More than 500 years later and in the form of a pagan miracle, the virgins, the Christs, the saints, the angels and the Magi created by the master hand of Juan de Borgoña have come back to life. The discovery in 2020 in the church of the Santísima Trinidad de Alcaraz (Albacete) of eight original panels by one of the great artists of the Spanish Renaissance takes shape today, after a delicate year and a half restoration process, in what means one of the most relevant artistic news in Spain so far this century.
Under thick layers of plaster that had buried the originals and some crude and successive repainting carried out in the 17th and 18th centuries, the eight scenes were found, some of them battered by the effects of two fires, one before the repainting and the other after: The Annunciation, The Nativity, The Adoration of the Magi, The Presentation in the Temple, The Flight into Egypt, Jesus Among the Doctors, Lamentation over the Dead Christ Y The Mass of Saint Gregory.
This treasure, made up of the panels of Juan de Borgoña plus 18 sculptures of the time, most likely the work of Diego Copín de Holanda, rests these days in the basement of the Albacete Museum. From March 23 to June 26, it will be exhibited at the Museum of Santa Cruz in Toledo, along with other works certified or attributed to Burgundy from Toledo towns such as Illescas, Talavera de la Reina or Toledo itself (Triptych of the Last Supper of the cathedral), the Diocesan Museum of Cuenca (altarpiece of Carboneras de Gudazaón) and the Collegiate Church of Pastrana (Guadalajara), places where the artist and his circle had a great presence (in addition to Madrid, Ávila, Cuenca or Alcalá de Henares , in addition, of course, to the Cathedral of Toledo itself, whose Chapter House and Mozarabic Chapel keep the peaks of Burgundy’s work, commissioned by Cardinal Cisneros).
The paintings found in Alcaraz symbolize the assumption of Renaissance forms in a Spain where the fifteenth century had ended, the Gothic was fading and a small legion of painters were beginning to assume the creed quattrocentista Italian that arrived from Tuscany and Umbria —in the case of Juan de Borgoña, who carried out a training trip through Italy at the end of the fifteenth century, although it is not documented, the shadow of Ghirlandaio was especially intense— and also the teachings of the great Spanish-Flemish artists.
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Should we think that the undoubted dimension of this discovery and the relevance of these eight panels by a major artist of the Spanish Renaissance will lead to an interest on the part of the first Spanish art gallery, the Prado Museum, which only has one confirmed work of the painter [La Magdalena y tres santos dominicos]? “We have come up against the Church… but for now, the fact that these paintings are here today and that they are going to be exhibited in Toledo and later in Alcaraz, is already a big step… it is very important that they are going to be exhibited in the Museum of Santa Cruz, for the first time contextualized with other descents of John of Burgundy. Let’s go step by step”, answers the Deputy Minister of Culture of the Junta de Castilla-La Mancha, Ana Vanesa Muñoz. For its part, the Prado Museum, asked yesterday about this matter, declined to comment.
These are boards over two meters high, over a meter wide and weighing 100 kilos, executed using the tempera painting technique with an oil finish. The reasons for the unspeakable plastering and subsequent repainting may be due either to issues of baroque artistic taste of the time in which they were made, or to the mere fact that the Burgundian originals, deteriorated, no longer functioned as effective cult objects for those responsible ecclesiastical of that time. Alcaraz, today barely 800 inhabitants, was an important town in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, and the birthplace of one of the great Spanish Renaissance architects, Andrés de Valdenvira, who would leave his masterful mark on the monumental complexes of Úbeda and Baeza.
The process of healing of the panels, by Albacete-based restorer Pablo Nieto and his team from El Parteluz studio, has been extremely delicate, as he explains. “It has been necessary to tweak a lot, although it depends on each table. the annunciation, for example, was very pure, that of the Three Wise Men was much more deteriorated… in general, it had to be consolidated a lot because they had many wrinkles due to the heat. But the carnations, having them with lead white, have been super stable and resistant to time and heat, and the gold areas are the original ones, we have not replaced anything… it was of very good quality, I think it must have been gold from the Americas, from when they began to bring it to Spain”.
Today, in his studio in the center of Albacete, Nieto and his collaborators are applying themselves to retouching with all the care in the world the surface of The Mass of Saint Gregory, the only one of the eight tables that is still in the process of being restored, although there is little left on the operating table. “Technically, the work of uncovering on different surfaces and on different products, according to each color, has been very complicated and delicate; It has taken a lot of technique, a lot of patience and a lot of scalpel, because they are works that do not allow you to put much solvent on the surface. And in the case of this one in particular, the layer of plaster they put on it was very thin, which makes cleaning even more difficult.”
The person in charge of what is undoubtedly one of the most important artistic restorations of the 21st century in Spain clarifies an essential point: “We have followed purely museum criteria, much more than criteria of cult works, and on that we have agreed both like the Junta de Castilla-La Mancha like the ecclesiastical institution itself, which has respected everything. This was an essential condition to respect the value of these pieces”.
Indeed, this timely alliance of mutual interest between Church and State has not been easy, but it has ended up bearing fruit. The priest Luis Enrique Martínez, episcopal delegate of Patrimony in Albacete, has an impact on this: “10 years ago, this would not have been possible, we were not prepared, if you do not have the financial means, this cannot be done.” The total budget for the restoration and exhibition assembly process amounts to around 220,000 euros, paid for more or less equally between the Church and the Junta de Castilla-La Mancha. Ana Muñoz, art historian and Deputy Minister of Culture of the Board, remembers today: “When they removed the sheet and I saw that first, I didn’t believe it, and then two tears fell. I had the transition from Gothic to Renaissance in front of me.” Now there is only one fringe left: to see what the final destination of the “resurrected” panels will be, if they are returned to the main altar of La Trinidad in Alcaraz —the place for which they were painted— or their installation in another exhibition space inside or outside that temple.
One of the keys to what we could call thriller 16th century art came nearly 500 years later. In a study published in 1999, the historian and professor from Albacete, Aurelio Pretel, reported a revealing finding: he discovered that in the Factory Book of the Holy Trinity of Alcaraz, currently deposited in the Diocesan Archive of Albacete, it is documented that Juan de Borgoña , or one of his servants, received several payments for the realization of some paintings in that church between 1505 and 1509. The experts who today study the panels place its execution around 1509. That document was the definitive lever of a suspicion that, among scholars of the Renaissance footprint in La Mancha, it would end up being an open secret: that under those crude paintings and repainting executed between the 18th and 19th centuries, jewels were hidden, it was not known exactly which ones, or how many… not even if they were still there or they were lost forever.
“That document is critical to attribution. The panels are not signed by Juan de Borgoña, but they are charged by him. That, in addition to the obvious features of style and what is undoubtedly its aesthetics, and the high quality of execution, are the tests. It is more than an attribution, it is practically a certification”, explains the restorer who has worked the small miracle. The pagan miracle of bringing John of Burgundy back to life.
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George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.