Four pieces of a long-separated painted panel by a famous 15th century artist have been rejoined, thanks in part to the Yale University Art Gallery, which will display the work until at least the end of the year.
The recently reunified panel is the work of Fra Angelico, who was one of the foremost painters of the early Italian Renaissance. The four pieces formed the wings of a tabernacle triptych that folded over a central image.
The two pieces that formed the pinnacles to the wings of the tabernacle, one depicting the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of Christ and the other the image of the Virgin Mary, were donated to the Yale University Art Gallery by Hannah D. and Louis M. Rabinowitz in 1959. The two panels that formed the actual wings or shutters, one depicting St. Francis and a sainted bishop and the other panel showing St. John the Baptist and St. Peter Martyr, are part of the collection at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The Rabinowitz family initially purchased the two Yale pieces as a single rectangular composition that had been artificially combined with a gilded fragment in order to appear like an independent work of art. Laurence B. Kanter, the curator-in-charge of the Robert Lehman Collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, first proposed a possible connection between the two pieces in the gallery collection and the two pieces in the Getty Museum collection.
“Larry is the one who solved the problem of our panels belonging together,” said Clay Dean GRD ’03, a research associate for the Department of European and Contemporary Art and the organizer of the project. “For a long time it was thought that our panel were separate. He noticed that the back of the panels were similar. The problem, however, was that the lighting was coming from different angles, which was really strange — almost unheard of.”
In 1998, the Getty Museum’s painting conservation department offered to collaborate with Yale’s gallery in order to restore paintings in Yale’s early Italian Renaissance collection. As part of the partnership, conservators from both Yale and the Getty agreed to spend time in each other’s studios examining and evaluating the treatment process.
The goal of this collaboration was to design individual restoration projects for various artworks on a case-by-case basis. This collaboration would allow the gallery to take advantage of the Getty’s larger staff of conservators and technicians and the Getty Museum to supplement its more modest collection with temporary loans from Yale’s collection.
With a grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, work began in 1998. Since then, 24 of Yale’s Italian paintings have been restored and many others are currently undergoing treatment.
One of the most successful of these restorations has been the reunification of the Fra Angelico panels. Yale shipped its two pieces to the Getty Museum, where conservators verified Kanter’s hypothesis by using X-rays to analyze the grain of the triptych’s wood.
“It was immediately apparent that the Yale pieces and the Getty’s fit. By looking at the pattern of the wood grain, you can tell that they were once part of the same panel,” said Mark Aronson, the art gallery’s chief conservator.
Through the financial support of the Kress foundation, the Robert Lehman Exhibition and Publication Fund, and Lionel Goldfrank III ’65, the panel has been reunified and restored and is on display at the gallery until Dec. 30.
Aronson said the gallery is hoping to keep the panel through April for the Early Italian Painting: Approaches to Conservation symposium.
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