This monumental painting has been out of sight of visitors for more than 30 years. It has been in the Museum’s conservation studio for almost 36 months. And slowly, section by section, the seven-panel early 15th-century treasure, known as the Monopoli altarpiece, has been installed in our dramatic new gallery of Byzantine art—coming on view December 18 as our transformed galleries for the art of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Byzantine Empire open to the public.
Art has the great potential to transform our thinking and our visual appreciation of the world. The work of the Museum’s conservation team literally does just this: transforming the physical properties of an object or image, bringing its original qualities to life. Before its current conservation treatment, the Monopoli altarpiece had many modern additions of paint, areas where the wooden support had degraded, and wooden joints that had separated and created great scars on the painting’s surface. Compromised as it was, it had been in storage much of the time following its arrival at the Museum in 1937, a gift of the Hubbard family of Boston, who owned the painting since the early part of the 20th century. And now it emerges.
As an image, the work has notable importance, marking the meeting of a Byzantine (or early Italian) manner with that of the icon painters of Crete. It is the only known example of Cretan style integrated into an Italian altarpiece, and speaks of the connections between painting traditions that moved across borders with trade and migration, as materials and artists crossed oceans and distance. It is a quiet, though eloquent, reminder of the way difference can create both new meaning and new art when we allow ourselves to be proximate to others. And when we are open to new ideas. Openness to influence and new ideas in art achieves creative breakthroughs.
As an object, the work embodies the grace and generosity of care in museum life. Commitment to the voices and intentions of artists guides and inspires museum conservators every day. Conservators balance the aesthetic with the historical, exploring and constantly defining, object by object, what authenticity means. They bring objects to life, and advocate for the experience of looking at art in the best possible of conditions.
Our new Byzantine gallery, along with newly conceived spaces for ancient Greek and Roman art, is filled with objects from shared geography and sensibility, expressed in many materials and forms. The altarpiece is the centerpiece of an immersive space modeled on early Byzantine church architecture, capturing the era’s aesthetics and spirituality, highlighted by a golden ceiling dome, and a soundtrack of sacred Byzantine hymns.
More than half of the objects on view have not been displayed publicly in a generation, some not at all. Our new galleries bring these objects to life with wondrous collaboration between curators and conservators, aided by thoughtful interpretation and design. It is a moment of joyous celebration.
Ann and Graham Gund Director