Adoration of the Magi


17 November 2010 to 20 February 2011 – Belvedere Vienna

Once again, new marvels are being presented at the Palace Stables: three recently restored works from the museum’s medieval collection. A panel painting, a stone sculpture, and a carved relief dating from the early sixteenth century have been selected to exemplify three different media and offer an insight into the vast field of conservation methods and scientific research.

The exquisitely painted fragment of an Adoration of the Magi is the very work that gave its creator, the ‘Master of the Habsburgs’ and one of the most important Tyrolean artists of his period, his name. The panel is of historical interest because of its two Habsburg portraits. It shows Maximilian I in his role as second king, wearing a pronged crown, the chain of the Order of the Golden Fleece, and the royal heraldic ring carrying the one-headed eagle and Austrian beehive emblem. This tiny detail was only exposed when the painting was cleaned and proves that it was made prior to 1508, when Maximilian was crowned emperor. The panel seems to have been created shortly before that time, since Maximilian bears resemblances here in terms of age to the portrait version by Bernhard Strigel dating from 1507. Behind the monarch appears a portrait in profile of his father, Frederick III, who had died in 1493. It corresponds to the familiar portrait of the aged sovereign wearing a hoop crown. Why this posthumous portrait was included remains a mystery. Was it meant to honour the memory of the deceased emperor or was it incorporated out of political calculations? Was the pale head, which lends the composition an odd disharmony, added at a later period? Current X-ray and infrared photographs speak against this latter assumption.

A group of sculptures depicting the Lamentation of Christ with Two Donors, presumably made by a Viennese sculptor for the Paulanerkirche in Vienna’s fourth district, involved another delicate task that needed to be tackled. The subtly executed and expressive work was acutely affected by efflorescence throughout its surface, due to severe salinization. Altogether two kilograms (!) of salt were extracted from the calcium silicate stone as it was bathed in water over a period of several weeks. In this way, it was possible to prevent further losses and conserve the surviving painted decoration.

The third project concerns the fragment of an enthroned Virgin Mary, which probably formed part of a group depicting the Madonna and Child with Saint Anne and is attributed to the ‘Master of Heiligenblut’. The limewood sculpture still shows its original polychromy and elaborate gilding. Now that the heavily soiled surface has been meticulously cleaned, it is possible to adequately assess the work, which is of superior quality.

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