When the Yale Divinity School approached conservator Kathy Hebb to restore a painting depicting Martin Luther and other leaders of the Protestant Reformation, Hebb’s first thought was that the painting had heaps of condition issues.
But beneath the flaking paint and nondescript scene lay figures not seen for hundreds of years. After comparing the Divinity School’s painting with almost identical pieces held by the Society of Antiquaries of London and the English town of Lewes, Hebb decided to take a closer look.
“At a little over 40 times magnification, you can see in the areas where the gray paint has been abraded that there are little bits of red that correspond to the red vestments of the cardinal,” Hebb said. “Based on what I knew was supposed to be there, when I saw the red, I was like, ‘Yep, they’re under here.’”
In its restored state, the painting features three generations of Protestant leaders gathered around a table with four figures representing Catholicism — a cardinal, the Devil, the Pope and a monk — facing them on the opposite side.
Hebb noted her own difficulties in restoring the painting. Because the paint used to cover the Catholic figures, called overpaint, included a mixture of lead and oil, it formed a hard and difficult-to-remove film, she said. Even her surgical-grade scalpels had to be repeatedly polished, since the overpaint began to nick the blades.
Restoring the painting required a series of painstaking steps, Hebb said. After wicking adhesive under each deteriorated area, she would carefully press each flake of paint down, essentially gluing it back onto the canvas.
“It’s a slow process, rife with risk,” Hebb said.
She added that her training in graduate school involved heavy amounts of chemistry to understand the solvents and materials used in restoration.
But not all problems in conservation can be solved with science. Hebb has reconstructed a variety of pieces, forcing her to repaint whole swathes of the painting. Techniques like imitating cracks in the painting “really trick the eye,” she said.
History and Religious Studies professor Carlos Eire GRD ’79 remarked that the positioning of the uncovered figures carries symbolic weight.
“We see the cardinal, the Devil, the Pope and the monk struggling to blow out the candle,” he said. “The painting depicts Catholics in the role of frustrated villains.” He added that this dynamic contrasted with Protestants’ “enlightened” conception of themselves.
Noting the image’s ubiquity, Eire also said he had seen the image before in a 1640 English woodcut. These prints could be used to make hundreds or thousands of copies, he said.
Felicity Harley-McGowan, a specialist in Christian iconography at the Divinity School, explained that the prints “allowed religious imagery to spread in a way that hadn’t been possible before.” Even semiliterate people could recognize Luther and the Catholic caricatures, rendering the artist’s message of defiance against the Catholic Church “exceptionally clear,” she added.
Harley-McGowan also elaborated on the painting’s various symbols, saying the Bible’s centrality to the image and the use of a candle to illuminate the word of God represented the importance of reading scripture in Protestantism. In doing so, the painting also carried an implicit criticism of the Church, which insisted on keeping scripture in Latin to favor the wealthy and educated.
Asked about her reaction to her discovery, Hebb said, “It’s maybe like how Richard Leakey would have felt, finding one of his fossils. It’s just like, ‘Nobody’s seen this for hundreds of years.’”
Richard Leakey is an anthropologist famous for his discoveries about human evolution.
“It’s exciting,” Hebb said. “It never gets old.”
Oct. 31 marks the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.
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