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Arizona Professor Discovers Secrets of Altar Panels Now at SMU


Some modern detective work has brought new insight into a collection of 15th-century panels that once adorned a church altar in Spain.

Scientific analysis of the medieval panels painted between 1480 and 1500 for the cathedral of Ciudad Rodrigo has not only revealed underdrawings hidden for around 500 years, but has also elevated the status of an artist who worked on the panels.

Researchers found that a virtually unknown artist named Maestro Bartolome who had worked alongside the better-known Fernando Gallego was responsible for about half of the panels — and was an outstanding artist in his own right.

“We knew Bartolome worked with Gallego, we didn’t know his technique and style and hand was such a quality,” said Mark Roglan, director of Southern Methodist University’s Meadows Museum in Dallas, where the panels are the centerpiece of an exhibit on display through July 27.

“He is a master on his own,” Roglan said.

The exhibit features the cathedral’s 26 remaining panels, which depict biblical events including Genesis, the life of Christ and the Last Judgment.

“It’s been called one of the greatest altarpieces of the 15th century,” said Claire Barry, chief conservator of paintings at Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum.  Barry, who is on loan from the University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson, has been examining the panels at the Kimbell for the last three years.

The exhibit gives viewers a peek into the past with illuminated copies of the underdrawings, which are the sketches the artists made of the scene before painting them, revealed with the help of an infrared camera, In a panel depicting Adam and Eve, for instance, the Bartolome originally had Eve kneeling next to Adam, but the finished panel shows Eve emerging from Adam’s rib.

The idea for the investigation came when Roglan spotted the panels while in Tucson to meet with museum officials.

“I had to sit down and really absorb this enormous beauty that was emanated from these panels,” Roglan said. “They’re really as good as they get.”

The exhibit currently at SMU will open at the University of Arizona Museum of Art in September, after the panels have been returned.

The panels, which Roglan says were a highlight of Gallego’s illustrious career, remained in Ciudad Rodrigo, about 53 miles from the university town of Salamanca, for almost 400 years. But sometime before 1800, they were in such bad shape they were no longer displayed at the altar. One of the panels even has a shell hole from the Peninsula War of the early 1800s, said Barbara Anderson, head of exhibition and consulting curator for Spanish and Latin American materials at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

In 1879, they were sold through a dealer in Madrid to a British collector. They ended up a couple years later with a Francis Cook and remained at his home outside London until after World War II, when they were eventually sold to the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, which gave them to the University of Arizona in the 1950s, Anderson said.

The research into the panels also helped the Meadows Museum clear up another mystery. One of the paintings in their collection was believed to have been painted by either Fernando Gallego or a relative named Francisco Gallego. After looking at the underdrawings of Fernando’s work on the panels, they confirmed it was a painting by Francisco, whose work can also been seen in a couple of the Ciudad Rodrigo panels.

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