Conservation Germany

Virgin unveiled after acid attack

Exhibition in Dresden reunites Dürer painting with altarpiece following a 21-year restoration

The Virgin of Sorrows in 1988 after acid was thrown at it (left) and in the ensemble today

LONDON. A panel from Dürer’s first major altarpiece has been restored after a 21-year treatment following a devastating acid attack in Munich. The Virgin of Sorrows has been unveiled in Dresden, where it was reunited with the rest of the altarpiece of the Seven Sorrows for the first time in nearly five centuries.

Dürer painted the Seven Sorrows and the Seven Joys of the Virgin in 1496, at the age of 25. It may have been commissioned by Frederick the Wise for his palace church at Wittenberg. The altarpiece was probably dismem­bered during the Refor­mation, and the seven panels of the Sorrows (of the life of Christ) passed to the artist Lucas Cranach the Younger, whose father had been a court painter. In 1588 Cranach’s estate sold them to the Saxon art collection in Dresden, and they later went to the city’s Gemäldegalerie.

At the centre of the 1.8m-high ensemble was a panel of the Virgin of Sorrows. This was separated from the Seven Sorrows, eventually ending up at the Benediktbeuern Abbey in Bavaria. In 1804, with the secularisation of the monasteries, the Virgin of Sorrows went to Munich, where it now belongs to the Alte Pinakothek. There was also a similar set of panels of the Seven Joys, but these were lost, and are known only from mid-16th century drawings by the Cranach workshop.

It was not until 1934 that German art historian Ernst Buchner suggested that the Munich and Dresden panels had originally formed part of the same altarpiece. However, they were never brought together for a temporary display. This was initially because of the Second World War, then the division of Germany, and finally the acid attack.

In April 1988 the Virgin of Sorrows was among five Dürer paintings at the Alte Pinakothek which were subjected to an horrific assault. Hans-Joachim Bohlmann, who was mentally disturbed, threw two bottles of sulphuric acid at them. On the Virgin of Sorrows, the acid directly hit her face, dripping down her blue gown.

Although the gallery activated an emergency plan, the varnish of the Virgin of Sorrows was thin, and the acid quickly penetrated through the paint layer and into the ground. Neutralising the acid was done using an ion-exchange resin. The complexity of the restoration, and the fact that five Dürers were badly damaged, meant that conservation was very slow. The lost areas were filled with wax-chalk, and retouching was done using powder paints bound with synthetic resin. Work on the Virgin of Sorrows, the last of the Dürers to be finished, was completed in 2009.

Dresden’s Seven Sorrows had been conserved in 1958, but recently they were investigated with x-rays and infrared reflectography. Together with the examination of the Virgin of Sorrows, it has now been confirmed that they did indeed form a single altarpiece.

In Dresden, the individual panels of the Seven Sorrows and the Virgin of Sorrows are being presented together in a temporary frame, giving an idea of their original appearance. Following the display in the exhibition “State of the Art” (until 7 November), the central panel will return to Munich, where it will once again be presented with the gallery’s other Dürers.

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