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The Virgin, all agree, is worthy

Art restorer Ruth Cox, points out a detail to Nasher senior curator Sarah Schroth.
Art restorer Ruth Cox, points out a detail to Nasher senior curator Sarah Schroth.

The Virgin, frozen in grief, seems not to notice the three women huddled tightly around her, armed with a blacklight in the otherwise pitch black room. Six eyes and a swath of electric blue light sweet from the nails to the crown to the shroud, up to her cuffs, her tunic and, finally, to the two tears running down her cheeks. The Virgin, all agree, is worthy.

They’d gotten her all wrong. Sarah Schroth was convinced.

Katharine, Ruth and Sarah enjoy their work, and it shows
Katharine, Ruth and Sarah enjoy their work, and it shows

The Nancy Hanks Senior Curator at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University is extremely well versed in Spanish paintings from the reign of Philip III. She, after all, curated the wildly popular El Greco to Velázquez exhibit at the Nasher in 2008, prompting the Spanish government to declare her “a Knight-Commander of the Royal Order of Isabella,” one of Spain’s highest civil orders. (You can just call her “Su Ilustrísima,” or “The Illustrious One.”) So when a Spanish art dealer sent her a picture last year of The Virgin Mary Contemplating Instruments of the Passion, Sarah immediately recognized in the oil-on-canvas painting telltale traits of the period. Specifically, she suspected it was the work of one Vincente Carducho, a court artist for Philip III and a rival of Velázquez.

But making that case, while important, was secondary to one basic tenet. “There’s a wonderful, wonderful quote, from Sherman Lee: ‘If it’s a good picture, it’s a good picture, no matter who painted it,’” Su Ilustrísima Sarah says.

“And this is a good picture.”

Sarah Believed in The Virgin the moment she saw her

The painting was taken to the Nasher basement, where a blacklight revealed how well the painting had been restored
The painting was taken to the Nasher basement, where a blacklight revealed how well the painting had been restored

“In this work, the artist is imagining what it would have been like for the mother of Jesus to see the bloody nails from the cross that pierced her son’s feet, the crown of thorns that had been pushed down onto his head, to see the instruments of torture removed from Christ’s body after the death of her young son,” she says. “The instruments are arranged carefully on a while cloth to draw attention to them: they are like a still life. Her hands are making a gesture of surprise and awe, her face in half-shadow but two tears are running down her face. It is a moving image, and so Spanish!”

She made her pitch to Nasher Director Kimerly Rorschach, who suggested taking the painting to the Board of Advisors for their approval to acquire the painting. The board agreed, due in part to the relatively low cost of acquiring a 17th century painting in such good condition (though Nasher officials have a policy not to disclose how much they pay for any work).

Also, Sarah says, “It was an unpublished painting from the period of Philip III, thus fulfilling one of the Nasher Museum’s collecting strategies: to acquire a significant work related to exhibition we organized, taking advantage of the curator’s expertise and specialized knowledge.

And, lastly, because Sarah was convinced she could prove it was a Carducho.

The Carducho Case

The scene is not Biblical, Sarah explains, “but rather seems to be a contemplative subject, inspired by practice of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises.” That would be the 1548 publication, which “asks the reader to use his imagination to ‘picture’ a religious event happening before his eyes.” It gained popularity during the 17th century, when Carducho was most active.

A Carducho painting that appeared in the El Greco exhibit bears many similarities to The Virgin Mary… including the treatment of the white cloth, the “instruments of The Passion” and the hand gestures Mary employs while beholding the nails and crown of thorns.

An X-ray of The Virgin Mary… revealed another painting begun on the same canvas and then painted over. It’s a portion of Jesus’ torso during the crucifixion. She’ll have to compare it directly to a confirmed Carducho depiction of the crucifixion in Toledo to be sure, but she’s confident she’ll see enough similarities to bolster her case.

Interesting stuff, but why does it really matter who painted it?

Some Speculation

Sarah wears a pair of powerful magnifying glasses while closely scrutinizing the painting
Sarah wears a pair of powerful magnifying glasses while closely scrutinizing the painting

There was some speculation the painting might be by Luid de Morales, a 16th century painter known as “El Divino” due to his almost exclusive focus on religious imagery. If that were the case, the painting actually would be more valuable, because there’s a huge market for his paintings in Spain, Sarah says.

But no one seriously thought it was, leaving it unattributed, which helped the Nasher get a deal.

Proving who the artist is, even if it’s the less in-demand Carducho, will increase its value.

“There is also great value, historically, in correctly identifying the work,” Sarah says. “It will increase the known corpus of the artist’s work, and give us a better understanding of his range. This is different than his published works, which are mostly large alterpieces with narrative subjects. Thus, more of an understanding about this period in Spanish art history, about which so little has been published.”

Katharine Lee Reid, a Nasher Board of Advisors member and the former director of The Cleveland Museum of Art, and highly regarded art restorer Ruth Cox, who lives in Chapel Hill but has international cred, share Sarah’s passion for The Virgin.

It’s why they joined her in the darkened basement of the Nasher one summer morning to pore over every detail of the painting. The blacklight helps illuminate the places where restorers have worked to preserve the work, showing whether it was done properly. The verdict?

“I think overall it’s one of the great pictures in the area,” says Katharine, who enthusiastically encouraged her fellow Nasher board members to add the painting to the permanent collection. “Part of the great picture thing has to do with condition, and this is in excellent condition.”

There is a sense of joy as the three women critique the painting, with the serious, sometimes hushed conversation often punctuated by uproarious laughter. It’s a unique window into just how personally folks at the Nasher take their work, and how committed they are to establishing it as a world-class museum. “To add a significant work to the collection is a curator’s legacy!” Sarah says. “I have been looking for a Philip III painting for the Nasher Museum for six years. To find such a good one, by a major figure at court, for a very reasonable price, one that exemplifies the Counter-Reformation spirit, Spanish religiosity, and the use of the spotlight effect used by Caravaggio, is exciting.”

This excerpt is from a story that appeared in the October 2011 issue of Durham Magazine by Matt Dees.

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