Restoration reveals hidden figures in Div School Reformation painting

Martin Luther sits at a table surrounded by other leaders of the Reformation. A Bible is opened in front of him. A candle burns at the table’s center.

The scene is depicted in a 17th-century painting that for years has graced a hallway at Yale Divinity School. The painting by an unknown artist was removed last year for restoration and cleaning. Its paint was cracked and flaking in places.

Kathy Hebb, a conservator, examined the painting under a microscope in her studio in Guilford, Connecticut, and saw colors underneath cracks in the painting’s foreground. She found other examples of the same scene and discovered something was missing from Yale’s version — an omission that entirely altered the painting’s meaning.  

Other versions of the image, such as an engraving housed at the British Museum, show figures of a cardinal, a bull, a pope, and a monk in front of the table futilely attempting to blow out the candle, which represents the light of the Reformation.  Thin lines indicate their breath. (The bull is a reference to a “papal bull,” a decree issued by a pope.) The engraving, which dates to about 1640, bears the inscription, “The candle is lighted, we cannot blow out” and each of the reformers is labeled.

A heavy layer of gray paint concealed the four Catholic figures in Yale’s version as well as the text. Hebb set to work uncovering the lost figures. She has painstakingly shaved away the insoluble over-paint using surgical scalpels under a microscope.

It is a matter of very delicately removing one layer from another,” she said.

Slowly but surely, the cardinal, bull, pope, and monk have emerged.

Hebb estimates that the figures were concealed in the 18th century based on the kind of paint and the degree of cracking and flaking in it. Hundreds of years under the paint protected the Catholic figures, which are brighter and in better condition than their Protestant counterparts.

It is unclear when the painting arrived at Yale and where it came from. The motive behind the over-painting is also a mystery.

Perhaps it was done to prevent offense to Catholics”, said Felicity Harley-McGowan, an art historian and lecturer at Yale Divinity School. “Or maybe at a time when the meaning of the image had been lost, an art dealer thought the painting would sell more easily without the Catholic figures and the labels. We don’t know.”

Painted versions of the scene similar to Yale’s are housed at the Society of Antiquaries of London and at the town hall in Lewes, England, which is also being restored.

The version at the Society of Antiquaries, which was discovered in the 1950s and at first mistaken for a roll of old linoleum, is more finely painted than the other two. The reformers’ expressions are brighter and Luther has a twinkle in his eye that is absent in Yale’s copy. 

Hebb speculates that all three paintings were created in a workshop from the same “cartoon,” a preparatory design or drawing.

A cartoon for these large-scale paintings would have copied earlier prints„ such as the engraving now  in the British Museum, said Harley-McGowan.

The reformers were arguing against key aspects of Catholicism,” she said. “This image makes a statement about the primacy of the Word over the Eucharist.”

The scene, Luther seated at the center of the table surrounded by other reformers, recalls Catholic iconography of the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper, in which Jesus is surrounded by the apostles and blesses bread and wine on the table.

The reformers rejected transubstantiation — the notion that bread and wine offered during the sacrament of the Eucharist are literally transformed into the flesh and blood of Christ. In the painting, elements of the Eucharist, the bread and wine, are replaced by a Bible — the Word.

We think of these paintings as artworks, but in truth they are akin to texts. They functioned to circulate the core tenets of the reformers, and as such their are important documents about the Reformation” Harley-McGowan said.  “The iconography articulates a message in a very clever way, drawing on images and beliefs with which people would have been familiar, and that the reformers rejected.”

Yale’s painting depicts 18 reformers representing three generations. Their arrangement around the table indicates a degree of disagreement and debate within their ranks. Some individuals have their backs turned to the person seated beside them. For example, John Calvin is turned away from Luther and faces Theodore Beze, who was one of Calvin’s disciples. Several reformers are holding volumes, which could be copies of their theological treatises.

The painting has returned to the Divinity School where it will be on view in the Sarah Smith Gallery as part of an exhibit marking the upcoming 500th anniversary of Oct. 31, 1517, the day Luther delivered his Ninety-five Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz, igniting the Reformation. The painting will be displayed with text describing its history and Hebb’s conservation work. In March, the painting will return to Hebb’s studio so she can complete its restoration.

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