The altarpiece of the Virgin of Boussu is a masterpiece made in the Southern Netherlands and dated to the early 16th century. Art historians linked it to carvers Pasquier Borman or Maria Borman. It is made of oak and it used to be polychromed. In the 20th century, it fell prey to thieves three times: elements of the artwork were stolen in 1914, 1971 and 1981. The statuettes that disappeared in 1914 recently resurfaced and could be restored together with the altarpiece in KIK-IRPA's Polychrome Wood Sculpture Studio.
Stolen sculptures recovered
Thanks to a donation by Dutch art collector Jacques Schoufour to the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen Foundation in Rotterdam in 2006, some of the stolen fragments have been recovered. These are the six reliefs in the foreground that were stolen in 1914. Schoufour, a lover of medieval wooden sculpture, had bought them in the art trade. The Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen exhibited the reliefs in 2008 but was then told that these were stolen fragments from the Marian retable of Boussu's Church of Saint Gaugericus.
After negotiations with the municipality of Boussu and the non-profit organisation Gy Seray Boussu, the Rotterdam museum planned to give the statues on long-term loan to the Church of Saint Gaugericus. This would allow them to be rejoined with the rest of the altarpiece. But due to inadequate climate conditions and problems with security in the church, the loan was refused. Hopes of getting the reliefs back to Boussu diminished, because in the absence of a Belgian-Dutch protocol for the return of stolen works, a fair solution could not be found.
Seized at Museum M
The case had a twist in 2019. The M-Museum Leuven then organised the exhibition 'Borman and Sons' with important works of Brabant sculpture. For this, the Leuven museum borrowed the six sculpture groups of the Marian retable, which had been stolen in 1914, from the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen. As this brought the sculptures to Belgian territory, Belgian law applied and the police were able to confiscate the altarpiece fragments at the request of the Church Fabric Committee of Boussu and the organisation Gy Seray Boussu. This was a “soft” seizure, so the statuettes were still allowed to remain at M until the end of the exhibition.
Thanks to the Baillet Latour Fund, the six reliefs and the altarpiece of the Virgin could be examined and restored in their entirety by KIK-IRPA from January 2021. Dr Emmanuelle Mercier, head of the Polychrome Wood Sculpture Studio, was responsible for treating the artwork. She collaborated with Violette Demonty, Erika Rabelo and Jean-Albert Glatigny.
Putting the puzzle back together using BALaT
The treatment involved removing layers of dust and the dark patina that covered the wooden retable figures. The reliefs in the foreground, which had been stolen in 1914, had a different material history during the 20th century than the altarpiece itself. The challenge was therefore to use appropriate cleaning and retouching techniques to restore the statuettes and the retable to a visual whole. During the research and restoration, however, the experts encountered another problem: the scenes in the altarpiece were not in the right place at all.
Old photos of the Boussu altarpiece, taken before 1914, which are in BALaT, brought solace. They still show the fragments that are missing from the altarpiece today. It helped reconstruct the sequence of the story told by the wooden figures. Moreover, on the back of the various wooden reliefs from the retable, there were sometimes numbers that could confirm which image belonged where in the retable case. The study of the original mounting mechanisms finally completed the puzzle.
The altarpiece before and after restoration
"Both the major and minor scenes and even the architectural decorations were completely mixed up on the altarpiece. It was a huge puzzle for us, with the grateful help of specialist Ria De Boodt, to put the story of the Virgin Mary back in the right order. Especially since some reliefs are still missing and certain iconographic scenes are little represented in art history."
Rare wealth of representations
Cleaning the sculptures and removing the patinas helped reveal certain details in the wood reliefs and better understand the rich iconography. "We recovered some unique representations, such as the one in which Joseph doubts Mary's virginity, only to apologise in a subsequent scene," Emmanuelle Mercier said.
Now that the research and restoration by KIK-IRPA have been completed - results of dendrochronology research will follow - the Virgin Mary altarpiece, with the fragments stolen in 1914, is on display in the Chapel of the Lords in Boussu, protected from theft and dust by a display case purchased thanks to the Fund Léon Courtin-Marcelle Bouché managed by the King Baudouin Foundation. The chapel will be open to the public every Sunday morning from May 2023. Until then, it is possible to view the altarpiece on request during a guided tour.
The restoration team (picture) from left to right: Violette Demonty, Emmanuelle Mercier, Erika Rabelo, Jean-Albert Glatigny.