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Lee Capristo, editor
The Mulberry Tree
Phone: (240) 895-4795
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St. Mary's City, MD 20686

Copper Conundrum

by Anne Grulich, Editor
"Christ on the Road to Calvary and Judgment of Pontius Pilate" (a.k.a. Pilate Washes his Hands in Innocence) by Frans Francken II (1581-1642), oil-on-copper painting, 22" x 31". Gift of Robert and Eleanor Straus to St. Mary's College of Maryland, 1980.(Photo by Andrew Keiper)

College's 17th-century Painting Intrigues Conservators

A 17th-century oil-on-copper painting, "Christ on the Road to Calvary and Judgment of Pontius Pilate" (a.k.a., Pilate Washes his Hands in Innocence), was rediscovered in the College's fine arts collection during inventory last summer, and brought to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and then to the Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum conservation laboratory in Delaware this February. (To follow this painting's journey from Antwerp to St. Mary's, see the timeline.)

This is the College's only 17th-century painting and its only one executed on copper. I was astounded to come across it in storage last summer. Only a few years ago I had studied another 17th-century oil-on-copper painting during a graduate course at the National Gallery of Art (NGA ). Could we really have a painting from the 1600s here at St. Mary's? I immediately thought of contacting my former professor, Arthur Wheelock, curator of Dutch and Flemish painting at the NGA, and he graciously agreed to take a closer look.

The Painting

"Christ on the Road to Calvary" was painted by Frans Francken II who was born in Antwerp in 1581 and died there in 1642. Schooled by his artist father, Frans Francken I, and his uncle, Hieronymus Francken, painter to King Henri III of France, he became a master in the Antwerp St. Lucas Guild in 1605 and dean of the guild in 1615. Frans II produced numerous finely detailed, luxuriously-colored paintings geared to the Spanish market. Scholar Ursula Härting tells us that nearly all of his compositions generated one or two similar-sometimes nearly identical-versions by his studio staff (his sons and several apprentices). Like manuscripts and early books, people relished poring over a painting's details to decipher its meaning and the artist's intent.

During Francken's youth, the Spanish conquered Antwerp and re-Catholicized the region; and Francken would have witnessed the persecution and conversion of heretics. That may explain why many of his works depict biblical themes imbued with the passion of a deep Christian humanism. In Francken's complex interpretation of the walk to Calvary, dozens of human figures roil between a scarlet cloak and foreboding towers in a world about to be torn asunder while Pilate washes his hands high above the crowd. Look closely. Even through the darkened varnish you can discern the emotions on the faces and the details of the dress worn by the individuals caught up in this maelstrom and thrust along with the scarlet-cloaked Christ to meet their fate. It is not a traditional, submissive, stations-ofthe-cross walk towards crucifixion. Indeed, I assumed the half-clad figure resignedly being lead away in the center mid-ground was Christ at first. Imagine the reactions this scene might have elicited from different audiences in different countries over the centuries.

Examination by Experts

At the National Gallery of Art, Mary Braun (director of our Boyden Gallery) and I noted Arthur Wheelock's keen interest as we slid this old giant out of its box. Right away, he telephoned two of his renowned colleagues, Sarah Fisher and Michael Swicklik, to join him in the examination room. All agreed that the painting iAt Winterthur this spring, student Carlos Moya, left, examined the painting under the supervision of Joyce Hill Stoner, right, and Mary McGinn (not shown).s correctly attributed to Frans Francken II, but a final determination will have to wait until it's been conserved-after the beauty of the painting is revealed. Right now this scene is so clouded by aged varnish it's like trying to see your feet standing in the Potomac.

Several days later, at the Winterthur laboratory, during examination under both microscope and ultraviolet light, conservators Mary McGinn and Joyce Stoner explained the toll time has taken on this copper painting. There is crizzling throughout the layers of paint as well as corrosion of the copper plate itself. Green copper is visible in the eye sockets of one figure. The sky has faded to grey-evidence that smalt, a less expensive blue than lapis lazuli, has succumbed to the elements. Jesus has very likely lost his crown of thorns to a cleaning agent. And there's evidence of pentimento: the breasts of a mother in the crowd were once modestly covered and then uncovered to suit contemporary mores. We also learned that the support structure to which the copper plate is now nailed within its frame is likely an old, painted, re-purposed frame itself. It is not the painting's original support.

All of these observations hint at this object's biography. Who reframed it and why? Where was it displayed when the breasts became offensive-did the times change or the location of the artifact? Why the use of smalt in Francken's Curators at the National Gallery of Art, left to right: Sara Fisher, Arthur Wheelock, Michael Swicklik with Mary Braun, director of the College’s Boyden Gallery.workshop-was a trade regulation in force or was it a way to save money? What environmental conditions initiated the corrosion-handling during two world wars? The donor file with the research notes of the collector, Michael Straus, gives us several more clues, but it's going to be the painstaking work of the science and art of conservators that enhances and, perhaps, rewrites this biography. After 350 years, this painting tells more than just the story Francken originally conveyed. Objects with such longevity materialize human history.

The painting remains at Winterthur this spring while a condition assessment is undertaken and a conservation plan is drawn up. When that's done, we'll know whether or not the Francken can be conserved by the graduate students in the Winterthur Program in the Conservation of Artistic and Historic Objects, a world-renown program of the University of Delaware and The Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum. Look for the rest of the story in the next edition of The Mulberry Tree.

Further reading:
Flemish Paintings of the Seventeenth Century by Arthur K. Wheelock, Jr., Oxford University Press, 2005.

Frans Francken Der Jüngere (1581-1642), Die Gemälde Mit Kritischem Oeuvrekatalog, by Ursula Härting, Freren, 1989. (See especially plate 201, p. 285.)