The Walker Art Gallery has welcomed back Virgin and Child in Glory (1673), an altarpiece by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo (1617-1682), following a major conservation project. The project has revealed more about the dramatic history of the painting, and about the skills and techniques employed by the renowned Spanish artist.

The altarpiece was originally commissioned by the Archbishop of Seville (1670-1684) Ambrosio Ignacio Spínola y Guzmán, to form the centerpiece of a private chapel in his palace. However, in the late 18th century its central section was cut out and a copy was inserted. In 1862, the original pieces were reunited, before it was acquired by the Walker in 1953.

For the first time, the copy is displayed next to the original altarpiece, along with a modello (preparatory study) which would likely have been produced by the artist to show to his patron before commencing work on the large altarpiece. The Walker is the only gallery to own both a preparatory oil study by Murillo and the largely finished altarpiece for which the study was made.

The conservation work, funded by the Art Fund, is the first to have been carried out on the altarpiece in more than 150 years. Conservators at National Museums Liverpool used infrared reflectography to observe underdrawings on the artwork; sketches and initial outlines that were sometimes disregarded as the artist’s approach to the composition evolved.

Xanthe Brooke, Curator of European Art at National Museums Liverpool, said: “The conservation work has revealed more about the process behind Murillo’s painting. It’s been fascinating to discover how the artist revised his composition on the canvas, making improvements and experimenting with new ideas as he worked.

“After removing the discolored varnish on the painting, we were able to really observe the exquisite painterly skills for which Murillo is renowned as the most influential devotional painter of the post-medieval period. In particular, we see the subtlety of colors used on the many cherubs surrounding the Virgin Mary, and on her golden halo.”

Murillo was one of the great artists of 17th century Spain, renowned internationally for his painting and draughtsmanship, which influenced many 18th century British painters. By 1682, he was the most famous Spanish artist outside his homeland, better known than his compatriot Velázquez.

The large Virgin and Child in Glory altarpiece (h.2360 x w.1690mm) depicts a dark-haired Virgin Mary wearing a deep blue cloak over a red robe, holding in her arms a seated, fair-haired baby Jesus. The Virgin is standing on a base of clouds surrounded by cherubs in a wide variety of different poses, who emerge from a golden heaven.

Pigment analysis was also undertaken, demonstrating the use of costly blue ultramarine paint on the Virgin Mary’s robes. In contrast, a Prussian blue paint was used on the copy. Prussian blue was invented in 1706 – forty years after the original altarpiece was made by Murillo. This suggests that the copy is likely to have been painted in the 18th century.

By the early 19th century, the central section was in the possession of a retired linen draper in London, while the rest of the altarpiece was looted by a French general and taken to Paris. The works were eventually reunited under the ownership of Lord Overstone, a trustee of the National Gallery. X-ray analysis has allowed conservators to observe the skilful reinsertion work which was carried out by London restorer George Morrill.

It is not known why the central section of the altarpiece was replaced with a copy, or who the copyist was. Infrared analysis has revealed that the artist drew in freehand around a crossed line to locate the centre of the Virgin Mary’s face; a technique traditionally taught in drawing academies. The discovery of the artist’s drawing style may help to identify them in the future.

As part of the conservation work, damages and losses to both the modello and the altarpiece have been addressed. On the altarpiece, retouching has balanced the subtle differences that developed between the two sections of the painting while they were separated, as well as reducing any distraction around the cutting line where the central section was removed.

The recently-acquired preparatory sketch, the copy of the central section and the finished altarpiece are currently on display in Room 3 at the Walker Art Gallery.

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