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Flemish Altarpiece

The culmination of almost a year's work was celebrated in April as the successfully crowdfunded conservation and re-display of the 15th century Flemish altarpiece was unveiled by the Bishop of Durham. 


Dr Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund speaks about Art Happens at the opening event


The campaign, which was part of the growing trend of crowdfunding, which involves pooling individual online pledges made by people keen to offer financial support to projects they have taken a shine to, saw a staggering £22,163 raised in just 60 nail-biting days in June, July and August 2014. 

The project was led by the Museum’s Digital Communications and Fundraising Officer, Alison Nicholson, using the Art Fund's new crowdfunding platform, Art Happens. Art Happens was created to help UK museums raise money for new, small-scale, achievable and highly creative projects.  Unlike other crowdfunding platforms, every penny raised goes directly to the projects. The Art Fund does not charge fees like many other platforms, and the donations are eligible for Gift Aid.  


The Rt Rev. Bishop of Durham, Alison Nicholson & Adrian Jenkins enjoying the opening speeches


The Bowes Museum’s successful crowdfunding campaign has allowed the Museum to conserve and sympathetically redisplay its 15th century Passion Altarpiece, revealing the hidden secrets on its reverse. 


The Bishop of Durham blesses the conserved altarpiece


It is made up of twelve paintings by Master of the View of Saint Gudule illustrating: The Agony in the Garden (St. Jerome); Christ before Pilate (St Gregory);  The Resurrection (Saint Ambrose) The Risen Christ (Saint Augustine), with God the Father (Saint Anthony) and the Adoration
of the Magi (Family of Zebedee) above. These oil on panel paintings from c.1480 have been hidden from view for years and were in great need of conservation. The Museum's Paintings Conservators, Jon Old and Paul Turner have spent three months assessing the condition of the panels and then carrying out the necessary conservation work. Paintings by this 15th century Flemish artist are rare in the UK, and their revelation gives the public a much greater appreciation of the work of this Renaissance artist. Master of the View of Saint Gudule was so–called after his most famous work, The Rural Sermon, now in the Musée du Louvre, Paris, which shows the Cathedral of Saint Gudule in the background. The artist was heavily influenced  by the earlier Brussels painter Rogier Van der Weyden (1399/1400 –1464), who developed an austere expressive style to depict the sufferings of Christ that is also reflected in the carving of the sculpture in this altarpiece.


The opening of the shutters for the first time, by Steve Larcombe, Art Happens donor & Rupert McBain, furniture conservator - 22nd April 2015


The re-display included the building of a new oak frame by esteemed furniture conservator, Rupert McBain and his team. The new frame has been created with a mechanism to regularly open and close the panels to give access previously restricted to the public. The re-display of the altarpiece also included research into how the piece would have originally been displayed, and the incorporation of figures carved by the renowned Brussels Sculptors’ Guild which have been in store at the Museum since the capital redevelopments. These figures have been re-united with the carvings in the altarpiece. Missing pillars which would have linked the intricate canopies to the carvings expressing the arrest, crucifixion and resurrection of Christ have been carved and replaced, enhancing the scene of the Passion. The altarpiece has also been raised and displayed on an table, in our 15th century picture gallery alongside paintings from our religious art collection, to recreate the impression of its original position in a church above the altar.On the reverse of the oak carvings are three mallet marks, the hallmark of the Brussels Sculptors’ Guild. 

It is not known from which church this altarpiece comes. It was purchased by John and Joséphine Bowes from the sale of their furniture supplier Monbro in 1859, and the Museum's archive contains the sale catalogue, appointment card and bill recording the purchase of the altarpiece. It is thought the founders may have originally bought it to go in a chapel they planned to build for their own use.


More information about the conservation of the paintings and the building of the new frame, can be found on the Museum's blog