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The Nativity scene (right) was discovered by x-ray under the painting of the beheading of John the Baptist (left). Source: Northumbria University and Bowes Museum

Nativity Scene Hidden Under Baptist Beheading Painting

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British experts investigating a 400-year-old damaged painting have made an amazing discovery. Beneath the artwork they found a painting that apparently dates to the medieval period. It is of a Nativity scene and fortuitously has been discovered in time for the Christmas holidays.

A number of specialists, including Nicky Grimaldi from Northumbria University, were trying to determine the extent of the damage on a painting of John the Baptist , a revered figure in the Christian tradition . The artwork is owned by the Bowes Museum at Durham University and was painted onto a piece of canvas that was stretched over a panel made of several pieces of wood. The work is ‘of the beheading of John the Baptist’ and was created by an unknown artist, reports the BBC.

The painting of John the Baptist and the Nativity scene visible with the x-ray. (Northumbria University)

The painting of John the Baptist and the Nativity scene visible with the x-ray. ( Northumbria University )

Lost Painting Recovered

The experts used an X-Ray of the work in order to identify any damage, which is standard procedure in art conservation. The artwork’s paint has deteriorated over the years, especially where the wood panel pieces join. When they were looking at the X-Ray, the researchers detected a figure that was painted underneath. It was the shadowy figure of an infant with what looked like a halo around his head. They were able to highlight the outline, and this confirmed that they had indeed identified an image of the baby Jesus.

A further examination revealed a ‘manger, angels and what appears to be one of the three wise men or Magi,’ reports the BBC. The experts now knew that they had found a previously unknown painting of the Nativity - a scene depicting the birth of Jesus Christ. It seems likely that the Nativity painting had been whitewashed so that the materials could be reused in the Middle Ages . Nicky Grimaldi told The Daily Mail , “It was such a lovely surprise to see the nativity scene revealed underneath the painting we see today.”

The x-ray revealed a Nativity scene (highlighted for easier viewing on the right). (Northumbria University and Bowes Museum)

The x-ray revealed a Nativity scene (highlighted for easier viewing on the right). ( Northumbria University and Bowes Museum )

A Timely Find for a Christmas Scene

Finding a painting under another painting is not unknown, as many artists have had to recycle panels and canvases. However, it is quite rare. Grimaldi also told The Daily Mail , “to discover a nativity scene in this detail and just before Christmas was really incredible.” The depiction of the birth of Jesus Christ was once part of a set of paintings that adorned an altar in a Church.

The experts from Northumbria University have been joined by Dr. Michelle Carlin, a forensic scientist . The team intends to establish the age and possibly the history of the Nativity painting. These may help to identify where it was painted and could reveal the background of the work. During their investigations they will suggest solutions as to how the painting can be preserved for future generations.

Secrets Revealed with a Scan

The X-Ray revealed many details of the Nativity scene . It showed, for example, that gold leaf had been applied to the halo, which was an artistic convention at the time. Grimaldi told the University of Durham , “we can see lines over the X-Ray image which we believe to be preparatory drawings, showing where the painting was probably copied from an original drawing.” A chemical analysis of the painting will also be carried out by Dr. Carlin using a microscope, x-ray spectroscopy, and other high-tech equipment.

The head of Bowes Museum collections, Dr. J Whittaker, stated that it will “be really interesting to find out more about it” as the team continues to investigate the artwork, according to Northumbria University . The discovery of an unknown painting will further enhance the reputation of the University for art conservation.

Nicky Grimaldi pictured with the panel painting from The Bowes Museum. (Northumbria University and Bowes Museum)

Nicky Grimaldi pictured with the panel painting from The Bowes Museum. ( Northumbria University and Bowes Museum )

In recent years Grimaldi and her colleagues have also uncovered a ‘lost’ portrait by Sir Thomas Gainsborough (1727-1788) and they are currently trying to solve the mystery of a painting by the Baroque painter Guido Reni (1575-1642).

Top image: The Nativity scene (right) was discovered by x-ray under the painting of the beheading of John the Baptist (left). Source: Northumbria University and Bowes Museum

By Ed Whelan

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