Spectacular theft and solemn return after 38 years
In the very early hours of 2 July 1980, a spectacular theft occurred at the Saint Waltrude Collegiate Church. The thieves looted no less than 21 pieces, including a major work of art: a 16th-century Crucifixion. The panel of the almost two-metre high painting was dismantled, and the frame was left behind in the church. In August 2017, the painting was found by chance during an arrest in Italy. It was then returned to the church authorities at the beginning of 2018 before being solemnly received in Mons.
A series of studies
At the end of the first phase of the restoration, the painting was entrusted to the Institute Imagery Unit and Dendrochronology Lab for an in-depth examination. Art historian Elisabeth Van Eyck explains the findings: "We called on the expertise of our Dendrochronology Lab and produced various scientific images to visualise the signature and the support. These photographs investigate the painting technique and allow stylistic comparisons for art historical research."
The wood study facilitates the approximate dating of the painting. Elisabeth Van Eyck: "We studied the support of the painting, in Baltic oak, and were thus able to suggest the earliest possible date of creation: the work must have been made after 1504. On the back of the panel, you can see the five planks and tool marks from the felling and processing of the wood. The stylistic study allows us to refine the dating.
The painting shows similarities with the Antwerp School of the 1520-1530s with its lively colours, distorted bodies, horror vacui (the filling of the entire surface of a space or an artwork with detail) and the construction of the composition.
The identity of the painter, however, remains a mystery. Elisabeth Van Eyck: "In the Antwerp production, it is challenging to attribute a work to an artist with certainty. Most painters from that school are given an emergency name based on a particular painting. That name is then stylistically compared to other works."
Reflectography of the Crucifixion showed the signature under the painting and brought a few surprises. Elisabeth Van Eyck: "We found a few differences: the artist had drawn a lance and a group of figures, which he omitted in the painting. The position of the Virgin's hand has been changed. The palm originally pointed upwards, not downwards. The knot was drawn higher and painted slightly differently in the end."
Elisabeth Van Eyck explains some figures have been cut off: "You can see even with the naked eye that the figure of the criminal is not complete. On the side are two soldiers who have also been cut off, just like the holy woman. So the composition was originally larger. Based on the curved shape of the unpainted border in the semi-circular part of the support, we made a hypothetical diagram of the original form: the central panel of a triptych with side panels. In this type of composition, one of the panels usually depicts the Carrying of the Cross and the other the Resurrection." The painting is currently being restored at the Artothèque in Mons. It will then be returned to the Saint Waltrude Collegiate Church.