Hidden nativity scene arrives just in time for Christmas

Art conservators from Northumbria University have received an early Christmas gift in the form of a secret 16th century nativity painting. The conservators were hard at work investigating damage to a 400-year-old depiction of the beheading of Saint John the Baptist from the Bowes Museum’s collection when they discovered the nativity scene hiding beneath the painting.

X-ray analysis picked up outlines of a baby in a manger with a halo around his head, angels with haloes and possibly one of the wise men or Magi, hands outstretched as if holding out a gift, in a stable. The x-ray also picked up gold leaf in the halo around the baby’s head, which was commonly used in religious paintings of the period.

Thought to have once formed part of a larger altar piece, the Saint John the Baptist was acquired by the founders of the Bowes Museum, John and Joséphine Bowes, in the 19th century. Painted in a late medieval style, the canvas was spread over a large wooden panel, as was typical of the period. The deterioration of the wooden structure led Bowes Museum curators to enlist the help of experts from Northumbria University’s Conservation of Fine Art MA to assess the damage. Little did they know what astonishing discovery was lurking beneath the painting’s surface.

It really is quite unusual to find paintings hidden in this way and to discover a nativity scene in this detail and just before Christmas was really incredible”, said Nicky Grimaldi, Senior Lecturer in Conservation of Fine Art at Northumbria University. Grimaldi was also astounded to uncover lines over the x-ray image, which she believes may be preparatory drawings. This suggests the nativity scene was probably copied from an original drawing or cartoon.

Dr Jane Whittaker, Head of Collections at the Bowes Museum, said she was “simply delighted and astounded to discover that this 16th century work was hiding such a wonderful secret and to find out at this time of year is really quite fortuitous”.

Grimaldi and forensic scientist Dr Michelle Carlin are now conducting further examination of the painting to determine its age, background and history.

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