Drama and Devotion: Heemskerck's "Ecce Homo" Altarpiece from Warsaw
June 5, 2012–April 7, 2013 at the Getty Center
The Ecce Homo altarpiece, Maerten van Heemskerck, 1544. Oil on panel, 74 1/4 x 102 3/8 x 5 3/16 in. (open, framed). Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie
Originally scheduled to close on January 13, this exhibition has been extended through April 7, 2013.
This exhibition explores the striking Ecce Homo altarpiece painted in 1544 by Dutch Renaissance painter Maerten van Heemskerck (1498–1574), one of the most admired Netherlandish painters of the 16th century.
One of the treasures of the National Museum in Warsaw (Muzeum Narodowe w Warszawie), Poland, the altarpiece has been conserved and extensively studied by a team of curators, conservators, and scientists at the Getty Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute over the course of eighteen months. On view in the United States for the first time, the Ecce Homo altarpiece serves as an ambassador for the National Museum, which celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2012.
Presented in this exhibition are the exciting findings from the project, which have significantly enhanced our understanding of Heemskerck's materials and techniques.
About the Painting
The Ecce Homo is a triptych—a three-part panel painting with a central scene flanked by two hinged wings that fold shut. The interior scenes were visible on important liturgical feast days, when the altarpiece was opened, doubling in size and magnificence.
In the central panel, Pontius Pilate presents Christ, who has been mocked and beaten, to the riotous crowd of jeering Judean onlookers with the words "Behold! The Man!" (Ecce Homo; John 19:5). The figures fill the confines of the narrow scene and concentrate attention on Christ's suffering.
On the left and right panels, the patrons of the altarpiece, Jan van Drenckwaerdt and his second wife, Margaretha, kneel in prayer and gaze at the Ecce Homo. They are accompanied by their namesakes: Jan by Saint John the Evangelist, Margaretha by Saint Margaret of Antioch. The same saints, painted in grisaille, decorate the exterior.
The altarpiece originally adorned the private chapel of the Drenckwaerdt family in the church of the Augustinian monastery in Dordrecht, Holland. In 1572, when Dordrecht rebelled against Spain and adopted the Protestant Reformed faith, all the accoutrements of Catholic worship—including the Ecce Homo—were swiftly removed from Dordrecht's churches. According to local historical sources, the Ecce Homo was removed to the adjacent house of wealthy wine merchant and art collector Matthijs Berck.
Details of paint handling in the fur in the left wing (left) and musculature in the central panel (right) in the Ecce Homo
Heemskerck's Style and Technique
The Ecce Homo altarpiece exemplifies Heemskerck's style of the mid-1540s, when restless energy infused his figures, exaggerated expressions grabbed the viewer's attention, and vibrant color combinations tantalized the eye. His rapid brushwork—shown in these details—was distinctive from his contemporaries, most of whom built up forms with the careful application of several layers.
For example, the tufted texture of the spotted lynx fur lining of Jan van Drenckwaerdt's black tabbaard (coat) (in the altarpiece's left wing) was created in only two steps. A warm brown translucent glaze was applied over the priming, followed by dabs with a stiff brush in black and white.
Heemskerck also created his figures' robust musculature with relatively little paint, as seen on this detail of the soldier depicted at the bottom right of the central panel. Working loosely and efficiently, thin brown tones were used to model the outer contour, followed by pinkish opaque tones and a final white highlight.
Three views of the left wing of the Ecce Homo triptych: in natural light (left), X-radiograph (center), and infrared reflectogram (right)
Beneath the Surface
At the Getty, the Ecce Homo was examined using X-radiography and infrared reflectography. These noninvasive analytical techniques provided a wealth of information about the structure of the panels and the steps Heemskerck took to prepare them for painting.
For example, X-radiography showed how Heemskerck used lead white to accent and describe forms. This X-ray of the interior of the altarpiece's left wing shows the head of Saint John the Evangelist, which was painted on the other side of the wood panel with a lot of lead white.
Infrared reflectography provides a means of imaging underdrawings if they are made with a carbon-containing material such as charcoal, which absorbs light in the infrared range. Infrared reflectograms for this project were made using an Osiris infrared camera (InGaAs detector) operating in the wavelength range of 0.9–1.7µm. The infrared reflectograph of the same interior panel shows a change in the coat of arms: the swans' heads and beaks were changed from open and vertical position to bills that are closed and face downward.
Pigments and Color Changes
Heemskerck's dynamic compositions were enhanced by his use of bright hues and sophisticated color juxtapositions. Dramatic color combinations of strong hues, such as red and purple, intensified the emotional impact of the subject. The appearance of the Ecce Homo today differs from its appearance in the 16th century due to changes in some of the materials Heemskerck used to achieve his striking visual effects. One of the findings by Getty conservators and scientists is how dramatically some of the colors in the Ecce Homo have changed over time.
A range of imaging and analytical techniques, including X-ray florescence (XRF) spectroscopy, provided information about the original color and the composition of Heemskerck's palette. XRF analyses were performed using a handheld Keymaster X-ray fluorescence spectrometer (rhenium (Re) tube, 40 K excitation voltage, 1 µA current, 60-second accumulation).
Paint seen under magnification was also an especially important guide to reconstructing the appearance of faded and discolored areas. One of the most distinctive aspects of Heemskerck's technique was his extensive use of smalt, a pigment made from a finely ground blue potassium glass, which is now faded.
Senior conservator of paintings Yvonne Szafran working on the central panel of Heemskerck's Ecce Homo altarpiece
A Conservation Partnership
The project to study and conserve the Ecce Homo altarpiece is part of the Getty Museum's Conservation Partnership Program, which promotes the exchange of ideas and technical expertise with museums across the globe through the conservation and analysis of major works of art.
The projects, often carried out with colleagues from the Getty Conservation Institute and a conservator from the lending institution, provide valuable insights about the painting to the lending museum, and allows exceptional pieces from around the world to be studied, analyzed, and placed on view at the Getty Museum.
Associate conservator of paintings Laura Rivers working on Saint Margaret of Antioch (right exterior panel) of Heemskerck's Ecce Homo altarpiece
The Ecce Homo was selected as the focus of a partnership project when the J. Paul Getty Museum was invited to Poland to explore joint conservation projects with Polish institutions in 2009. Conservation treatment began in the fall of 2010, when Hanna Benesch, curator of early Netherlandish and Flemish paintings at the National Museum, and the painting arrived in Los Angeles. Guest conservator Iwona Stefanska worked in the studio with Getty conservators at both the beginning and end of the treatment. This extended Conservation Partnership project, exhibition, and accompanying publication have been generously supported by the Paintings Conservation Council.
After its exhibition at the Getty Center, the Ecce Homo will return to the National Museum in Warsaw.