looked in the 14th century. Videos explaining the work of the mathematicians will be available in the gallery.
“It was a true collaboration between conservators, curators, and mathematicians,” says Steel, who will discuss the process in a public lecture at Portland Art Museum on April 2. “Everyone learned from each other’s research, and it resulted in this fascinating exhibition that combines art history, mathematics, and technology.”
Organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina. Curated in Portland by Dawson Carr, Ph.D., The Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art.