The age of a painting can often be part of its appeal, allowing us to own part of history and appreciate the ever evolving ideas of art. Whilst many antique paintings may seem to portray a rather straightforward image or story, beneath the surface there are often complex messages and allegories to be found. Similarly, the physical creation of an older artwork is also multifaceted and not always as simple as it may appear to the untrained eye. 

Mary Magdalene

Early in 2023, our easel painting conservator Sophie discovered first hand the complexity of a 16th century painting. Mary Magdalene with an Ointment Jar was purchased at auction with an attribution to the Master of the Mansi Magdalene (1490-1530), the long history of the painting had seen it undergo alterations and historic restoration campaigns that were not completed to a safe 21st century standard. This article will uncover the many steps taken to revive this beautiful artwork, as well as the allegory and religious significance it holds. 

Exploring the history of the painting

Mary Magdalene with an Ointment Jar is believed to be a copy of the figure of the Magdalene in the Gemaldegalerie, Berlin that was painted by the Master of the Mansi Magdalene, c. 1525. This copy notably has the same composition as the original depiction, however is presented in a three-quarter length format and is set against a plain background, rather than situated within a landscape. 

Mary MagdaleneAbove: the painting prior to any conservation treatment 

Interestingly, the decoration on the ointment jar is different from the original. It is thought that the decoration on the original jar is based on a contemporaneous design by Albrecht Altdorfer, seen here in a drawing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. It is very distinctive, with the winged central figure clearly visible in the original painting. Our depiction has a slightly different design – less elaborate but still highly decorative and rendered with precision and painterly skill. 

Albrecht Altdorfer drawingAbove: drawing of the original ointment jar by Albrecht Altdorfer 

From these subtle differences it is evident that the painter of our Magdalene was not simply copying the original painting, but adjusting its composition for their own purposes. At this point in history, artists learned their craft in workshops, with apprentices studying the work of the master, and many different hands working together on the same composition. This was the case for early Netherlandish painters, such as the Master of the Mansi Magdalene. Based on this, it is likely that this painting came from his workshop, if not from his own hand.

Master of the Mansi MagdalenAbove: details from Rest on the Flight into Egypt by Master of the Mansi Magdalene, housed at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore

Why does Mary Magdalene hold an ointment jar?

There is a complex history behind the portrayal of Mary Magdalene with an ointment jar. Generally, the ointment jar symbolises the act of anointing Christ’s feet as an act of devotion. Although this is a feature often found in art history, the Magdalene of the Bible was never directly connected to the anointing of Jesus Christ.

Ointment jar mary magdaleneAbove: details of the ointment jar following conservation treatments

The theological merging of biblical figures began as far back as 591 when Pope Gregory I combined Mary Magdalene with two other women from the New Testament. Firstly, she was said to be the same unidentified ‘sinful woman’ that anointed Christ’s feet with her tears and hair, perhaps due to being described previously as having ‘demons’ within her prior to joining the ministry.

Secondly, Pope Gregory I merged her with Mary of Bethany, who by all accounts is separated from Mary Magdalene and the ‘sinful woman’ but is known for her anointment of Christ’s feet with expensive perfume and hair. This connection would make Mary Magdalene the sister of Martha and Lazarus and the same Mary that anointed Christ in the lead up to the entering of Jerusalem and later crucifixion. 

Mary Magdalene depictionsAbove: a selection of artworks depicting Mary Magdalene with an ointment jar from the 14th to 16th centuries

Six days before the Passover, Jesus arrived at Bethany, where Lazarus lived, whom Jesus had raised from the dead. Here a dinner was given in Jesus’ honour. Martha served, while Lazarus was among those reclining at the table with him. Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

But one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, who was later to betray him, objected, “Why wasn’t this perfume sold and the money given to the poor? It was worth a year’s wages.” He did not say this because he cared about the poor but because he was a thief; as keeper of the money bag, he used to help himself to what was put into it.

“Leave her alone,” Jesus replied. “It was intended that she should save this perfume for the day of my burial. You will always have the poor among you, but you will not always have me.”

— John 12:1–8, New International Version

CorreggioAbove: a painting from 1515 depicting Saints Peter, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Leonard by Correggio – the saints were chosen by the patron who has chosen to associate Martha beside Mary Magdalene 

Whilst many read Mary Magdalene, the sinful woman and Mary of Bethany as being separate figures, it was the subject of an ongoing argument throughout the early centuries of the church, including the renaissance era. Notable figures such as Martin Luther supported the idea of a ‘composite Magdalene’ whilst others, such as the 16th century theologists of the Sorbonne, went further in condemning the idea of them being three separate women as ‘heretical’. Much of this was in response to a publication by French humanist Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples in 1517, arguing against combining the three women as one Mary Magdalene. 

Jan van Scorel Above: Mary Magdalene by
Jan van Scorel, 1530

The composition of the three women into one figure lessened the impact of female roles within the New Testament and also altered the way in which Mary Magdalene would be presented for many centuries. Today it is generally accepted that they were three separate people. 

What does the ointment jar tell us about the artwork?

The inclusion of the ointment jar in this representation of Mary Magdalene allows us to explore the theological ideas of the artist or, most likely, the patron. It may have been appealing to an aristocrat of the 16th century to combine a major figure such as Mary Magdalene with the story of Mary of Bethany’s anointment, as Christ’s response to the use of an expensive perfume perhaps helped wealthy donors to justify their costly and elaborate devotion in the form of fine art and architecture. 

Representing her in what would have been contemporary dress for an aristocratic woman of the 16th century, the painting further implies a message of devotion through wealth. It would have also allowed the patron to feel closer in representation to a leading female figure of the New Testament, both visually and allegorically. 

Assessment of the painting

When the painting arrived in the studio it was evident that there had been at least one previous restoration carried out to address a vertical split in the panel on the right hand side. This was being held in place with animal glue and a strip of canvas on the verso. There were also some areas of ‘tented’ paint in the green drapery on the left hand side which were at risk of flaking, as well as a discoloured varnish layer and a layer of surface dirt covering the artwork.

MicroscopeAbove: the painting being prepped for assessment under microscope

It was also clear to our conservation team that something was amiss between the painting technique used to depict the face of the Magdalene and the decorative headdress and ointment jar, as there was to her clothing. Typically paintings on wooden panels from this period have a very ‘flat appearance’, with numerous thinly applied layers used by the artist to build up tone and depth in the composition. However, our conservator immediately noticed the ‘modern’ appearance of the sash which hung around the Magdalene’s waist. 

Tenting paintAbove: a detail of the painting surface prior to treatment with evidence of tented paint

The sash was painted with large fluid impasto brushstrokes and was also not stylistically in keeping with the dress of the period. Given our knowledge of previous restoration being carried out on the painting, it was suspected that certain areas had been heavily retouched or overpainted in the past.

Raking light mary magdalene

There were also visible areas of retouching/overpaint covering the split repair which extended far beyond the damage to the wood, which indicated to us that it was likely large areas had been fully overpainted in order to blend this repair in more effectively.  This practice is not something undertaken following modern conservation standards, but unfortunately is a relatively common issue for old paintings which have undergone historic restoration campaigns, where the aesthetic unity of the image took precedence over the artist’s original intent.

Mary Magdalene UV

Following these observations, our conservator examined the painting under ultraviolet light, so that she could try to detect any non-original interventions and assess the type of varnish layer/s present. Several areas of non-original retouching were identified, particularly in the Magdalene’s face, as well as in the green drapery, however the bulk of the overpaint seemed to sit underneath the thick natural resin varnish layers so could not be properly characterised using this method. 

Microscope painting analysisAbove: an image taken through the microscope at 20x magnification showing an initial test which revealed original paint and losses under the overpaint

Examination under the microscope further confirmed our understanding of the painting and the previous restoration campaigns and gave us confidence that the sash was unoriginal and most areas of the painting had been entirely painted over.

“Thank you so much for getting in touch with the recent update on Mary. I’ve always had this niggling feeling I had to get her restored as the paint and varnish really upset me. She was the reason I began this restoration project.” – Client feedback during restoration.

A discovery

During research for this project, our conservator came across an image from a 1929 Sotheby’s catalogue of what appeared at the time to be a similar painting. Compared to our Magdalene pre-treatment there are a few notable differences; the sash, the absence of a background shadow and the absence of a veil to the headdress. 

Importantly, there were a few significant similarities noticed by our team. Not only are the composition and the dimensions and media listed for the Sotheby’s entry the same as our panel, but the design on the ointment jar is identical. Given that this design, as mentioned, is not the same as the original painting, it is difficult to imagine that there are two extremely similar versions of the painting, of the same dimension and general composition. Therefore, our conservator thought that it was extremely likely that the paintings were one and the same. 

This begged the questions; when was it altered? Why was it altered? And when did the structural damage occur?

Unfortunately we will likely not be able to answer these questions, all we can infer from the information we have is that the panel was seemingly in one piece in 1929 and then was damaged between then and now. It was likely restored at the latest 30-40 years ago, since its current natural resin varnish layer is aged and discoloured, narrowing down the timespan to the period between 1929-1980s. Most importantly, this discovery gave our conservators an indication of what might lie beneath the overpaint, as well as information about the history of the panel and how it came to be in our studio in its current condition.

Surface cleaning

The first stage of treatment for this painting was consolidation of the tented paint and small areas of loss, which were primarily found in the drapery on both sides and in the ointment jar. Tenting refers to paint which has partially come away from the support; usually the lower paint layers or ground layer/s have lost adhesion to the canvas, but the upper paint layers have remained attached to the surrounding paint. This results in a visual effect where a dome or tent-like shape is created, hence the name. 

Mary Magdalene cleaningAbove: a detail of the painting during treatment

Treatment for this damage involved our conservator using a syringe to precisely apply very small amounts of adhesive to secure the lifting areas. The paint layer was gently warmed using a hot air gun during this treatment to relax the paint and make sure it was re-positioned flat, without risking cracking any of the tented areas.  

Once the paint layer was stable, the painting could be surface cleaned with an aqueous solution to remove dirt and contaminants from the surface. In this case, the surface dirt was fairly ingrained in the paint surface, so a tailored pH adjusted solution was made using the Modular Cleaning Program to make sure that dirt could be removed effectively and safely. This treatment step had a brightening effect on the painting, which had been covered in a grey layer of dirt build-up. The Modular Cleaning Program is an innovative new development in the field of painting conservation, our studio was the setting for one of these workshops last year.

Addressing the alterations

Discrete tests were carried out across the surface to ascertain which solution would be most effective in removing the yellowed, discoloured varnish layer. During this stage, tests were also carried out to remove the historic retouching as well as the large swathes of overpainting. The decision was made to remove the non-original overpainting for several reasons. 

Mary Magdalene varnish

Firstly to restore the painting to the artist’s original intention, and reveal any hidden existing paint; given our team had discovered the 1929 Sotheby’s photograph which they believed to be the same painting, it gave a good indication of what the composition was meant to look like, and which subtle aspects of original paint to look out for when testing overpaint removal in certain areas (eg. the sash). 

The second reason for removing the overpainting was to be able to properly assess the strength of the current repair to the split in the panel. It was clear to our team that the current repair was not fully level, however the strength of the repair could not be accurately assessed whilst it was covered fully from the front. Thirdly, if it was found to be necessary to re-do this split repair, all overpaint needed to be removed from the painting to ensure that the structural work could be carried out properly and the two halves of the panel levelled correctly.

Halfway UVAbove: the painting halfway through varnish removal under UV light

During testing, our conservator discovered that both the aged varnish and overpaint could be safely and uniformly removed together using a tailored gelled solution. The concentration of solvent in this gelled solution could be adjusted during treatment depending on the needs of each individual area (ie. paint sensitivity, amount and type of overpaint). Given the precise and delicate nature of this treatment, varnish and overpaint removal was carried out under the microscope. 

Removing toxic materials

Once the varnish and the majority of the overpaint had been removed from the painting, the decision was made to remove the remaining historic fillers, which had been used to level areas of loss but were unfortunately not levelled correctly. Given the insolubility of this material, our conservator suspected that they were made of lead white paint, which is extremely stable and also very toxic. 

Mary Magdalene

Tests were carried out to confirm this and then the filler was removed mechanically. During this part of treatment the painting was kept underneath a plastic tent and appropriate PPE was worn by our conservator so that our whole team was completely safe from stray lead dust. In some areas it was not possible to remove all of the filler as it started to risk the stability of the surrounding paint, so these areas were shaved down as much as possible and left.

Discovering original details

Many interesting original details were revealed following these steps, as well as a significant amount of historic damage to the lower third of the painting. The vibrant green of the original drapery was now visible, as well as the original composition of the Magdalene’s waist sash, which was much more in-keeping stylistically with the panel’s origin. Revealed too was the shadow in the right of the background, as well as the delicate veil details around the headdress. 

Mary veil alterationAbove: a detail of the painting before and after restoration, showing the veil that had previously been hidden

Now that these details had been discovered, it was clear that our team was likely correct, and this panel is the same painting that was sold at Sotheby’s in 1929. Given the extent of the damage sustained to the panel in a relatively short period of time, it is unclear what exactly happened to it – our conservator’s theory is that it was damaged during the second world war, and the losses to the lower third may correspond to shrapnel impact. However, this is just a theory.

Repairing the broken panel

Following removal of the varnish, overpaint and filler, the condition of the existing split repair was properly assessed. It was revealed that the animal glue mixture used to mend the wood was unevenly applied and had become brittle over time; the strength of the mend up until this point had been coming mostly from the thick overpaint layer above. 

Sophie repairing panelAbove: our conservator Sophie preparing to restore the split panel

Now that the overpaint had been removed, application of slight pressure to the mend caused it to open in some areas and come apart. It was therefore decided that structural treatment needed to be carried out in order to ensure longevity after the painting returned to our client’s home.

The first step in the structural treatment of the panel was to reverse the current split repair in a controlled manner to separate the two halves of the panel. The canvas strip covering the back of the mend was removed mechanically and tests were carried out using a range of solvents and application methods and our conservator decided that the best method was to run a solvent mixture along the adhesive using a brush, so that it swelled and could be released. This worked very successfully and the two halves came apart without any damage to the wood. Next, the glue residues from each half were removed to ensure a flat, uniform surface for the repair.

Structural work

A jig was constructed to the dimensions of the panel which allowed our conservator to position support struts and weights at chosen points along the panel to ensure that the mend would be level. After a dry run, adhesive was applied to both halves of the panel, the adhesive used was chosen for its strength but also its flexibility, which will not impede the natural expansion and contraction of the wood over time. The painting was then clamped together, supported and weighted and left to dry in place for 24 hours. Following this, any excess glue was removed and the success of the mend was assessed – the panel was now structurally stable and ready for the final stage of treatment. 

Completing the restoration

An isolation layer of varnish was applied by brush to saturate and protect the paint layer before all of the losses were infilled using a gesso mixture. This was flattened and textured to match the surrounding paint and then a base coat of retouching was applied.

Mary Magdalene filling retouching

Our conservator chose a bright yellow/orange tone for the base coat, which was similar to the sepia-toned preparatory layers visible in areas of the panel but with more luminosity so that it would better help influence the upper layers of retouching. Following this, she used a combination of conservation-grade resin mixed with dry pigments to colour-match and mimetically re-integrate all areas of the composition. 

Mary Magdalene

After a final spray varnish to even out the surface gloss and saturate all of the colours, the painting was ready to be re-framed and returned to our client to be enjoyed and appreciated as the artist intended. The painting was returned to our client in a safe and secure condition, both visually and structurally restored for future generations.

How can we help?

If you have a painting that requires professional care, please speak to a member of our team today for advice and an obligation-free quotation for restoration. Email us via [email protected] or call 0207 112 7576

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