Conservation of Pentecost by Sandro Botticelli

By Catherine Nunn, Senior Painting Conservator

The exhibition here at the V&A includes several works that did not travel to Berlin. One of these is a very large painting lent by Birmingham Museums Trust on behalf of Birmingham City Council, Pentecost by Sandro Botticelli and workshop. Borrowing this painting for the V&A show presented numerous challenges, not least because of its size and fragility. Conservation of this painting was needed to prepare it for display at the V&A.

Detail of the bottom right of Pentecost by Sandro Botticelli and workshop, photo by Catherine Nunn, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The painting is over 500 years old, and was commissioned late in Botticelli’s life. Over the centuries it has suffered large paint losses and consequently it has been restored many times. Before entering the collection of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 1959, the picture had been badly damaged. Previous restoration can be seen across the top edge, where a band of paint loss has been coloured a neutral base colour and in the robe of the kneeling saint at the lower right.

Pentecost by Sandro Botticelli and workshop during conservation treatment at the V&A, photo by Catherine Nunn, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Despite the large dimensions (it’s over two metres high and almost 2.3 m wide), this picture is actually a fragment of what was once a much larger altarpiece, originally around 4.6 m x 2.9 m. The painting is constructed from 5 vertical wooden boards and over time the joins between the boards had opened up. This has left vertical lines down the image. The photograph below shows the painting during the recent conservation treatment after I had filled the cracks with putty.

Although it wasn't possible to do a full restoration it was necessary to stabilise the panel for travel and desirable to make the vertical cracks less visually distracting when in the exhibition.

Pentecost by Sandro Botticelli and workshop being loaded into the crate to transport to London, photo by Catherine Nunn, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

It was challenging to move the panel from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) to the V&A because of its large size. The frame wouldn't fit through the gallery doors! However, with much planning and the help of staff at BMAG, the frame was dismantled and the painting and frame travelled separately to London. The frame was also conserved at the V&A and reassembled for the exhibition. A custom-made travel crate with tailored padding was built to protect the painting on its journey from Birmingham to London.

At the V&A I stabilised any lifting paint and filled the cracks that had opened along the joins between the wooden boards. After this I would normally inpaint the fills to match the surrounding areas. However, this isn't the first time this painting’s joins have been retouched and the old restoration paint is still present but unfortunately no longer matches the colour of the original paint. Necessarily, the inpainting is being done to match the colours of the old restoration.

Texturing the fills to receive the inpainting, photo by Catherine Nunn, 2016. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The aim of my conservation work is to disguise the most recent damage to this painting in order to prepare the painting for the exhibition. It would take a number of years to address all of the complex conservation problems presented by this painting. Nonetheless, I’m excited that I have worked to improve the appearance of this painting for the exhibition, and I am pleased to see it on display at the V&A.