Oud Holland

Review of: 'Flesh, gold and wood' (2021)

November 2023


Review of: Emmanuelle Mercier, Ria De Boodt, and Pierre-Yves Kairis (eds.), Flesh, gold and wood. The Saint-Denis Altarpiece in Liège and the question of partial paint practices in the sixteenth century, Proceedings of the conference held at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage in Brussels, 22–24 October 2015, Brussels [Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage] 2020

The editors of Flesh, gold and wood have assembled a volume that is as rich in scholarship as it is beautiful. From the preface by Manfred Koller, through 20 bilingual chapters (English and French) filled to the brim with observations and discoveries, to a four-language glossary – this volume is impressive. It is a shining example of the depth and breadth of knowledge that can emerge from analytical and archival investigations connected to a major restoration campaign. It is also the kind of volume for which the Belgian Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage (KIK/IRPA) is justly renowned.1

According to Emmanuelle Mercier, the lead editor and director of the project team, the KIK/IRPA conservators began in the 1990s to document a partially polychromed altarpiece and predella in the south transept of the church of Saint-Denis in Liège. Then, in preparation for the two-year project in Brussels (March 2012 to April 2014), the team dismantled portions of the monumental structure, which stands 4.79 meters tall. However, they did not disassemble the object completely because most of the carved blocks of wood were still held together with the original, handmade, forged nails and wooden dowels. Features like intact original fasteners, along with other discoveries – e.g., the reddish impregnation coating, the lack of remains of ground layers in deep folds of the reliefs, and the lack of traces of lye treatment – raised significant questions that challenged the credible hypothesis held in advance of the project that the partial polychromy was connected to nineteenth-century stripping.2 As work progressed, the interdisciplinary team not only reassessed assumptions about the polychromy and the dark appearance of the wood, but with new data for the wood, ground layers, paint, gilding, original coatings and secondary layers, they were able to establish a rich narrative for the Saint-Denis altarpiece, its changes over time and how this extraordinary object is linked to other European artistic traditions.

This review is organised according to the volume’s main themes. These include chapters devoted to analytical studies of physical material, which were keys for those exploring issues bound to restoration and degradation. There were four chapters that address stylistic and archival evidence for the reliefs in the main corpus box,3 the predella and the painted wings. A further nine chapters offer perspectives on partial polychromy in relation to surviving examples and traditions (from Antiquity to the Neo-Gothic era) in the Low Countries, German-speaking regions, France and Italy. Because the enormous body of data from wood, surface coatings, ground layers, paint and gilding are the foundations on which this book sits, this review will circle back to the object-based analytical studies, results that will no doubt continue to inspire further studies for years to come.

The Saint-Denis Altarpiece, Liège

Analytical studies of physical material
The first chapters are focussed mainly on descriptions of the object made for the high altar of the collegiate church of Saint-Denis, its treatment and analytical studies of physical material. However, as a prelude to these, Pierre-Yves Kairis(chapter one) set out the historical and political conditions from which to argue that the object was commissioned by Érard de La Marck, Prince-Bishop of Liège (1505–1538). According to Kairis, a new altarpiece was mentioned in 1522, and again in 1537 when it was cleaned for the first time. The cleaning was most likely carried out in situ on the high altar, where the object remained until the eighteenth century.

Emmanuelle Mercier (chapter two) followed this orientation with a brief description of the altarpiece’s iconography and attribution before a step-by-step examination of the material make-up of the multi-component retable and its treatment. The sculpted reliefs in the main caisse (385 x 325 x 55 cm.) represent the Passion of Christ and have been attributed to the Brussels workshop of the Borman family of sculptors. The carved predella (94 x 327.4 x 50 cm.) is decorated with scenes from the life of Saint-Denis, wearing magnificent green gloves, while the surviving painted wings include scenes of the Life of Christ – elements that have been associated with workshops in Liège. Mercier then introduced the range of hypotheses that the project team pursued to explain how diverse components were manufactured, and to explain the appearance of the object prior to and after conservation treatment. They started with the hypothesis that the altarpiece remained unpolychromed until the nineteenth century, when it was partially polychromed after Neo-Gothic fashion.4 Mercier furthermore explained distinctions between fully polychromed objects, and those that are partially polychromed or half polychromed, among other variants.

The hypotheses raised by Mercier are addressed by many of the other authors, starting with Jana Sanyova (chapter three), who presented analytical results for paint, gilding and wood coatings. The evidence presented in chapter three responded directly to the question posed at the beginning of the project: Was the partial polychromy original, or was it the result of a later intervention? The analytical results confirm quite effectively the authenticity of the partial polychomy. At this point, such results might have meant that their mission was accomplished, but it is gratifying that they did not stop there. Sanyova’s interpretations of the stratigraphy and isolated constituents of the paint and coatings, coupled with the dendrochronological results from Pascale Fraiture (chapter five), established firmly that many, if not all, surviving elements of the altarpiece could feasibly have been produced in the early 1530s. Armed with dendrochronological data for individual components of wood from the reliefs, the main caisse, the predella and wings, along with a range of material evidence that included the characterization of coatings, varnishes and secondary layers added during restorations between 1824 and 1885, all other authors could stake a stronger claim when discussing attributions and ambiguous archival sources.

Restoration and degradation
Mercier and her team used to best advantage the opportunities before and during conservation treatment to reflect on how significant additions in the past have impacted on the object’s current appearance, en route to determining how to recover an appearance that was closer to the original. These reflections were captured by Fanny Cayron (chapter four), whose discoveries in archival sources enliven discussions of restorations of the Saint-Denis altarpiece in the nineteenth century. Cayron identified sources that support physical differentiations between original elements and those added, for instance, by the Blanchaert brothers between 1882 and 1884. She identified references to bronzine retouchings on old, perhaps original gilding carried out by Désiré Gérard, and additions of new gilding with pure gold leaf on a mixture of lead white. Her research was also important for interpreting Sanyova’s characterization of a pigmented oleo-resinous varnish with turpentine that was responsible in part for significant darkening overall. In short, this work offered valuable guidance for reading the much-changed surfaces, and for appreciating yet more the documented themes discussed by the Guild of Saint Thomas and Saint Luke during a visit in 1876. Their respect for partial polychromy, without additions of new polychromy to cover the whole, reflect ideas about heritage preservation that were then still emerging,5 and which still form foundations for contemporary conservation ethics.

The restoration work of 18 conservator-restorers and trainees on the caisse and sculptural groups was taken up by Mercier (chapter three), while somewhat later in the volume, Claire Dupuy and Dominique Verloo (chapter ten) present their study of the four panels from the retable wings that are kept in the church of Saint-Denis. During restorationbetween 2016 and 2019, they accounted for the structure, position, and construction of the images and their framing devices, which demonstrated their relationships within the carved altarpiece. They also accounted for diverse restorations in advance of choosing their approach. Thereafter (although not immediately, in terms of the order of chapters in the volume) Ria De Boodt and Brigitte D’Hainaut-Zveny (chapter 13) tackled difficulties inherent to reading degraded surfaces and interpreting what is authentic, and what is not.

Stylistic and archival evidence
Catheline Périer-D’Ieteren (chapter six) compared the altarpiece and especially characteristics of the sculptures in the main caisse with works securely attributed to the Borman family, such as the analogous Passion altarpiece in Güstrow. Thereafter, Michel Lefftz (chapter seven) offered his interpretations of the predella. Lefftz emphasized the collaboration between sculptors, painters and woodworkers in the Borman workshop, and potential interactions with sculptors and painters associated with the court of Margaret of Austria. Based on the dendrochronological data (chapter five) he could demonstrate the coherence of elements between the predella and caisse, rather than how they contrast.

Emmanuel Joly (chapter eight) scrutinized the accounts of the church of Saint-Denis for 1533, which record significant payments to a painter named Lambert, dated 11 years after Louis Chokier (d. 1526) suggested a new altarpiece and rood screen for the collegiate church, and three years before the altarpiece was first cleaned. Joly’s close reading of the entries, and contextualization with other archival material, show that the painter named Lambert (perhaps Lambert Lombard, 1505-1566 was paid a substantial sum that reflects the importance of this painter’s role in the creation of the altarpiece. Dominique Allart (chapter nine) considered the iconography and attribution of what remains of the upper wings, and the painted wings of the predella. She drew on IRR to account for details in underdrawings, and when comparing IRR with the painted surfaces, Allart considered that the final product reflects the collective efforts of many hands in a workshop, likely the workshop of Lambert Lombard. 

Perspectives on partial polychromy
Delphine Steyaert (chapter 11) took up how medieval partial polychromy in the Saint-Denis altarpiece was perceived and interpreted by craftsmen working between 1840 and the early part of the twentieth century. Their neo-Gothic altarpieces for churches (new or existing) in Belgium, and nineteenth-century mindsets and practices,6 offered points of reference for the initial hypothesis about nineteenth-century partial polychromy. Steyaert compared two altarpieces made for the church of Saint Waudru in Mons, and another for the church of Afsnee, whose makers were clearly influenced by the Saint-Denis altarpiece.

The remaining chapters in the volume open out onto comparative studies with diverse approaches and scholarly themes, which emerged either during the research or during the 2015 international conference. Brigitte D’Hainaut-Zveny (chapter 14) took up “chromatic reduction” in relation to the Saint-Denis carved reliefs, with a review of traditions that include monochromy and grisaille, as a way to contextualise the altarpiece’s distinctive features. Julien Chapuis (chapter 15) observed that partial polychromy could enhance sculptures crafted from gold, ivory or porphyry, where the metal, tusk, tooth or stone was left visible and recognizable. He argued that because these materials are intrinsically or symbolically valuable, it was desirable for craftsmen between Antiquity and the fifteenth century to leave portions of precious material exposed, even if explanations for partially polychromed wood are more difficult.

Emmanuelle Mercier and Benoît Van den Bossche (chapter 16) followed this with their appreciation for La Vierge de Berselius, a partially polychromed Virgin and Child attributed to the Swabian sculptor, Daniel Mauch, who settled in Liège in 1529. Within this the authors offer deeper understanding for how the exquisite sculptures produced in Mauch’s large workshop in the abbey church of Saint Jacques (on the same side of the Meuse to the south of Saint-Denis) are a link to and perhaps inspiration for those working in the Borman workshop. Dagmar Preising, Michael Rief and Barbara Rommé (chapter 17) pursue similar connections to the origins, appearance and aesthetics of wooden sculpture made in German-speaking regions and the Netherlands. They look at the appreciation of specific materials, including ivory, alabaster, gold, silver and bronze, but also diverse woods to demonstrate how the intrinsic and aesthetic qualities of woods were appreciated in the sixteenth century.

Ulrich Schäfer and Regina Urbanek (chapter 18) focus on an organ case from 1541 in Kempen, northwest of Düsseldorf. During conservation treatment in the 1990s, Professor Urbanek noticed that the heads were painted over a ground layer, according to late-medieval tradition, while other zones did not receive a ground. This work established links to partial polychromy through remaining traces, which are few because the wood was badly damaged when the polychromy was removed with caustic soda. Sophie Guillot de Suduiraut and Juliette Levy-Hinstin (chapter 19) presented examples of partial polychromy produced in the Upper Rhine region, Switzerland and Swabia that are preserved in French museums, with discussion aided by in-depth materials analysis of two of these examples. Kim Woods (chapter 20) explored patterns of polychromy on alabaster tomb reliefs, altarpieces, individual sculptures, and reliefs. She argued, via documentary and technical sources, that partial polychromy was the norm for alabaster, a material with natural luminosity, which unlike wood could be especially useful for simulating caucasian flesh tones. Finally, Marco Collareta (chapter 21) briefly outlined events that shaped grey-tone painting (grisaille) and monochrome sculpture in Italy between the year 1300 and in the aftermath of the Council of Trent.

This brief run-through of chapters and main themes should make clear this reviewer’s deep appreciation for the authors and editors, and the substantial achievements that led to this volume. Producing such a book is, of course, a labour of love, which means that at times, love can lead to a certain blindness. In this respect, it is the duty of a reviewer to address weaknesses, and here perhaps the biggest weakness is related to lack of fine-tuning. For a book that is so beautifully illustrated, and produced at such expense, one would have expected more attention (time and expense) devoted to copy-editing. The chapters written in English are, unfortunately, littered with frequent misspellings and grammatical errors that interrupt otherwise strong arguments. This is a shame as these errors could have been easily remedied. I therefore urge KIK/IRPA staff to engage a native-English speaking copy editor with competences in conservation before publishing another such volume. Another perhaps smaller issue is heavy endnotes. Relegating important information (e.g., on the dendrochronological findings) to endnotes, rather than working this information into the main text, might have proved easier for the publisher, but this strategy is not helpful to readers wishing to follow the research process from start to finish. 

Object-based analytical studies
That said, and to round off this review on the high note that the volume deserves, it is worth circling back to the object-based analytical studies. The findings presented by Jana Sanyova and Pascale Fraiture were not only pivotal for the historical research on the Saint-Denis altarpiece and its place in late-medieval workshop practices. Their work also confirmed the place of partial polychromy in the tradition of Netherlandish carved altarpieces.

Sanyova (chapter three) built on decades of IRPA research focussed on the characterisation of materials and workshop practices connected to Brabantine polychromy in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Based on her vast experience, she recognised within the larger body of diverse data three specific pieces of information that demonstrate conclusively that the coloured materials were contemporary with the creation of the altarpiece. Firstly, the stratigraphy in a microsample of paint, taken from the area depicting Christ’s side wound in the Descent from the Cross relief, shows that the blood was painted over the skin tone. Sanyova established that this paint is based on a madder lake (Rubia tinctorum L.), a dyestuff with strong connections to medieval textile industry in Flanders, rather than New World cochineal (Dactylopius coccus O. Costa) or a later synthetic colourant. Secondly, the red lake contained powdered glass, which is now broadly recognized as a reasonably frequent contemporary additive to lakes to hasten drying. Thirdly, the skin tone itself is a mixture of lead white, red earth, red lead (minimum) and natural azurite. Even without vermilion, this mixture points directly to polychromy produced in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, rather than nineteenth. Her multi-analytical approach and results for the wood coatings furthermore expanded what is known of sixteenth-century workshop practices in the Low Countries, and restoration practices in the nineteenth century. For example, the data confirmed that the uniform reddish tone on the reliefs, caisse and predella is a benzoin resin (résine benjoin), with which the sculptors impregnated the wood prior to assembly, likely as much for its colour as for protection from micro-organisms. She also identified a brown-black bistre component (from soot), which was applied to some or all areas, including those that would receive paint. Much more could be said about this chapter, but it will suffice to say here that it is one of the more important in the volume. The editors likely situated it before the work devoted to dendrochronology – which otherwise might have come first had the argument followed a sequence from the support to surface – because the evidence responds so effectively to the question posed at the beginning of the project about the authenticity of the polychromy.

As for Pascale Fraiture’s dendrochronological dating in chapter five, this work contributed to nearly all other chapters that dealt with the attribution of the altarpiece, which is to say that these results were not only holistic, but decisive. Fraiture examined samples from 77 individual elements from the ensemble, which revealed a provenance for oak wood from 41 trees. Estimated felling dates and terminus post quem for production are presented in a handy table spread over four pages. According to Fraiture, elements in the sculpted reliefs in the main caisse and predella, the caisses themselves, and architectural elements on the wing panels were made from oak trees grown two global zones, mainly the south-eastern Baltic region (so-called Baltic 1) with a smaller number of pieces derived from the Meuse-Moselle basins. The ways in which the oak logs were split prior to export: into quarters, 10 cm. thick and c. 30 cm. wide, and perhaps up to 4 m. long, helps to explain for example the thickness of reliefs. The majority of these pieces had the pith and cambium removed before shipment. Yet, Fraiture could establish relative and absolute felling dates, and a terminus post quem for, among other elements, the main caisse (after 1523), its carved reliefs (1523), the predella (after 1516) and its carved reliefs (1513). Fraiture furthermore identified a connection between a board from the architectural ornaments on the main caisse associated with the Borman workshop in Brussels, and a board from the same tree that was utilized in the painted wing panels of the predella. This link is particularly interesting because it suggests, as the team has, that the altarpiece with reliefs were sculpted and half-polychromed in Brussels, then delivered to Liège with unpainted wing panels.

To conclude, this book is a triumph. It demonstrates just how far multidisciplinary research devoted to polychrome sculpture has come, well beyond the coattails of Paul Philippot, Johannes Taubert and Michael Baxandall. These predecessors would, no doubt, be most impressed with how the combined talents of conservators, materials scientists and art historians have moved studies of polychrome sculpture so far forward. Clearly, the project was a triumph too: it led to a change in status for the altarpiece, which is one of the largest to be preserved in Belgium and, as the result of thoughtful restoration, arguably one of the most beautiful. In 2021, the altarpiece from the church of Saint-Denis in Liège was added to the list of objects with the heritage status of Treasure of the French Community of Belgium.

Noëlle L. W. Streeton
Professor of Conservation
University of Oslo


1 KIK – Koninklijk Instituut voor het Kunstpatrimonium / IRPA – Institut royal du Patrimoine artistique.

2 J. Taubert, ‘Chapter 8. On the surface and finish of so-called unpainted late Gothic wooden sculptures’, in Polychrome sculpture: Meaning, form, conservation, M. D. Marincola (ed.), Los Angeles 2015 [originally published 1961], p. 93; D. Steyaert, ‘The conservation of polychromy on medieval sculptures in Belgium in the nineteenth century and its perception by the Royal Monuments Commission of the time’, in Conservation in the nineteenth century, I. Brajer (ed.), London/Copenhagen 2013.

3 The main corpus box is usually referred to as a “caisse”, as opposed to “case”, the spelling used by the authors throughout the book.

4  Steyaert 2013 (note 2); and chapter 11 in: E. Mercier, R. De Boodt and P. Yves Kairis (eds.), Flesh, gold and wood, Brussels2020.

5 J. Ruskin’s Seven lamps of architecture, was first published in 1849. J. Ruskin, Seven lamps of architecture, London 1849.

6 Steyaert 2013; M. D.  Marincola and L. Kargère, The conservation of medieval polychrome wood sculpture. History, theory, practice, Los Angeles 2020.

Noëlle L. W. Streeton, ‘Review of: Flesh, gold and wood. The Saint-Denis Altarpiece in Liège and the question of partial paint practices in the sixteenth century’, Oud Holland Reviews, November 2023.