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Revealing the dramatic history behind Murillo’s iconic altarpiece

22 November 2016 by Felicity

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo’s painted altarpiece, Virgin and Child in Glory (1673), has left the Walker Art Gallery for the first time since it was acquired in 1953.

The iconic work has travelled to our conservation studio where it will undergo major technical investigation work, funded by the Art Fund. This will be the first detailed conservation treatment to be carried out on the altarpiece since the early 1860s.

The history of the altarpiece is an undeniably dramatic one! It was originally commissioned by the Archbishop of Seville (1670-1684), Ambrosio Ignacio Spínola y Guzmán, to form the centrepiece of a private chapel in his palace. The central section of the altarpiece was cut out and a copy was inserted, probably in the late 18th century.

By the early 19th century, the central fragment was in the possession of a retired linen draper in London, while the rest of the altarpiece was looted by a French general and taken to Paris. In 1862, the works were reunited under the ownership of Lord Overstone, a trustee of the National Gallery, who arranged for the two pieces to be combined.

We hope to learn more about Murillo’s painting methods as a result of the conservation work, including the quality of pigments and technique he used, and to discover more about the fascinating history of the altarpiece in the 18th & 19th centuries, especially its treatment in 1862-63. The very skilful re-insertion of the central section will be examined using x-rays.

We’ll also be able to compare and contrast the creative process behind the altarpiece, with that undertaken by Murillo to produce his small preparatory study for it, which the Walker recently acquired. The acquisition, made possible thanks to a generous grant from the Art Fund, made the Walker the first gallery in the world to own both a preparatory study by Murillo and the large finished altarpiece for which the study was made.

Murillo was one of the great artists of 17th century Spain, renowned internationally for his painting and draughtsmanship, which influenced many 18th century British painters. By 1682, he was the most famous Spanish artist outside his homeland, better known than his compatriot Velázquez.

Discover more about the altarpiece in our video interview with Curator of European Art Xanthe Brooke:

All above images © Gareth Jones

  1. Martin Bruce says:

    This very fine Murillo is, I’m sure in safe hands for its long overdue conservation.
    I look forward to seeing the altarpiece restored to its former glory.

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