May 13, 2008 / 6:11 AM / 10 years ago

Secrets of 15th century Spanish altarpiece uncovered

DALLAS (Reuters Life!) - Paintings from a 15th century Spanish cathedral are the focus of a new exhibit that takes visitors back to an era when America was discovered, the Jews were expelled from Spain and the Islamic Moors were in defeat.

The exhibit, “Fernando Gallego and His Workshop: The Altarpiece from Ciudad Rodrigo”, at the Meadows Museum conveys a sense of what the worshipers in Castile, Spain would have gazed upon as they prayed, perhaps with furtive glances over their shoulder as the inquisition was gearing up.

Thanks to infrared reflectography, ultraviolet light and X-rays, researchers have also revealed how the artists themselves viewed the paintings as they came to life on the canvas -- including the changes they made.

Pointing to one of the panels depicting the creation of Eve, which shows her as she emerges from Adam’s ribs, museum director Mark Roglan explained some of the seemingly small but not insignificant shifts made by the artist.

“The head of Eve was much higher ... and she was not coming directly out of the ribs of Adam but her knees were bent like in prayer,” he explained during an interview.

“This is a major shift in the whole meaning of the painting itself. In the final painting she is coming out of rib, it is the main moment of creation. The other drawing shows us after creation as she is already praying,” he said.

Scholars reckon such changes were often theological and not artistic in nature, perhaps ordered by the clerical authorities who commissioned the works.

The creation depiction is one of 26 surviving panels from the cathedral’s main altarpiece on display at the Meadows at Southern Methodist University until July 27. They were created between 1480 and 1500.

All are exquisite in their detail and are considered among the most ambitious works by two of Spain’s most talented artists during the period -- Fernando Gallego and the hitherto virtually unknown Master Bartolome.

They shed light on the times, with the bad guys in many of the scenes drawn with Moor-like features, a clear attempt to show who the enemy was.

They also show biblical figures like Moses and others clad in the clothes of late 15th century Spain. Like U.S. mega-churches today which use rock bands and electric guitars, the Catholic Church during the 15th century also wanted to bring a contemporary feel to settings of worship.

Researchers at the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth did the X-rays and related work.

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