Saint John the Baptist gets a makeover at the Art Institute

By Puja Bhattacharjee

A newly restored “Scenes from the life of Saint John the Baptist” by Bartolommeo di Giovanni is among the paintings and objects on display in “Saints and Heroes: Art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe,” which opened on March 20 at the Art Institute of Chicago.

Scholars believe the painting adorned a Florentine home in the late 1400s. It was a spalliera painting– a painting hung at shoulder height. It was originally part of a series of paintings that would have decorated a room.

The artist used several wooden panels joined together to form one big canvas. He then applied gesso, a white layer made of chalk and animal glue, on the canvas. The white background ensured the colored paints stood out. In this painting, the artist had drawn incised lines to mark out the perspective of the building, says Daniela Leonard, fellow in paintings conservation at the Art Institute.

Before this painting could go on display, it was treated and restored to its near original form. “The treatment undertaken for this painting was relatively last minute and unplanned. It had earlier been viewed in storage with poor lighting and was believed to be suitable for display as it was,” says Leonard. Not until the painting was brought up to the conservation lab for reframing did the curator and conservationists decide that it needed restoration.

The painting had been previously restored back in the 1960s. The restorers toyed with the idea of painting on top of the old restoration to better match the original surroundings. But they decided against it. “It was easier to remove the older restoration and then apply our own paint as needed,” says Leonard.

Photo at top: Scenes from the life of St. John the Baptist by Bartolommeo di Giovanni (Puja Bhattacharjee/MEDILL)