Underneath it all

X-ray shows second image under 400-year-old painting

X-ray shows second image under 400-year-old painting

May 11, 2006|by TARA REILLY


"The patient" that arrived at Washington County Hospital Wednesday for X-rays wasn't sick or injured, just a little old.

Hospital officials, who had been planning its visit for six months, met it at the front entrance, placed it on a heavy-duty stretcher and carefully rolled it back to radiology.

What required the special treatment?

A more than 400-year-old painting by Italian artist Gerolomo Bassano depicting the preparation of Jesus Christ's body to be placed in the tomb.

Joseph of Arimathea is at the head of Jesus, Nicodemus is at his feet and the Virgin Mary is in front.


The Washington County Museum of Fine Arts, which owns the 16th-century painting, named The Sepulchre, asked the hospital to X-ray the artwork to determine its condition.

What they found thrilled them.

Not only was the painting and canvas in decent shape, they discovered a portrait of a man dressed in late Renaissance clothing behind it.

Mary L. Pixley, Kress Curatorial Fellow at the museum, called the finding a "jackpot." She had been hoping to find another painting, but wasn't sure what would turn up.

"I am just in an utter state of happiness right now," Pixley said.

She planned to do in-depth research of the Bassano family's artwork to try to determine the identity of the man.

The X-rays showed a detailed image of the man's face, an outline of his upper body and his hands clasped at his waist.

Pixley said it wasn't unusual for artists to paint over their work. For example, if a painting didn't sell, an artist simply would paint over it rather than waste canvas.

Linda Walla, administrative director of diagnostic imaging at the hospital, said the museum asked last fall if the hospital would X-ray the painting.

She said the museum brought a smaller painting as a test run. On Wednesday, the hospital X-rayed Bassano's painting by sections and converted the pictures to digital images.

Walla joked the hospital treated the painting with such care, they began calling it "the patient."

"We actually went to the front of the hospital and transported it on a stretcher," Walla said.

X-rays are used to pick up on tears in the canvas, the loss of original paint and previous restorations, Pixley said in a written statement. They also can show changes during the creation of the painting, possible phases in the painting process and paint strokes used, she wrote.

Bassano, who lived from 1566-1621, was from a famous family of artists who worked in the small town of Bassano and Venice, according to Pixley. He learned his style of painting from his father, Jacopo Bassano, who lived from 1515-1592.

Gerolomo Bassano's painting derives from a larger altarpiece of the same subject painted in 1574 by Jacopo and Franceso Bassano, Pixley said. The altarpiece is in the Church of Santa Maria in Vanzo, Padua.

Pixley and Joseph Ruzicka, museum director, said Gerolomo Bassano's piece was painted after 1574 and would have been made for a Catholic home to use as a private devotion.

Pixley said in a written statement that the painting's nocturnal setting adds dramatic effect, but it also tells a narrative that the body of Christ had to be buried before sunset and the commencement of the Sabbath.

The museum received the painting as a gift in 1964 from Florence Blume of New York City, Pixley said. It has been on display since then. Ruzicka and Pixley said they expected the painting to return to display today.

Ruzicka said a value has not been placed on the painting.

"To our museum, it's invaluable," Pixley said.

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