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