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Dirk Bouts Restoration

Dirk Bouts lived in Leuven and painted this Flemish masterpiece, the Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, in his typical style. The triptych, which is of exceptionally high artistic value, is considered to be one of the Flemish Primitive’s most important works. Bouts’ style is evident from the refined technique, the harmonious and balanced composition, the depiction of the landscape, the tall figures and the colouring.

M plans to restore and analyse the painting meticulously in order to enhance our knowledge about Dirk Bouts and his artistic practice. After its restoration, the triptych will be exhibited beside the already restored Last Supper by Dirk Bouts in Saint Peter’s Church, where both works have been preserved in situ for more than five centuries.
Interview with Marjan Debaene, ​Head of collections
What makes this work so special?
“Dirk Bouts was one of the Flemish Primitives, but the fact that he was a painter from Leuven is perhaps of even greater importance to M. The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus is one of the two masterpieces by Bouts which is still located in the place for which it was originally intended, almost 600 years after its creation. The work was commissioned in 1460 for a chapel inside Saint Peter’s Church, where it can be still be seen today. Bouts is the odd one out among the Flemish Primitives because his works are not overly dramatic. This is a good example of that. Erasmus’ face and posture appear to be more or less indifferent to his martyrdom. Bouts was sometimes known as the painter of silence due to this characteristic style.”

Why is the work being restored?
“The painting is very old and the last major restoration was done in 1952. The restoration of paintings is also a preventative measure to avoid permanent damage or loss. In the decades since it was last restored, a number of areas on the painting now require our attention and care. For example, there is a yellowing layer of varnish that must be removed and there are some problems with the paint. Throughout the years, the work has undergone minor changes in climate, and these affect the wooden surface on which it is painted. If the air becomes too damp, the wood expands, causing tiny cracks in the paint. If the space becomes warmer, the wood shrinks and there is too much paint on the panel. The result is that the paint detaches from the wood in certain places. This is called effective paint loss. These problems are minimal but we do have to intervene on time to prevent the situation from getting worse.”
 
What does such a restoration entail?
“The painting itself is cleaned completely and the yellow varnish and clumsy touch-ups are removed. The layer of paint is stabilized and repaired with accurate colours where necessary. We will also do various tests to expand our scientific knowledge about Bouts. We have many questions. We can establish the age of the wooden panel using dendrochronology (dendron: tree; chronos: time). We will also examine the painting under a UV lamp, which shines a blue light onto the work so that we can see whether there are multiple layers of paint and what might have been painted over. Restorers also use this technique at the beginning of the process to have an idea of the extent of the restoration required.”

What would we like to know about the work?
“It is impossible to predict if we will discover any new information, but there are some specific questions we would like to answer. For example, is the benefactor of the work actually depicted anywhere, and why are Saints Erasmus, Jerome and Bernard depicted together here? Some people interpret this as being a reference to the three forms of holiness: martyrdom, learning and mysticism. But is that really true?”
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