The Discovery and Conservation of the Frankfurt Inmaculada

The Liebieghaus has acquired a striking masterpiece of the Spanish Baroque—a “Maria Inmaculada Concepción” by Pedro de Mena. The art technological examination and the conservation will provide fascinating insights into the period of its making while also shedding new light on its sculptor.

The iconographic depiction of the Virgin Mary standing on a crescent moon is known as the “Maria Inmaculada Concepción”. The figure of “Mary Immaculate” was so popular in 1600s Spain that she was declared the patron saint of the entire country. Owing to its stylistic and technological features, the Frankfurt Inmaculada can be attributed with certainty to one of the most well-known and highly admired sculptor of seventeenth-century Spain: Pedro de Mena.

A rare discovery

Unlike the paintings of artists like Velazquéz, Ribera, and Murillo, even first-rate Spanish sculptures of the so-called Siglo de Oro (Golden Age) were rather neglected by international museums until quite recently. So it is hardly surprising that works by de Mena are sought in vain in nearly all prominent European sculpture collections outside Spain. Recent international exhibitions on Spanish Baroque sculpture have helped raise an awareness of them, sparking keen interest in their acquisition on the art market in the process.

Thus it was and is a stroke of great fortune that, by coincidence, we discovered an “Inmaculada” by de Mena in private holdings in Frankfurt—a work hitherto unknown to the public and scholars alike—and were able to obtain it for our collection.

“This outstanding sculpture of the Maria Inmaculada, the Virgin Mary in the moment of the immaculate conception, brings the Golden Age of Spain, with all its mysticism, to the Liebieghaus: It illustrates one of the characteristic themes of the Spanish Baroque, masterfully executed in form and colour by Pedro de Mena, one of the best Baroque sculptors.”

Miguel Ángel Marcos Villán, curator, Museo Nacional de Escultura Valladolid (Spain)

Pedro de Mena

Pedro de Mena was born to a family of sculptors in Granada in 1628. He was a pupil and assistant of Alonso Cano (1601–1667) and became a highly successful artist who ran his own workshop until his death in 1688, initially in Granada and from 1658 in Málaga. Over time his studio grew into a thriving business that, with the help of agents, handled the sale and transport of numerous well-paid commissioned works throughout the hispanic world, primarily for the high aristocracy and the clergy.

Taking inspiration from his teacher Alonso Cano, de Mena developed a wholly distinctive sculptural technique and aesthetic concept characterized by refined craftsmanship and the virtuoso, lifelike elaboration of his works.

It was in the mid-seventeenth century that the strict guild division between sculptors and painters was abolished in Spain. Alongside Alonso Cano, Pedro de Mena was one of the first sculptors not only to design his own polychromy for his works, but also to execute these in his own workshop. Until that time, Spanish Baroque sculptural polychromy had been distinguished by richly gilded robes featuring painted brocade ornamentation. Now a reduction came about, resulting in austere colour zones that are captivating by virtue of their hyperrealistic appearance. This almost deceptively real polychromy of the figures was attained by means of a masterful painting technique that owes its striking quality not solely to the effect of the colours but also to the textures of the individual paint layers.

The naturalistic effect of the painting scheme was taken to a veritable extreme through its combination with additional materials: The polychromy of De Mena’s sculptures typically included glass for the eyes, real hair, ivory for the teeth, horn for the fingernails, branches to depict crowns of thorns, and real ropes and cords.

The Conservation Project

The Frankfurt “Inmaculada” has unfortunately not survived the past centuries undamaged and without changes to its appearance. In addition to minor chips in the garment folds and the hair as well as the nearly complete loss of the real-hair eyelashes, the work was more recently subjected to immediately noticeable, glossy, and rather unskillfully executed overpainting on the figure’s entire surface.

Initial conservational examinations have shown that the original painting applied by de Mena has fortunately survived almost completely beneath the overpainting. The removal of the overpainting is among the most time-consuming and risky steps in the conservation process and must be carried out with the utmost care so as not to damage the original.

A multiyear conservation and research project funded by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung was therefore launched in 2023. It provides not only for the revelation of the Frankfurt Inmaculada’s original polychromy, but also for the integration of the missing parts in form and colour. Over the coming years, the online format Research & Journal will report in detail on the successive individual phases of the project, including the preliminary scientific and technological examinations of the sculpture’s material composition, the removal of the overpainting, and the repair of the chips.


Harald Theiss

Head of Conservation

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