Conservation in Action: Monopoli Altarpiece

Conservation and Collections Management

Little is known about the striking seven-panel Cretan-Venetian altarpiece that was recently relocated from Museum storage to the Conservation in Action gallery. It is a prime candidate for a research and treatment project that will involve the collaborative efforts of conservators, curators, expert scholars, and conservation scientists. Please check back regularly for progress updates posted below, and visit gallery 208 to see conservators at work on the panels.

The Altarpiece

Photo of seven-panel altarpiece
Left to right: Saint Christopher, Saint Augustine, Saint Stephen, Virgin Mary and the Christ Child, Saint John the Baptist, Saint Nicholas, and Saint Sebastian

This elaborate and grand altarpiece from the early fifteenth century, with near life-size figures, demonstrates the strong influence of Byzantine artistic culture across the Mediterranean world. It was painted for the church of Santo Stefano at Monopoli in Apulia, the “heel of the boot” of Italy. Even though the artist is unknown, the painter was certainly trained in the Byzantine tradition in Venice or in Crete (then controlled by Venice). The style follows the aesthetic of Byzantine icon paintings with their elongated figures, frontal presentation, and overall somber mood.

Saint Augustine, second from the left (see detail image below), is depicted with a physiognomy and beard distinct from the others and is probably by a different hand. Some or all of the frame elements were likely added in the late nineteenth or early twentieth century. Through this research and conservation process, conservators and curators hope to uncover more about who made the altarpiece, where it was made, and the significance of its stylistic amalgam.

Detail of Saint Augustine
Detail of Saint Augustine on Monopoli altarpiece

Conservation Strategy

The paintings are remarkably well preserved, but over time a thick veil of dirt, grime, and discolored varnish has formed over the surface, obscuring the clarity of the images and the vibrancy of the colors. Before any work to conserve the panels can begin, a thorough documentation and examination will be completed to understand as much as possible about the altarpiece. The altar is huge, comprising seven panels and many frame elements to total more than 8-by-10 feet. The examination stage will allow conservators to become familiar with this multifaceted, monumental work as a whole before focusing on the details to plan a conservation treatment strategy.

By determining the process of production, it will also be possible to understand the changes the altarpiece has undergone since its creation, including restoration of the paint and gilding, changes in the size, shape, and arrangement of the seven panels, as well as modifications to the frame. The paintings are more than 600 years old and have traveled at least 4,400 miles, and as a result have experienced many changes, both natural and deliberate. Alterations are often made to artworks like this, and the very materials, particularly the colors, can be intentionally changed. The research now underway will guide the treatment decisions that will determine both the final appearance and structural condition of the work.

Support for the conservation of the Monopoli Altarpiece is provided by the John and Sonia Lingos Family Foundation.