Arts & Tradition

The ‘St. Vincent Panels’: Historic Process Undertaken for Historic Painting

BY Ariane Triebswetter TIMEJune 18, 2022 PRINT

As visitors look through a glass window, restorers work diligently to preserve one of Portugal’s national treasures. Paints, microscopes, X-ray machines, trays, tools, computers, frames, and tables fill the space, all set up to do this important work.

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The “St. Vincent Panels” under restoration at the National Antique Art Museum of Lisbon. (Courtesy of National Antique Art Museum in Lisbon)

Since June 1, 2020, an international group of experts has been analyzing, scanning, and retouching one of Portugal’s most important cultural artifacts: the “St. Vincent Panels” (circa 1470). In Portuguese, the work is known as “Painéis de São Vicente.” Anyone can watch in real-time as conservation experts restore the polyptych (many-paneled painting) at the National Antique Art Museum of Lisbon, Portugal.

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Front façade of the National Antique Art Museum of Lisbon. (Public Domain)

It is estimated that originally the artwork may have had 12 panels, with six now lost. The six panels that constitute the work have been separated for the restoration process. Incredibly, most of the wood that supports the panels has survived from the original structure.

International Restoration Effort 

The technical difficulty in restoration is to preserve the original work: to repair damage from past renovations and to uncover the original work, while not damaging the painting or giving an incorrect historic or aesthetic result.

Luckily, with the latest 21st-century technology available to conservators as well as experts in other fields, the process is easier. Technical support arrived from two specialized laboratories: the HERCULES Laboratory of Évora University and the José de Figueiredo Laboratory of Lisbon, which assisted in analyzing the painting and suggesting how to best restore it using their equipment.

International consultants also arrived to help. Art historians and conservators-restorers came from The National Gallery, London, the University of Ghent in Belgium (Ghent is the city that is home to the renowned Ghent Altarpiece), the Central Institute of Restoration in Belgium, The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Prado Museum in Madrid.

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The “St. Vincent Panels.” (Courtesy of the National Antique Art Museum in Lisbon)

Experts first examined every inch of the six panels to record all damage done to the painting over time. This preparatory work determined the best approach to preserve the original composition and rediscover the original bright colors. After registering previous restorations completed before 2020 and any damage caused by time, the restorers began the second phase, which is now in progress.

Since the 16th century, the panels may have had as many as six restorations. The main goal of the restorers and the museum is to not damage the integrity of the painting. Restorers want to bring back the painting’s brighter colors and conserve as much of the original piece as possible.

Painstaking Progress

The experts are removing old layers of varnish to see the right chromatic range of the panels and to discover the original colors used in the painting. To see the different layers and use of colors, restorers use UV lights to register any differences in fluorescence; this allows them to recognize the different layers and use of colors.

Epoch Times Photo
The left image is the left central panel from the “St. Vincent Panels.” St. Vincent, clad in red and gold and holding a manuscript, stands in the center surrounded by figures in Portuguese society. The image on the right is from the fifth panel with painted figures of friars, monks, knights, and nobility. (Courtesy of the National Antique Art Museum in Lisbon)

During the UV process, experts noticed blue layers of color under red layers. The blue changed the painting entirely, as red is one of the predominant colors of the panels. Experts also saw all of the retouched areas and materials used throughout different time periods. For example, the painting was cleaned multiple times with an acid pH solution during previous restorations, which damaged some of the painting.

Earlier conservators, before the 1910 restoration, had used varnish layers that didn’t correspond to the colors originally used by the painter. The current restoration team applied varnish to parts of the panels to know which parts to clean, to see what colors were actually originally used by the painter, and what was added in later renovations.

The next step for the museum restorers was to use X-rays to reveal things that are invisible to the naked eye. For example, they discovered faces that were painted on top of others. The X-rays guided the experts in selecting what methodology to choose for the specific scanned areas of the panels.

Mysterious Collective Portrait 

The panels were discovered in 1882 in the monastery of São Vicente de Fora, in the Alfama district of Lisbon. The panels were then put on display at the National Antique Art Museum, after being restored in 1910 by Portuguese painter Luciano Freire.

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Sculpture of Nuno Gonçalves, royal painter of the court of King Afonso V. (Harvey Barrison/CC BY-SA 2.0)

The panels are attributed to Nuno Gonçalves, royal painter of the court of King Afonso V. The painting—oil and tempera on oak—is thought to originally be part of the St. Vincent altarpiece in Lisbon’s cathedral, known as the Sé.

Pictorially, the painting is considered one of the first group portraits in 15th-century Europe. Collective portraits were rare during the European Renaissance, and most were not as expressive as this one. The panels are also remarkable because they are one of the few paintings that depict 15th-century Portuguese society.

To this day, there is speculation among specialists regarding the precise identities of the figures and the meaning of the panels as a whole. The artist depicted a large group of figures in this work of art. There are 58 in total gathered around St. Vincent of Saragossa, a third-century martyr and the patron saint of Lisbon. St. Vincent is pictured twice: on each of the two larger, middle panels. On either side are two narrower panels filled with more figures.

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First three panels of the the “St. Vincent Panels.” (Courtesy of the National Antique Art Museum in Lisbon)

The panels show characters of the Portuguese court in the 15th century and Portuguese nobility, as well as knights, friars and monks of different religious orders, counselors, and other unidentified figures. The painting presents a ceremonial, contemplative, and solemn setting, as shown in the poses of figures with hands folded as if in prayer. The social groups have expressive looks, and refined costumes and accessories.

Age of Greatness 

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Sign at the entrance of the National Antique Art Museum of Lisbon, Portugal. (Public Domain)

The “St. Vincent Panels” hold great meaning for Portuguese identity because of the period during which it was painted: the Age of Discovery. The Portuguese refer to this time as the “Age of Discoveries.” It was a time of economic and cultural growth for the nation, and an era of great maritime exploration and expansion. The most common interpretation of this painting is that it celebrates the accomplishments of Portuguese expansion in North Africa during the Aviz Dynasty, Portugal’s second dynasty between 1385 and 1580.

Multiple figures in the painting point to the Age of Discovery. Most importantly, the painting’s namesake, St. Vincent, who was the patron saint of seafarers during expeditions, was embraced by the Portuguese people. According to legend, the first king of Portugal, Afonso Henriques (circa 1106–1185), was said to have found the saint’s relics (remains) and brought them to Lisbon. He is not portrayed in the painting.

Another character possibly portrayed in the panels is Henry the Navigator, one of the most important figures of the early Age of Discovery. In 1895, Portuguese art historian Joaquim de Vasconcelos identified the elderly man wearing a burgundy hat on one of the central panels as Henry the Navigator. However, the identification of many of the characters, including Henry, in this polyptych is still discussed and strongly debated.

To document this historic restoration, the Portuguese newspaper The Public (O Público) has followed the process for the last three years, in partnership with the museum and the Millennium BCP Foundation (Fundação millennium bcp). Through video footage, photography, articles, and interviews, the newspaper shares the restoration process with its readers. A team of journalists regularly visits the “restoration house” to check on the progress, and the paper has a dedicated page on the panels and their restoration.

Restoring the “St. Vincent Panels” represents a chance to restore an artistic legacy to Portugal.

The restoration process can be seen live at the National Antique Art Museum in Lisbon, Portugal, until Dec. 31, 2022.

Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.
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