The Restoration of the Rimini Crucifixion Altarpiece

In the Liebieghaus Skulpturensammlung, a start has been made on a research and restoration project that will take place over a number of years. It concerns one of the principal works in the collection, the so-called Rimini Altarpiece. This figural ensemble of around 1430, probably executed in the southern Netherlands, is carved in white alabaster. For us as conservators, this highly sensitive material poses a major challenge.

The work

The “Rimini Altarpiece” was acquired for the Liebieghaus on the art market in Rome in 1913, and has not only been one of the museum’s most significant works ever since, but also one of its internationally most renowned. An indication of its importance and uniqueness in art history is the fact that its name is cited in connection with the majority of early fifteenth-century alabaster works in the world’s famous museums and art collections. All around the globe, there are works attributed to the “Master of the Rimini Altarpiece” and his workshop – for instance in Warsaw, Berlin and Munich, in Paris, London and Stockholm, and also in New York and Los Angeles. The altarpiece owes this popularity not only to the high quality of the sculpture, but also to the fact that it is one of the largest and best preserved of all late medieval alabaster figural ensembles.

The central section of the ensemble is a Crucifixion scene with numerous figures, carved from several separate blocks. This is flanked by six apostles on either side. The sculptures, all in the round and formerly partially polychrome, come from an altar in the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie in Rimini. However, they were not produced in Italy, but in a workshop specializing in alabaster in the southern Netherlands, possibly in Bruges, around 1430. They were executed in a highly decorative style and still largely embody the formal and aesthetic ideals of the so-called Beautiful Style, which – because of its prevalence across Europe between about 1370 and 1430 – is also known as the International Style. However, in the realistic depiction of some anatomical and physiognomic details, in particular the unsparing portrayal of the broken and contorted limbs of the two thieves, a change in style is evident. The work betrays an interest in the observation of nature not encountered previously, but also evident in Netherlandish paintings of the period by artists such as Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin and Rogier van der Weyden – an approach that set the course for the new art of the decades that followed.

Why there is an urgent need to take action to conserve and restore the altarpiece and carry out a technological analysis

Looking at the altarpiece from the point of view of conservation and restoration, one is immediately struck by the discrepancy between its enormous importance in the context of art history and its current unsatisfactory state of conservation. The last major conservation attempt was made in the late 1960s. Closer examination today, however, reveals that, because of some residual dirt and the yellowing of coating substances, the alabaster cannot fully display the characteristic translucency that gives this material its particular appeal. A further problem is that the conservation materials used at the time did not remain on the surface but have penetrated deep into the stone. There they are becoming increasingly hard and brittle, so that remedial action is urgently required.

Above all, however, the last restoration involved a massive alteration to the very structure of the altarpiece. For purely aesthetic and subjective reasons based on art-historical considerations – but justifiable neither objectively nor in terms of art technology – the original appearance of the central Crucifixion group was substantially altered. Using model plaster and iron reinforcements, the upright element of the cross was lengthened by more than half a metre and the crossbeam by several centimetres. And this is not only an aesthetic problem: the materials chosen at the time now confront us with extremely serious conservation problems, as they have led not only to extensive corrosion but also to a dramatic loss of stability. As a result, the object is almost impossible to move without risk of damage, although the changing exhibitions at the Liebieghaus make it absolutely necessary to move it. In addition, the fragility of the cross has made it quite impossible for the piece to be lent to other museums, enabling it to be shown in other countries.

The first phase of the project

Lastly, no fundamental technological analysis of the ensemble has ever been carried out. In the work on the “Rimini Altarpiece” that has now begun and is scheduled to take place over the next two or three years, the initial task will be to carry out and document a precise technological examination of the entire ensemble in preparation for its restoration. This will include, among other things, a meticulous analysis of the present condition of the stone as well as an examination of the figures for traces of the earlier polychromy, likewise a measure that has not been systematically undertaken before.

As alabaster is one of the most sensitive types of stone, which immediately rules out many of the standard methods of restoration, several series of tests will first have to be carried out in order to ensure the object’s gentlest possible restoration. For visitors to the museum there will be a conservation studio on view, complemented by a film and also, in due course, glass cases with educational material, while on our website we will publish results of the ongoing research and restoration. In these various ways, we aim to enable interested members of the public to follow and share in all the further phases of the work as the project progresses.

Film

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