Mark Roglán flew from Dallas to Tucson with Goya on his mind. The University of Arizona wanted to borrow first-edition prints in his care by the Spanish master called the Father of Modern Art. Roglán didn’t know it yet, but the university had something he wanted, too. Roglán, who was then senior curator of the Meadows Museum at SMU, was perusing the galleries at Arizona when he stumbled on a remarkable sight—an enormous series of 15th-century altar paintings that once covered the curved apse of the Cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo in Castile.
Roglán has spent much of his life surrounded by masterpieces of Spanish art. He grew up in Madrid and worked at the Prado, Spain’s famed national gallery, before coming to Dallas to curate the Meadows’ small but exquisite collection of Iberian works. But Roglán was stunned by what he saw in that Arizona museum five years ago.
The elaborate gilded tracery that framed scenes from the Bible—from Genesis to the Christ child’s circumcision, the 12 apostles to Pontius Pilate—had vanished long ago. But 26 panels remained, daubed with the clear color palette and confident hand of one of Spain’s greatest painters, the late medieval master from the region of Salamanca, Fernando Gallego, as well as work by a virtually unknown artist named Maestro Bartolomé.
Similar painted altarpieces continue to awe the eye and the soul in European cathedrals today. But Roglán had never seen anything outside of Spain approaching the size and quality of this assemblage. Later he would read in a Spanish newspaper that it was one of that country’s most coveted works of art. Upon first seeing it, Roglán says, “You just had to sit down and admire this great treasure.”
Over the last five centuries, the paintings on soft pinewood had survived earthquakes, neglect, sale and re-sale, a trans-Atlantic voyage, and restoration in a Cold War-era bunker. One of the panels was even shot through by a cannonball from the Duke of Wellington’s troops when they stormed the rocky promontory of Ciudad Rodrigo in 1812, during the Napoleonic Wars.
Finally the Kress Foundation donated the paintings to the University of Arizona in 1957. Roglán recognized that the panels were more than just fine works of art; they were an enigma waiting to be understood. Little was known about the workshops of Gallego and the other masters of Castile, the painters who bridged the gap with Renaissance art as the powerful kingdom was reunited with the rest of modern Spain. Few contracts or written documents survive. There are no sketches in Gallego’s hand.
Gallego’s work echoes the Flemish masters of northern Europe, with its skillful use of oil and glazes, but where was he trained? And what role did Bartolomé play in the decade-long endeavor to paint the altarpieces? Was he merely an assistant, or a master in his own right? The tapestry of scholarship woven by art historians had many holes, and Roglán wanted answers.
So Tucson got the Goyas, and the Meadows Museum launched an international investigation into the altarpiece. Using the latest technology, they strived to push the boundaries of artistic scholarship and peer back in time, 500 years, over the shoulder of one of Spain’s greatest artists.
That’s when Claire Barry, chief conservator for the Kimbell and Amon Carter museums in Fort Worth, came in. Barry is a rock star in her field, a sort of CSI investigator of the art world and one of a handful of experts in this country entrusted with the restoration and study of the inner workings of the world’s finest paintings. Her investigations have made headlines, like her discovery that a painting attributed to the “School of Titian” the Kimbell bought in 1986 for a meager sum was the work of the Italian master himself.
In the spring of 2005, Barry rolled a tall wooden easel cradling one of the Ciudad Rodrigo panels into a concrete block room at the Kimbell. Muted northern light streaming through the vaulted two-story windows of her studio illuminated the lustrous details of the painting The Creation of Eve. But there in the small side-chamber dark as a tomb, Barry was searching for something more.
A boxy blue infrared camera no bigger than a man’s hand slowly scanned the painting, snapping detailed digital photos piped into a laptop. Powerful software stitched the images into a seamless mosaic, until finally the image hidden just below the surface of the paint—ever since it flowed from the artist’s brush—was revealed.
Under the linseed oil and varnish, behind the mask never meant to be stripped away, Barry could see an underdrawing dancing across gesso and hemp fiber. What’s more, the black brush strokes depicted something quite different from the pigments painted onto the panel that were visible with the naked eye.
Barry and her colleague Elise Effman saw that the artist had first drawn the figure of Eve kneeling beside Adam. But in the final version, she emerges directly from his ribs, while Adam floats in close-eyed pain or bliss—it is impossible to tell which. Barry gazed at the ghostlike image of the master’s sketch in wonder. Her reaction, betraying a youthful exuberance for her work, was: “Very cool!”
Now the public can view the painting behind the painting and the results of the technical investigation that solved some of the mysteries surrounding these medieval Spanish masters. The Meadows Museum’s exhibit “Fernando Gallego and His Workshop: The Altarpiece from Ciudad Rodrigo, Paintings from the Collection of the University of Arizona Museum of Art” runs through July 27. Full-size infrared reflectography pictures of the underdrawings are displayed with related exhibitions on the Apocalypse in medieval art, the science of art conservation, and a smaller altarpiece series complete with its original framework on loan from Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.
In the last days before the panels moved to Dallas, Barry invited me into her studio at the Kimbell, after clearing it of her latest top-secret projects. She peers with her luminous green eyes into the microscope trained on the prone panel of The Creation of Eve, whose coarse hand-ground pigments glitter under the scope’s bright light. Using a micro-scalpel and the solid, graceful grip of fingers that could have been drawn by Boticelli, she nicks a tiny fleck of the layers of paint right down to the gesso. Mounted and polished and studied, these crumbs might reveal an artist’s technique—or expose a forgery.
Not that I get to see her actually do this. The procedure is too delicate for a mere journalist to witness. “It’s like surgery,” Barry says. She also cleans and repaints artworks, restoring their glory. But the Ciudad Rodrigo panels needed nothing more than a little first-aid. The main focus was the technical study, which museums are increasingly putting on display as technology unveils another layer of appreciation for the art.
For her mission involving the altarpiece, Barry and the Meadows worked with the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the Prado, and the Art Institute of Chicago, building on earlier research by Pilar Silva and others. She even followed Gallego’s trail to Trujillo, Spain, where she climbed the stairs behind the altar with a team of Spanish conservators to view the bones of one of his works in situ.
Back in Fort Worth, Barry examined X-radiographs of the paintings and deciphered medieval Spanish writing seen on the infrared pictures, notes reminiscent of color by number, calling for clothing and drapery in violeto or azarco (bright orange).
As she examines a panel by Gallego, Barry marvels at the precise manner in which he uses crosshatching to denote shadow and the fine fluid stroke of his drawings. “His handling of the brush is so assured. He has such a good sense of line,” she says, tracing her forefinger and thumb over the painting just as Fernando Gallego did centuries ago.
As for Bartolomé, her study exposed him as much more than the third-tier artist he was thought to be. “The more we learned about him, the more we realized that he was a distinct personality, a great artist in his own right and very creative. And I think you can see in these panels a transformation in his work over time.”
Bartolomé painted armor mail and brocade so fine that it looked gilded. But it was the striking examples of numerous pentimenti, or artists’ revisions, they found in Bartolomé’s panels, that were of keen interest. The underdrawing, an unmistakable signature of the painting’s creator, confirmed that Bartolomé worked independently on half of the works, suggesting that he had his own workshop that teamed with Gallego’s to finish such a large commission.
What’s more, the pentimenti in his Creation of Eve panel confirmed suspicions of art historians such as Barbara Anderson, the Getty Institute historian who helped write the new exhibition’s catalogue, that Bartolomé had modeled the composition after the Nuremberg Chronicle, or the Liber Chronicarum, a history of the world published in 1493.
The bulk of the altarpiece was probably finished by 1488, but Eve’s pentimento was proof that Bartolomé added several panels after 1493, a time of great change in Spain and the world. There was the Inquisition, the expulsion of the Jews, the fall of the Moors’ last stronghold in Granada, Spain’s new era of empire starting with Columbus’ discovery of the Americas, the unification of Castile and Aragon under Isabella and Ferdinand. Altogether it was an anxious moment in the history of Christianity.
Why did Bartolomé rework the painting, moving Eve down to emerge from Adam’s side, making space for a fantastical griffin cribbed from yet another print source, that of the German engraver Martin Schongauer? Was it a command from a bishop increasingly preoccupied with themes of creation and destruction as the new century approached? Or was it the eclectic impulse of a developing artist after he encountered the newly published book?
No one knows. But along the way, Barry definitively solved another whodunit relating to an acquisition by the Meadows originally attributed to Fernando Gallego. By examining another panel (Last Judgment), Barry settled a long-standing debate by confirming that it was actually Francisco Gallego, probably a brother or son of Fernando, who painted the panel of Acacius, the Roman centurion who converted to Christianity and was martyred on Mount Ararat, adorned in a crown of thorns.
Many questions remain about the cathedral paintings. Three predella survived, the elaborately worked panels displayed closer to eye-level, each showing in this case pairs of the apostles. “There had to be six, for all the 12 apostles. What happened to the missing panels?” Roglán wonders. “There’s no answer. Were they destroyed during the war? Were they sold differently? We may well never discover the truth. History has erased the footsteps, the artistic footsteps of their art.” But not, in the end, the hidden strokes of the hand.
Gretel C. Kovach is a contributing editor to D Magazine. Write to [email protected].