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The Adoration of the Magi, an exceptional altarpiece by Jan II Borman from Milan

For a long time, the altarpiece of "The Adoration of the Magi" in the Basilica of San Nazaro Maggiore in Milan was attributed to a German craftsman. Following a study and restoration by KIK-IRPA, it has been revealed to be a masterpiece by a famous dynasty of Brussels sculptors: the Bormans. This momentous work has been restored to its former splendour, offering us a fascinating insight into 15th-century international exchanges within Europe.

Fondation Périer-D'Ieteren
Surintendance des biens culturels de Milan
Fonds Jean-Jacques Comhaire
Fonds René et Karin Jonckheere
Fondation Roi Baudoin

A Boremanesque discovery

It was Myriam Serck, Director Emeritus of KIK-IRPA, who, during a visit to the Basilica of San Nazaro Maggiore, came across an altarpiece that was then thought to be of German origin. Many of the details revealed a work of Brussels origin. "Despite the condition of the altarpiece, which was covered in brown varnish and a thick layer of dust, the style and exceptional quality of the carvings pointed to a typically Boremanesque work," explains Emmanuelle Mercier, head of KIK-IRPA's Polychrome Wood Sculpture Studio. The discovery of marks stamped into the wood irrevocably confirmed that the work was indeed produced by the guild of carpenters and the guild of sculptors of the city of Brussels.

The dynasty of sculptors to whom the altarpiece, dating from the 15th century, is now attributed, the Bormans, distinguished themselves by their exceptional mastery of sculptural art. Their mastery of carving sculptures in the round, i.e. carved from all angles, attracted the attention of the powerful of the day. Their fame spread far beyond the borders of the former Southern Netherlands, with their altarpieces being exported throughout Europe. The Bormans belonged to the guild of the Four Crowned Ones, which included masons, stonemasons, sculptors and slate quarrymen from the city, and whose house is at number 18 in the Grand Place. "We now know that the family originated in Leuven. Jan II settled in Brussels, where he joined the guild in 1479, followed by his son Pasquier in 1492 and Jan III in 1499, not forgetting Marie, a sculptor, who died in 1545.

A comic strip in relief

The restoration of this Brabant altarpiece is much more than just conservation work: it's a real plunge into history, a rediscovery of the techniques and colours of the medieval period. But what exactly is an altarpiece? An altarpiece is a liturgical object placed on an altar, usually depicting the Passion of Christ or the Life of the Virgin Mary. Altarpieces are like picture boxes, telling holy stories and serving as visual aids during religious ceremonies. In Milan, this altarpiece was initially placed in a chapel but was later moved to the heart of the church, enclosed and protected by glass.

Beyond its aesthetic beauty, this altarpiece plunges us into the period's medieval history and international exchanges. "Commissioned by a wealthy Milanese merchant who traded with the North, the altarpiece depicts the Magi who have come far and wide to offer their gifts. Their journey, as shown in the landscapes in the background, perhaps echoes the long journeys and intense exchanges that took place in medieval Europe," explains Emmanuelle.

Emmanuelle Mercier

"In the 19th century, there was a tendency to abandon the polychromy of medieval sculptures, which was considered too gaudy or even vulgar, and this led to untimely stripping or, as here, the application of thick dark patinas."

Emmanuelle Mercier, head of IRPA's polychromed wood sculpture workshop

Meticulous restoration

This medieval masterpiece has been meticulously restored, revealing treasures that had been hidden for centuries. Before the restoration could even begin, an in-depth study phase was necessary to understand the technique and what was hidden beneath the thick brown varnish. Solubility tests and specific methods were implemented to remove the varnish without damaging the polychromy.

The team of restorers faced many challenges. The complexity of the work lies in the fact that each surface of the altarpiece is different, requiring constant adaptation of the restoration method. Emmanuelle Mercier reports: "We find all the techniques and decorative motifs used in late fifteenth-century Brussels brought together in a single work in an almost exuberant way." Motifs that were once illegible have reappeared, as have faces whose expressions can once again be appreciated. Subtle details, such as mouths revealing white teeth, give the impression that the characters are coming to life before our very eyes.

Emmanuelle Mercier

"All the techniques and decorative motifs used in late fifteenth-century Brussels are brought together in a single, almost exuberant work."

Emmanuelle Mercier, head of Polychrome Wood Sculpture Studio.

Bringing it back to its original splendour

The altarpiece from Milan had been covered with a thick layer of brown varnish on which dust had accumulated, altering its original beauty.

X154710 avant small X161249 apres small

This study project and the restoration of 'The Adoration of the Magi' have been carried out in partnership with the Milan Superintendency of Cultural Assets, the parish of San Nazaro Maggiore and the diocese of Milan, and are accompanied by an international scientific committee. They were made possible by the Jean-Jacques Comhaire Fund and the René and Karin Jonckheere Fund, managed by the King Baudoin Foundation. They have joined forces with the Périer-d'Ieteren Foundation and the Italian bank Intesa San Paolo.

Triptych of Dieric Bouts from Granada temporarily back in Belgium after more than 500 years

KIK-IRPA will be hosting a new special guest in the coming few years. The Triptych of the Descent from the Cross, painted by Dieric Bouts between 1450 and 1458, will be analysed and restored at our Institute before it travels back to the Royal Chapel of Granada Cathedral in Spain in 2026.

Discover this project