Back to all projects

The Resurrection by Peter Paul Rubens

For the first time in 80 years, the public have the opportunity to see a restored canvas by the great Flemish 17th-century painter from the collection of the State Hermitage.

Previously the picture was attributed to the school of Rubens, but as the result of a three-year project that included restoration work, laboratory examinations and scientific researches, it proved possible to establish that it is by Peter Paul Rubens himself.

Until 1934 the painting was in the Trinity Cathedral of the Alexander Nevsky Monastery and was known only from a few descriptions.

THE PROJECT WAS REALIZED
WITH THE SUPPORT OF
BP Exploration Operating Company Limited

1610-1611 The picture, which was painted by Rubens in 1610–11, was purchased by Catherine II.

1794 In 1794 she donated it, along with other works by foreign artists, to the newly-finished cathedral in the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. For over a hundred years, adorned the sanctuary of the cathedral and remained outside of the field of vision of specialists and did not enter into scholarly circulation.

1934 After the closure of the cathedral in 1934, the canvas was transferred to the Hermitage, put onto a roller and for almost 80 years remained inaccessible for study.

2012 It was only in 2012, after the opening of the Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Painting at the Hermitage’s Restoration and Storage Centre in Staraya Derevnya, that it became technically possible to unroll the enormous painting (482 × 278 cm) and set about restoring it.

Restoration

The restoration took around three years. Eight restoration artists were involved in the work under the leadership of Victor Korobov, the head of the laboratory.

The large size of the canvas, badly deformed as a result of the long time it spent on the roller, a considerable amount of old darkened overpainting covering losses of the original painting as well as the presence of layers of heavily darkened and soiled varnish determined the complexity of the restoration.

Detailed studies were made of the primer, paint layer, varnish and restorers’ additions. Infrared spectroscopy and x-rays were carried out, as well as mycological examination.

A picture in the light of visible UV luminescence with test areas of lacquer opening

The results obtained provided additional information for an understanding of the technical and technological aspect of how it was painted and assisted in the selection of optimal methods and solutions during the restoration.

3
Restoration
took around
three years

Cleaning the work of extraneous overpainting made it possible to identify the original paintwork, the style of which entirely accords with Rubens’s manner of painting in the first years after his return to Antwerp from Italy in December 1608. The dramatic angles from which the figures are depicted, the athletic bodies with exaggeratedly developed musculature and the extremely complicated movement are all features of the works that Rubens produced in the period when he was establishing himself as the greatest artist in Antwerp.

In the course of the restoration, it became clear that Rubens had not completed the painting, leaving it at the underpainting and body-painting stages in the lower part of the canvas. The most worked-up areas proved to be Christ’s torso and the figures of the two guards down below in the left foreground. Christ’s head remained in underpainting. Below, in the foreground of the composition, there is also a very noticeable difference between the worked-up character of the guard’s right arm and his right hand, resting on the shield, which has not gone beyond underpainting.

Stripping paper removal

As already became clear at the early stages of restoration, The Resurrection had not survived in its original form. The painting has been cut off on the right and has three extensions (made later, but still in the 17th century): two of them narrow – one horizontal, the other vertical, and a broad rounded one. The original format of the painting was rectangular. The figure of Christ was placed by the left-hand edge at the top, and below was the guard writhing on the ground, shielding his face with a hand from the bright light. On the right, the whole composition was closed off by the figure of a running guard in armour. That figure was originally shown completely, as is confirmed by a preparatory drawing (in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam) that includes a depiction of the man’s legs, his bent arm and hand clutching the hilt of his sword. Until now researchers had been unable to connect this sketch with any painting. The guard was running directly at Christ. Probably it was in order to neutralize this aggressive element that the figure of the guard was partially cut away and the painting’s original format changed. As a result, the figure of Christ was moved from the edge to the central axis of the painting and thus occupied the dominant position not just semantically, but also in terms of its geometric position in the composition.

From certain indirect evidence it is possible to surmise that that the large-format painting was commissioned from Rubens for the main altar of the Dominican Church in Antwerp (now St Paul’s) by the monastery’s prior, Michael Ophovius, but while Rubens was working on The Resurrection Ophovius was moved elsewhere. His successor, Joannes Boquetius, most probably had his own ideas of how the church should be decorated and commissioned the artist to paint pictures of lesser size and on different subjects. Perhaps that is why The Resurrection was never completed.

The artist-restorers of the State Hermitage’s Laboratory for the Scientific Restoration of Easel Painting who worked on Rubens’s painting were:

Viktor Korobov head of the laboratory
Sergei Bogdanov
Pavel Davydov
Maxim Lapshin
Andrei Tsvetkov
Valeriy Brovkin
Andrei Krupenko
Alexei Nikolsky
Dmitry Shevchenko
The curator of the exhibition is
Natalia Gritsai Candidate of Art Studies, head of the Sector of 13th–18th-Century Painting in the State Hermitage’s Department of Western European Fine Art.
THE PROJECT WAS REALIZED
WITH THE SUPPORT OF

BP Exploration Operating Company Limited