Reunification in Raleigh: The St. John Altarpiece

​A new exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) in Raleigh covers one of my favorite subjects, the reunification of the former components of a singular work of art. The interesting twist in this particular exhibition is that, as the Sesame Street song goes, one of these things is not like the others. For one of the paintings on display in “Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” is a contemporary artist’s imagining of what might have been, created using a combination of 14th century techniques and 21st century technology.

Francescuccio Ghissi (c. 1345-1395) was an artist who worked mainly in the Marche, a region of Italy dominated by the towns of Ancona and Urbino; the area was heavily damaged during a 2014 earthquake, as readers may recall. Little is known about Ghissi’s life and work, and truth be told he is not of great importance in art history. However he did produce a number of charming, beautifully colored and patterned works of art, such as this triptych in the collection of the UK National Trust at Polesden Lacey, a country house outside of London.

One of Ghissi’s major works was an altarpiece depicting the Crucifixion of Christ with accompanying apocryphal scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, based on the book, “The Golden Legend”. This was a popular 13th century work by Blessed Jacobus de Voragine (lived c. 1230-1298), a Dominican friar who later became the Archbishop of Genoa. It was a huge best-seller in de Voragine’s own lifetime, and both Ghissi’s patrons and Ghissi himself as a working artist would have been very familiar with it.

In his book, de Voragine retold stories which he had collected from many sources concerning the lives of the saints. The historicity of these tales is often highly questionable, and in some cases they are little more than pious fiction. However when it comes to developing a deeper understanding and appreciation of Christian culture before the French Revolution, particularly in the arts, “The Golden Legend” is the most important source material after the Bible. The book also had a tremendous impact on world history: for example, it played a significant part in the conversion of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, and was one of the first books to be translated and printed by William Caxton, founder of the first English printing press.

The St. John Altarpiece was probably completed by Ghissi around 1370. It featured a large, central image of the Crucifixion, which is now at the Art Institute of Chicago, flanked by 8 small panels depicting scenes from the life of St. John the Evangelist, taken from “The Golden Legend”. Today these smaller components of the altarpiece are scattered among several museums, including NCMA, The Met, and the Portland Art Museum.  

At some point after the altarpiece had been hacked to pieces for sale, probably in the late 19th or early 20th century, one of the smaller 8 panels was lost. In anticipation of this exhibition, NCMA took the rather unusual step of working with artist and conservator Charlotte Caspers to create an original painting which provides an example of what the missing panel might have looked like. Ms. Caspers not only studied Ghissi’s style, she also read “The Golden Legend” for clues as to what story Ghissi might have originally selected to portray. In executing her painting she used 14th-century techniques and recreated materials like those which Ghissi might have used.

Technology experts next took Ms. Caspers’ work and created a hi-res digital image of the completed painting. They then applied faux cracks and aging signs to the digital image, in order to replicate those found on the original, existing panels. This photoshopped image of Ms. Caspers’ painting will be part of the NCMA exhibition, along with a documentary film showing how the new piece was made.The entire project strikes me as being just as fascinating as the reunified altarpiece itself.

Of course, much as we can admire and appreciate both NCMA’s and Ms. Caspers’ work in reuniting and quasi-recreating the lost portion of this work of art, there is also much to mourn here, as well. Ghissi never imagined that his paintings would hang on the walls of museums, to be gawked at as if they were curiosities alongside secular things such as silkscreened prints of Campbell’s Soup cans. Rather, Ghissi’s art was created in order to honor God, to celebrate the life and example of the Beloved Disciple, and to serve as an aid to prayer. That his altarpiece can be reassembled is of great benefit to anyone interested in the history of art. That it no longer serves its intended purpose however, is a loss to all Christians.    

“Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece” runs at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh from September 10, 2016 through March 5, 2017.

Reconstruction of the missing panel

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