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One of the Cleveland Museum of Art's greatest paintings re-installed for centennial year
Conservation in Focus – Caravaggio. Image by David Brichford, courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

CLEVELAND, OH.- After two years, conservation of one of the Cleveland Museum of Art’s masterpieces, Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, 1606–7 is complete. This is the first time the painting has been conserved since coming to the museum in 1976. In 2014, extensive treatment began on the work, whose original paint layer was obscured by clouded, cracked varnish and retouching. The cleaning of the painting was the subject of a Conservation in Focus exhibition during the summer of 2014, when a sophisticated paintings conservation lab was constructed in the museum’s Julia and Larry Pollack Focus Gallery, where visitors were able to watch the museum’s Conservator of Paintings Dean Yoder and ask questions. The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew returns on view May 17, 2016, in the Reid Gallery (gallery 217) in time for the museum’s centennial summer celebrations. Visitors will be able to fully appreciate the newly conserved Baroque masterpiece, the largest painting by Caravaggio in America.

The painting depicts the martyrdom of Saint Andrew, who was sentenced to death for his missionary activity in Greece. While bound to the cross, he preached for two days to an increasingly sympathetic crowd. Finally pressured to release Andrew, his executioners were paralyzed while trying to untie him. Caravaggio portrays the moment when Andrew’s desire to be martyred has been fulfilled. In an unusual interpretation of the subject, Caravaggio presented the event as intimate and private rather than as a gruesome public spectacle.

Caravaggio revolutionized Italian painting and influenced generations of artists with the naturalism of his figures and the powerful manner in which he used light and shadow. As a result of the conservation work, the artist’s clarity and depth of tone have returned to the picture. Visitors will see more detail in the restored masterpiece since cracking, discolored varnish and overpaint had obscured the artist’s rich color palette and subtle transitions between light and darkness. Another critical aspect of the conservation was the complete removal of older residues of an oil-containing varnish, which prevented penetration of the varnish into the paint layer. The new varnish provides a rich saturation, revealing Caravaggio’s nuanced color blending and refined paint application. The dramatic realism and luminosity of the figures in the restored painting will astonish and transfix visitors.

The painting’s perimeter is now more visible, since previous restorations covered an inch of each edge with thick, brown paint, which has been removed. Beneath this artificial brown border were islands of original paint that enabled Yoder to reconstruct the edges, resulting in a more spacious picture plane. The work has been placed in a new, historically sensitive frame that allows more of the previously hidden edges to be revealed, providing more space around the figures.

During conservation, Yoder discovered numerous incisions and other marks that likely functioned as a form of under drawing, helping position figures and define contours. These shed light on Caravaggio’s notoriously mysterious working process. Preliminary scientific analysis has revealed that in The Crucifixion of Saint Andrew, Caravaggio used two pigmented preparatory ground layers, with one composed of an oil binder and the other a water-based glue, making the painting vulnerable to changes in humidity.

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