AIC’s 39th Annual Meeting – Paintings Morning Session on June 3, “The Construction and Reconstruction of the 15th Century Spanish Retable” by Judy Dion

Judy Dion’s study of 15th-century Spanish retables adds to the limited information available on the impressive altarpieces that have undergone less technical and historical research than their Northern European and Italian Renaissance cousins.  Dion’s research is the result of five years of collaborative efforts during her Mellon Fellowships at the Balboa Art Conservation Center and the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  The study involved extensive non-invasive examination of panel paintings from the collections at the San Diego Museum of Art and Philadelphia Museum of Art, as well as paintings in Spain, the United States, the United Kingdom, and mainland Europe.  Dion focused her investigation by concentrating on panel paintings made in the Spanish regions of València, Catalonia, and Aragón. Her findings address construction methods specific to Spanish retables, how construction features on individual or smaller sections of panels can provide clues to their placement within a complete retable, and the history and changing attitudes regarding alterations of disassembled panels.

To summarize the discussion of construction, retables consisted of a central panel surrounded by additional panels usually in the form of an inverted T-shape that measured anywhere from two to seven meters high.  The panels were in a fixed position and surrounded by framing components that served as pictorial and transitional elements between the scenes.  Review of the fabrication methods showed the panels, most often constructed from poplar or pine, were assembled using butt-joined boards with battens.  Transverse battens were used in combination with either vertical or diagonal battens but the latter were never used together.  All of the retables from the Valencia region examined in Dion’s study had diagonal battens and metal dowels were common additions.  Any flaw in the panels were filled with wooden shims and gesso before painting commenced.  Nonwoven plant fibers and fabric were also used in preparation of the panels.

In my opinion the most interesting part of the construction was during the assembly step that included the framing elements.  The frame components were attached to one of any two adjacent panels and then overlapped the face of the second panel. Raised framing elements were installed during the final assembly.  This construction caused a bare edge and gesso burr on the side of the panel with the attached framing element, while the paint layer extended to the edge of the side that was overalapped.  As a result, individual panels often appeared asymmetrical when retables were disassembled.

The disassembly of retables was often a response to changing aesthetics, demand for profit, and damages.  Individual or smaller panel sections could hold a higher value than an intact retable.  This led to frequent alterations of the panels to improve their appearance as stand-alone works.  Such alterations included but were not limited to repainting, the addition of false elements, and cutting down of the panel edges.  Fortunately, shifts in the methodology of collecting institutions encourage the recognition and appreciation of the historical context of fragmented works.  Panels that were altered for the aforementioned reasons are increasingly the subjects of reversal treatments.  In some cases the alterations are left visible, while in others missing or altered elements are restored to recover evidence of their original appearance.

This is a very abridged overview of Judy Dion’s thorough research and presentation due to my mere mortal status as a note taker.  I encourage anyone interested in this subject to seek out the conference postprints and/or approach Ms. Dion with any questions regarding her study.  She applied her findings to a hypothetical reconstruction of Jaume mateu’s The Birth of the Virgin, from the John G. Johnson Collection at the Philadelphia Museum of Art.  It is an excellent case study and definitely worth a review to gain a greater understanding of this research.