After a long process of restoration carried out thanks to sponsorship by BNP Paribas and its Foundation, The Conversion of Saint Paul, painted by Juan Bautista Maíno (Pastrana, 1581 Madrid, 1649), is being exhibited in the exhibition rooms of the MNAC
's permanent collection from 5 July to the end of September 2012.
Experts at the Museum have been able to identify The Conversion of Saint Paul as one of the few surviving works by Maíno, one of the painters who introduced the figurative art of Caravaggio and the circle of painters active in Rome in the early 17th century into Spain.
This canvas, which was badly damaged in 1985 in a fire in the municipal premises where it was kept, has formed part of the Museum's collection since 1952, though it was attributed to the Valencian painter José Vergara. This new attribution makes an important addition to the catalogue of a key artist for understanding 17th-century Spanish painting and one who has left very few works, no more than 44. As well as The Conversion of Saint Paul, the MNAC also keeps the Portrait of Fray Alonso de Santo Tomás (1648-1649) in its collections, one of the Dominican painter's last works.
To cast light on the work's genesis and attribution and explain the complex and delicate process of restoration its has undergone, The Conversion of Saint Paul is now being exhibited in a room of its own, along with a preliminary painting from a private collection, an X-ray showing the state it was in before work started, as well as a video explaining the process by which the canvas was restored.
For more than six months, the MNAC's experts, restorers and curators have worked together to recover this work, document it and now to exhibit it to the public.
The restoration of The Conversion of Saint Paul, which has been possible thanks to sponsorship by PNB Paribas and its Foundation, is part of the BNP Paribas for Arts programme launched by the BNP Paribas Foundation in 1994. This programme has made it possible to restore more than 200 works of art kept in museums all over the world.
The Conversion of Saint Paul. A new attribution
The painting of The Conversion of Saint Paul, entered the former Museu d'Art de Catalunya following its acquisition in 1952. It immediately drew the attention of Joan Ainaud de Lasarte (1919-1995), who at that time was General Director of art museums in Barcelona and who from the outset considered the possibility that the work was by an Italian painter. Since then the authorship of the painting has gradually become clearer, and it has now been possible to attribute it to Juan Bautista Maíno.
The Conversion of Saint Paul is a highly representative example of the work of Maíno. It brings to mind the Altarpiece of the Cuatro Pascuas (1612-1614), painted for the church of San Pedro Mártir in Toledo and now kept in the Museo del Prado and considered one of the most important works of 17th-century Spanish painting.
In view of the obvious stylistic, compositional and figurative similarities between the MNAC's work and the paintings mentioned, it seems reasonable to set a date for it after 1614, the year in which the altarpiece was finished.
In this work we can make out the main representative features that define the painter's graphic repertory and his language, which is characterised by vigorous draughtsmanship with painstakingly descriptive line, solid, well-sculpted figures built up with contrasting light, and vivid colours. The Conversion of Saint Paul shows Maíno's debt to Italian painting and, in particular, to the stimulating atmosphere of Rome, a city where the painter's presence is documented between 1605 and 1610.
Maíno's language also points to the the influence of Caravaggio (1571-1610), which in The Conversion of Saint Paul is also especially visible in the modelling of the hair on the angels and in the harsh look on Jesus's face. The latter shows striking similarities in style with the one on the canvas of The Trinity (1612-1620) belonging to the altarpiece on the same subject that Maíno painted for the convent of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción in Pastrana, his home-town.
The small number of works by Maíno adds to the importance of a work which, in the context of the MNAC's collection of Baroque art, also helps to diversify the different paths by which what is known as 17th-century naturalism entered the Iberian Peninsula.
There were already two naturalist trends present in the MNAC, the Seville trend, represented by a work from the youth of Diego Velázquez (1599-1660) a picture of Saint Paul done in about 1618-1620--, and the Valencian trend, represented by two compositions by the Ribalta family the Portrait of Ramon Llull, a composition by Francesc Ribalta (1565-1628) dated circa 1618, and a Saint Jerome (1618) by his son, Juan Ribalta (1596/1597-1628). To these, Maíno adds a third way, that of the Castilian painting of the 17th century, which until now was not visible in the collection and which completes the picture of the Spanish art of the time.
Unlike the other two trends, Maíno's work shows a new and unusual aspect as a result of the years he lived in Rome. When he returned, Maíno did not just mimetically transpose the figurative models he had been able to see there, but managed to reinterpret these sources with a renovating drive. The fact that he imported these novelties by way of an artistic journey is what differentiates Maíno's style from that of his contemporaries.
The restoration process
The Conversion of Saint Paul was in a severe state of degradation as a result of a fire that took place on 1 April 1985 in the municipal premises in Barcelona where the painting was kept, decorating one of the walls. During the fire, the work was subjected to high temperatures and was badly damaged. It showed blistering and pitting and had suffered considerable loss of paint, apart from the various unfortunate retouchings and re-paintings prior to the fire. What's more, the painting was covered with a dark layer that make it difficult to appreciate the quality. Analysis techniques were an imperative necessity in order to understand the composition, the draughtsmanship and the colours and to be able to undertake a rigorous diagnosis of its condition.
X-ray examination was decisive in order to rediscover the painting before intervening and revealed vigorous draughtsmanship with marked contrast between light and shade. It also showed up where the painter had had second thoughts during the creative process and helped locate the areas of wear in the polychrome.
One important point is that the painting had suffered a serious change of format, having had a piece cut off the right-hand side and a 7.5-centimetre strip of painted canvas added at the bottom. This strip had in fact previously been cut from the top of the canvas. This operation must have taken place when it was remounted at a date it was possible to establish thanks to a piece of newspaper that was found when the stretcher was unnailed. There was no date or name on the piece of newspaper, but research in the press archives identified it as a page from La Prensa of 15 May 1945.
Whatever the case, this last restoration the work underwent must have been before it entered the Museum in 1952, as in old photographs the Museum has it already appears with these modifications.
In view of the fragility of the original canvas, it was thought best not to remove the canvas on the back of the work, to change the stretcher for one with uniform perimetral tension and to respect the earlier retouching whenever it didn't cover the original paint, so as to avoid damaging an already badly mutilated painting.
The restoration work has also given us the chance to analyse the materials used in the painting and describe the painter's technique. The pigments and the way they are applied to obtain the right shades and the desired light effects, as well as the chemical composition of the earth preparation used as a base for applying the paint, coincide with those identified in other works by Maíno analysed by the laboratory of the Museo del Prado on the occasion of the exhibition devoted to the painter (2009-2010).