Unlocking a Fifteenth-Century Flemish Casket

This casket hasn’t been opened since Henry Walters first acquired it.

A fifteenth-century Flemish casket with scenes from romances was recently brought to the conservation lab to be evaluated for a possible loan to another museum. It is a rare example of painted and gilded locking caskets with secular imagery. Purchased from the Parisian bookbinder and antiques dealer Leon Gruel by Henry Walters, only a handful of similar examples are known.

This casket is made of wood covered with leather that has been cut to create images and designs.  Iron straps surround the exterior, and there is a large lock on the front, suggesting the casket was intended to hold objects of great value.  When it arrived in the lab, the casket was locked.  There is no key and no record of it ever being opened at the museum.

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Saving Time: Conserving a Cox Clock

There’s a magnificent cabinet clock in the collection of the Walters Art Museum. Until recently, little was known about how the clock and musical mechanism functioned. What type of timepiece was inside? Did it have an alarm or chime? Who made it and when?

Within the Walters Art Museum’s collection of timepieces, clocks, and watches there’s a clock that is said to have belonged to the dowager empress of Russia, Maria Feodorovna. Agate panels framed by elaborate rococo cage-work form the body of the clock, which contains a complex musical mechanism.

Conservation staff treated the clock to reduce silver tarnish and reattach some loose elements. This provided an opportunity to investigate the object further. Though it was known that the clock was assembled in a London workshop owned by James Cox, little was known about the timepiece and musical mechanism inside. What type of timepiece is it? What tune does the musical mechanism play? Who made them and when?

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Art Conservator Q&A with Julie Lauffenburger

Julie Lauffenburger, Director of Conservation and Technical Research shares her passion for conservation, curating the Gold in the Ancient Americas exhibition and her journey to the Walters Art Museum.

Why are you so passionate about preserving art?

I am a bit of a history nerd. Just ask my children—always a historic site wrapped into a family vacation! Preserving art to me is about preserving the legacy of human creativity: what makes us human and what is universal about all of us wherever we live. I have always been fascinated by material culture and have always wanted to travel and see the world; preserving art ensures that material culture from around the world will be there for future generations to discover. It makes you feel like you are a part of something bigger.

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Conserving an Ottoman Helmet

Recently, while re-installing one of the exhibition cases of Islamic arms and armor, conservators noticed bright green corrosion around the copper rivets on one of the helmets. What was causing this corrosion, and could it be stopped?

Helmet engraved with floral patterns, before conservation treatment. Sixteenth century Ottoman Turkish or Persian. Walters Art Museum 51.1, acquired by Henry Walters, 1911.

Recently, while re-installing one of the exhibition cases of Islamic arms and armor, conservators noticed bright green corrosion around the copper rivets on one of the helmets. What was causing this corrosion, and could it be stopped?

Detail of corrosion on copper rivets, before conservation treatment.

The helmet engraved with floral patterns (WAM 51.1) was made sometime in the 16th century in Turkey or Persia (modern day Iran), and was purchased in 1911 by Henry Walters. A circular mark cut into the proper right side of the helmet indicates that it was once part of the Imperial Arsenal of the Ottoman Empire in Istanbul.

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Rediscovering Color on an Ancient Relief

The fragment of an ancient Roman marble relief Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac (23.238) recently came to the conservation lab, giving Walters Art Museum conservators a chance to learn more about its colorful original appearance.

The fragment of an ancient Roman marble relief Attendant of Mithras with signs of the zodiac (23.238) recently came to the conservation lab, giving Walters Art Museum conservators a chance to learn more about its colorful original appearance.

The fragment was probably carved sometime in the first century A.D.  It is part of one side of a much larger carved marble relief that likely depicted the Persian creation god Mithras flanked by his two attendants and torchbearers Cautes and Cautopates, surrounded by depictions of the twelve signs of the zodiac. This fragment shows one of the attendants holding his torch downward and parts of the zodiac signs for Capricorn, Sagittarius, and Scorpio.

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Revealing the Splendor of Gilded Lacquer

cleaning and treatment of several objects from the Doris Duke Collection of Southeast Asian Art

The Walters recently received a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to perform the cleaning and treatment of several objects from the Doris Duke Collection of Southeast Asian Art. This collection, comprised of a variety of beautiful and unique pieces, has been in storage for some time, and many pieces require treatment. Conservator Stephanie Hulman, who is working on the pieces in the museum recently, shared some insight into the scope of the project and the work she is doing. Visitors can see her on the 1st floor of the museum, in the Special Exhibition Gallery, Wednesday to Friday, 1:30-4 p.m.

A large portion of Stephanie’s work involves a process called consolidation, which is a technique conservators use to re-adhere flaking media. Many of the pieces in the Duke collection have gilded lacquer surfaces, which can lift and flake in an improper environment. Conservators can carefully consolidate the lacquer layers, stabilizing them to ensure that the piece will remain in excellent condition for many years to come. In addition to consolidation, Stephanie and other conservators are cleaning some of the dust that has accumulated while the pieces were in storage, using carefully selected solvents and chemicals that will remove the dirt without harming the art underneath. One of the pieces, a Miniature Shrine, has been cleaned and can be seen in the gallery now in its full splendor, its gilded surface gleaming brightly.

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A Rifle Fit for a Sultan

Every item in the collection, like this Turkish Hunting Set, tells a story. Curators and conservators work to piece it together, examining each item’s history, composition, and necessary treatment. They unearth countless stories, fit together jigsaw puzzles of broken pieces, remove centuries of dirt and tarnish, and so much more. Using a range of techniques, technologies, and sciences, they study and repair items so they can continue to be enjoyed and explored for generations to come.

Turkish Hunting Set / 1732-33 /  Acquired by Henry Walters, 1903

X-ray images have revealed an additional hidden compartment in the rifle which was sealed long ago. What’s inside? What was it used for? Only further research can answer those questions. And for that we’ll need your help!

CONTRIBUTE NOW

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The Science of Display Cases

Roman  /  Aged Herakles  /  1st c. BC-AD  /  Acquired by Henry Walters

Conservator Katie Posthauer has been working for two years on a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to help identify and replace display cases in most need of updating to current conservation standards. Some of the display cases throughout the galleries at the Walters are older than others, and are made of less-stable materials than what is available now. This means that the conditions inside the case aren’t always ideal for the objects on display. Katie’s job has been to work with other conservators to determine which cases are at the highest risk and to replace them.

Once a case has been identified for replacement, the objects inside are removed from the gallery and a new case is built using the best materials available. This includes a special silica gel (similar to the little packets you’d find in your new shoes), special acrylic, and other pieces. The environmental conditions inside each case are carefully monitored, and even the fabric on the floor of the case is carefully tested to ensure that it cannot harm the object on display. Once the new case has been built and is ready, each object is removed and is cleaned.

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Conserving a 16th Century Feathered Triptych

A triptych depicting St. Jerome and the Four Evangelists embellished with hummingbird feathers was acquired by Henry Walters in 1914, and has never been on display at the Walters. The object is currently undergoing analysis and cleaning of the decorative hummingbird feathers in the conservation lab.

 

St Jerome in Penance and the Four Evangelists (Detail)
St Jerome in Penance and the Four Evangelists (Detail)

Saint Jerome in Penance and the Four Evangelists (61.104) was acquired by Henry Walters in 1914, and has never been on display at the Walters. The object is currently undergoing analysis and cleaning of the decorative hummingbird feathers in the conservation lab. The triptych is a fusion of Christian iconography and Aztec featherworking techniques, which was an adaptation encouraged by the mendicant orders during the early Spanish colonial period (1519 -1600 AD) in Mexico.

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Further Revelations on the Walters and its connection to the Monuments Men

Recently, our conservation department has discovered another important connection to the Monuments Men:

This past Sunday, February 9, our auditorium was packed to the rafters for our lecture Monuments Man: The Walters’ Marvin Chauncey Ross. Michael Kurtz, National Archives expert, recounted how the “Monuments Men” tracked and located nearly five million European artworks and cultural treasures stolen by Hitler and the Nazis during WWII. Among them was Marvin Chauncey Ross (1904–1977), the Walters’ first Curator of Medieval Art and Subsequent Decorative Arts. Melissa Wertheimer, Walters’ archives assistant, also shared her fascinating discoveries while researching the Marvin Ross papers at the Walters.

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From the Conservation Lab: Copper-Alloy Color Reconstruction of Three Ancient Egyptian Artworks

Recent research has shown that many ancient Egyptian metal objects were originally exuberantly colored, employing contrasting metal alloys or other inlays to highlight details or portions of a figure. These animated images show three ancient Egyptian artworks’ current condition and how they might have looked originally.

Egypt’s Mysterious Book of the Faiyum, a special exhibition at the Walters Art Museum, gathers together a group of ancient Egyptian objects focused on the Faiyum region, including the illustrated papyrus book of the title, along with many statues and figures made of metal.  Just as the Book of the Faiyum holds untold secrets, many of the metal objects in the exhibition are more than meets the eye.

Recent research has shown that many ancient Egyptian metal objects were originally exuberantly colored, employing contrasting metal alloys or other inlays to highlight details or portions of a figure. Due to corrosion of the metal surface, many of these objects no longer appear as they did when they were first made and used.

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Unraveling the Mysteries of the Saint Amandus Reliquary

Museum conservators use modern technology to date and identify a 13th century Flemish reliquary. This large, church-shaped shrine once housed the relics of a 7th-century saint who served as a missionary and bishop to the western regions of present-day Belgium. St. Amandus (d. 679) also established a monastery at Elnon, near Tournai (western Belgium), where the monks later commissioned this reliquary to honor his remains.

See how Walters conservators use modern technology to date and identify this 13th century Flemish reliquary:

Learn more about the Walters’ Shrine of Saint Amandus, featured in the exhibition Treasures of Heaven. Visit this interactive presentation.

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Conservation of the Bodhisattva Guanyin

The Bodhisattva Guanyin, a beautiful near-life-size figure, was a recent gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Made in China during the Ming period (early 15th–early 17th centuries), the sculpture made its journey from the Duke estate to the Walters 19th-century galleries, where it received treatment by the conservation department prior to going on view in the Hackerman House.

This late Ming dynasty dry-lacquer sculpture is an image of the bodhisattva Guanyin, an enlightened being venerated in Chinese Buddhism as an embodiment of compassion. Called a "Water-moon Guanyin" or "Guanyin sitting in Royal Ease," this theme and its iconography derive from textual inspiration found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (the central text of the Hua-yen school of Buddhism), and indigenous Chinese traditions. The dry lacquer technique was popular, but examples of this size and degree of refinement are rare. Chinese, late 14th-15th century, H: 50 x W: 34 1/4 x D: 22 5/8 in. Walters Art Museum, 25.256.
This late Ming dynasty dry-lacquer sculpture is an image of the bodhisattva Guanyin, an enlightened being venerated in Chinese Buddhism as an embodiment of compassion. Called a “Water-moon Guanyin” or “Guanyin sitting in Royal Ease,” this theme and its iconography derive from textual inspiration found in the Avatamsaka Sutra (the central text of the Hua-yen school of Buddhism), and indigenous Chinese traditions. The dry lacquer technique was popular, but examples of this size and degree of refinement are rare. Chinese, late 14th-15th century, H: 50 x W: 34 1/4 x D: 22 5/8 in. Walters Art Museum, 25.256.

Conservation of the Bodhisattva GuanyinThe Bodhisattva Guanyin, a beautiful near-life-size figure, was a recent gift from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation. Made in China during the Ming period (early 15th–early 17th centuries), the sculpture made its journey from the Duke estate to the Walters 19th-century galleries, where it received treatment by the conservation department prior to going on view in the Hackerman House.

Walters conservators have made some interesting discoveries about the piece. First of all, it is made using a hollow dry-lacquer technique, a layering technique similar to papier maché, but using Asian lacquer derived from tree sap. Cloth soaked in lacquer was used to model the initial form of the sculpture. Then layers of lacquer bulked with successively finer material were added to smooth the surface for eventual gilding. Beneath the gilding, red lacquer tinted with cinnabar, an ancient Chinese pigment, derived from mercuric sulphide, shines through. Now black overall, the hair was originally painted blue, and special attention was also given to his face, which was gilded as many as five times.

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This Sarcophagus Was Painted Red

While ancient marble sculptures are often thought of as pristine and white, we know that many were once painted with bright colors. This sarcophagus is no different. Recently, while removing plaster and other old restoration materials, conservators have discovered several areas of what is believed to be original red paint.

consweb2While ancient marble sculptures are often thought of as pristine and white, we know that many were once painted with bright colors.  This sarcophagus is no different.  Recently, while removing plaster and other old restoration materials, conservators have discovered several areas of what is believed to be original red paint.  Further research will help to determine what this ancient pigment was composed of, and conservators will continue to work cautiously to protect these areas.

The best preserved color is in the protected undercuts of the marble, visible in this photo as faint pink.  Also shown in the photo are accretions, which are evidence of root growth around the marble when it was buried in the ground.

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Saving Silver

Where there’s silver, there’s tarnish. While getting the tarnish off your flatware might be an occasional inconvenience, to museum curators and conservators, it’s a threat to irreplaceable works of art.

To protect these objects for generations to come, scientists from the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, have teamed up with conservators from the Walters Art Museum to develop and test a new, high-tech way to protect silver art objects and artifacts, using coatings that are mere nanometers thick.

Where there’s silver, there’s tarnish. While getting the tarnish off your flatware might be an occasional inconvenience, to museum curators and conservators, it’s a threat to irreplaceable works of art.

To protect these objects for generations to come, scientists from the A. James Clark School of Engineering at the University of Maryland, College Park, have teamed up with conservators from the Walters Art Museum to develop and test a new, high-tech way to protect silver art objects and artifacts, using coatings that are mere nanometers thick.

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An Ideal Climate for The Ideal City: Constructing an In-Frame Vitrine

Paintings are often requested for loans to exhibitions in other museums. To ensure that they remain in a safe, stable environment from the time they leave the Walters to the time they return, especially vulnerable paintings are enclosed in a climate-controlled, in-frame vitrine, made for the individual piece. The vitrine ensures that the encapsulated painting will remain in the Walters’ relative humidity outside the museum walls. Our video demonstrates the vitrine-making process on one of the Walters’ most famous paintings.

Paintings are often requested for loans to exhibitions in other museums. To ensure that they remain in a safe, stable environment from the time they leave the Walters to the time they return, especially vulnerable paintings are enclosed in a climate-controlled, in-frame vitrine, made for the individual piece. The vitrine ensures that the encapsulated painting will remain in the Walters’ relative humidity outside the museum walls. Our video demonstrates the vitrine-making process on one of the Walters’ most famous paintings.

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A 14th Century Catalan Triptych (37.468)

Circle of Ferrer Bassa (Spanish, ca. 1290-1348),  Triptych with Madonna and Child with the Crucifixion and the Annunciation, ca. 1340-1348 (Medieval). Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 126.8 x 184.9 cm. The Walters Art Museum, 37.468
Circle of Ferrer Bassa (Spanish, ca. 1290-1348), Triptych with Madonna and Child with the Crucifixion and the Annunciation, ca. 1340-1348 (Medieval). Tempera and gold leaf on panel, 126.8 x 184.9 cm. The Walters Art Museum, 37.468

Art historical, scientific, and technical research contribute to the careful treatment of this very rare and significant Spanish altarpiece, attributed to a Catalan master. The large Gothic triptych titled The Madonna and Child with the Crucifixion, the Annunciation, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Coronation of the Virgin is a striking example of Italian influence in Spain. (Carmen Albendea, Jennifer Giaccai)

See an interactive online presentation about the Catalan altarpiece created by the Walters.

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A Puzzling Piece: The Walters Spanish Processional Cross

Recently in the Objects Conservation lab at the Walters, in collaboration with Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art at the Walters, Dr. Joaneath Spicer, this 15-16th century Spanish Processional Cross has been the subject of a year-long in-depth study and conservation treatment, funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.

Spanish Processional Cross, front (shown on the left above) and back (above right). The cross is from Zaragoza, Spain and dates to the 15-16th century. It measures 5.2 feet tall by 1.9 feet wide and is made of gilded-silver and enamel components attached to a wooden core.
Spanish Processional Cross, front (shown on the left above) and back (above right). The cross is from Zaragoza, Spain and dates to the 15-16th century. It measures 5.2 feet tall by 1.9 feet wide and is made of gilded-silver and enamel components attached to a wooden core.

This study was undertaken to learn more about the cross’ history and to carry out conservation treatment in order to make the cross stable enough to be on display in the galleries.

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Cartonnage: Fragments of a Mummy Wrapping (Part II)

By using examination techniques that do not damage the object, it is possible to characterize many of the materials that were used to create this cartonnage. Now that conservators know more about these materials, it is possible to make recommendations about how best to store this object so that it will not continue to deteriorate. The fragment will be placed in a closed container to protect the fragile surface from accidental damage and the Egyptian blue from exposure to the air. It will be kept in the dark or in low light to protect the orpiment.

Fragment of mummy cartonnage with a seated jackal-headed god.  Egyptian, 6th-1st century B.C.E. 3 1/4 x 5 13/16 inches.  Gift of Ms. Devera Glazer-Schoenberg, Walters Art Museum 78.5.
Fragment of mummy cartonnage with a seated jackal-headed god. Egyptian, 6th-1st century B.C.E.
3 1/4 x 5 13/16 inches. Gift of Ms. Devera Glazer-Schoenberg, Walters Art Museum 78.5.

The blue background of this cartonnage fragment appears very dark when viewed under normal conditions, but under the microscope, a brighter blue color can be seen underneath.  This blue resembles Egyptian blue, a synthetic pigment made by heating a combination of copper, white sand, chalk and a sodium salt such as natron.  The result is a solid, glassy material that can be used to make whole objects, such as this small covered jar in the Walters Art Museum.

Egyptian blue amphora with cover.  Egyptian, 1380-1300 B.C.E.4 15/16 x 4 inches.  Walters Art Museum 47.1
Egyptian blue amphora with cover. Egyptian, 1380-1300 B.C.E.
4 15/16 x 4 inches. Walters Art Museum 47.1

Egyptian blue can also be ground up as a pigment and used to paint.  When it is first applied, it appears brilliant blue, but over time the pigment oxidizes as it is exposed to air, and becomes darker.

Continue reading Cartonnage: Fragments of a Mummy Wrapping (Part II) →

Cartonnage: Fragments of a Mummy Wrapping (Part I)

Cartonnage is the painted material that covers many mummy bundles.  Like a plaster cast, it is made of layers of fabric (usually linen) that are wrapped around the bundle and then covered with a smooth, white layer of plaster.  After it is dry, the plaster surface can be painted with designs and Egyptian religious symbols.

Mummy and painted cartonnage of an unknown woman.  Egyptian, ca. 850-750 B.C.E.Walters Art Museum, 79.1
Mummy and painted cartonnage of an unknown woman. Egyptian, ca. 850-750 B.C.E.
Walters Art Museum, 79.1
Side view.  Walters Art Museum, 79.1
Side view.
Walters Art Museum, 79.1

The Walters Art Museum includes a number of examples of cartonnage, including several small fragments.  One of these fragments was recently in the Objects Conservation lab so that conservators could evaluate its condition and make recommendations about how best to preserve it.

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Consider the Coconut

Today, coconut is a common food, whether baked in a cake, stirred into a curry, or eaten fresh from the shell.  Because it is possible to buy coconuts at nearly any supermarket or grocery store, they are not considered especially rare or unusual.  But this has not always been the case.

A cross-section of a whole coconut.  The smooth, greenish skin and fibrous brown husk (also known as coir) are typically removed before coconuts are shipped to stores.  The copra, or interior of the coconut, contains the white flesh and coconut milk, both of which can be eaten.  The thin, dark shell can be used for a variety of purposes, and is sometimes incorporated into art objects.
A cross-section of a whole coconut. The smooth, greenish skin and fibrous brown husk (also known as coir) are typically removed before coconuts are shipped to stores. The copra, or interior of the coconut, contains the white flesh and coconut milk, both of which can be eaten. The thin, dark shell can be used for a variety of purposes, and is sometimes incorporated into art objects.

Coconut palms are not native to Europe, and in the past coconuts were imported or traded from faraway places in Asia and the new world.  The rarity, cost, and exotic nature of coconut shells meant that they were often treated as precious materials and mounted with silver, gold, enamels, or jewels.  During the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, coconuts were often included in treasuries and chambers of wonders.

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Henry Walters’s Watches

The Walters Art Museum contains a large collection of historic watches, many of which were collected by Henry Walters. Mr. Walters appears to have collected the watches mainly with an eye toward the beauty of their cases. Many of the watch cases qualify as miniature works of art in enamel, metalwork, and gemstone; yet recent conservation work has shown that the clockworks inside the cases may often be later replacements, pastiches, or else incomplete and non-functional.

The Walters Art Museum contains a large collection of historic watches, many of which were collected by Henry Walters.  Mr. Walters appears to have collected the watches mainly with an eye toward the beauty of their cases.  Many of the watch cases qualify as miniature works of art in enamel, metalwork, and gemstone; yet recent conservation work has shown that the clockworks inside the cases may often be later replacements, pastiches, or else incomplete and non-functional.

Henry Walters’s interest in the exterior beauty of his watches is evident in the care he took to display them in his personal collection.  The archives of the Walters Art Museum include Mr. Walters’s design sketches for watch display stands, as well as several surviving examples of the finished product.

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The Conservator’s Toolbox: X-radiography of a Japanese cloisonné enamel

At the Walters, we regularly take x-rays of objects, paintings, and books; this allows us to have “x-ray vision” and look inside objects.

An objects conservator in the Conservation Window with a set of cloisonné enamels which shows how they were made and holding the x-ray of the Dragon vase, the subject of this post. The Dragon vase is on the desk in the nest of tissue, lying down to keep it safe from falling over.

Recently in the Conservation Window, an objects conservator was talking with museum visitors about how conservators use x-radiography to non-destructively learn about how objects were made and also assess their condition, using a 20thcentury Japanese cloisonné enamel vase as an example.

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My Iraqi Cat

Our chief conservator, Terry Drayman-Weisser, has returned from Iraq. She is the director of conservation and technical research, at the Walters Art Museum, and travels to Iraq to assist with conservation efforts there.

Anyone who knows me well will immediately suspect something amiss with this blog title. I am allergic to the touch of cats, and they usually don’t show any interest in me anyway, unless they are up-to-no-good. But not in Iraq.

Here is a love story: In the summer of 2011 I made my third trip to Erbil, Iraq to teach ivory preservation at the Iraqi Institute for the Conservation of Antiquities and Heritage. As usual, I arrived exhausted after a 13 hour overnight journey. As I entered Jessie’s (the academic director’s) house where I always stay, I discovered to my horror that a cat had taken up residence. Even though cats and I have never gotten along, I have always admired their mesmerizing beauty. But this cat was painfully thin except for its belly that was swollen with a protruding angry red seam laced with large dark stitches. I was determined to stay as far away as possible. And I did. But the next day Jessie asked if I would accompany her to the vet so the cat could get its stitches removed. What could I say? The cat was boxed up, we climbed into a taxi and headed for the vet.

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The Walters’ Mona Lisa

Few are aware that one of the best and earliest copies of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is right here in Baltimore at the Walters. The painting is on display in the the museum’s 16th-century art galleries. Recent excitement surrounding the technical examination of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa prompted a re-examination in late September of the x-ray of the Walters’ copy.

Few are aware that one of the best and earliest copies of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is right here in Baltimore at the Walters. The painting is on display in the the museum’s 16th-century art galleries.

The Painting

one of the earliest copies of the Mona Lisa
one of the earliest copies of the Mona Lisa

Recent excitement surrounding the technical examination of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa prompted a re-examination in late September of the x-ray of the Walters’ copy. This is one of the finest of the nine good, early known copies of Leonardo’s famous painting (ca. 1630-60) and is almost identical in size (31 ¼ x 20 in.). The artist carefully reproduced Leondardo’s sfumato (smoke-like) technique, blurring the contours of the woman and landscape as if seen through an atmospheric haze. In the original, this technique contributes to the woman’s enigmatic smile.

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