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Reunited: Francescuccio Ghissi’s St. John Altarpiece

Mar 25, 2017 - Jul 9, 2017
8:00 am to 5:00 pm
1219 SW Park Ave, Portland, OR
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The Portland Art Museum is pleased to present an exhibition that brings together eight dispersed 14th-century paintings, and a recreated missing panel, so that the altarpiece can be seen and appreciated as one magnificent work of art. This reunion offers visitors a special opportunity to see the Museum’s Resurrection of Drusiana in its original context in the upper left corner. Donated by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1961, the painting is one of the finest Early Italian narrative scenes in the Pacific Northwest.Ghissi worked in the Marche, the mountainous Italian region between the Apennines and the Adriatic Sea. The St. John Altarpiece is most extensive ensemble of his work to have survived, but its original location remains a mystery. It was made in the 1370s following a typical format for chapels and small churches, in which a large central image of the Crucifixion is flanked by smaller narrative scenes. In this case, eight episodes are devoted to the life of John the Evangelist, who was most likely the patron saint of the church. True to the spirit of the burgeoning Renaissance, each scene is depicted with great clarity, drama, and humanity, and the ensemble demonstrates that Ghissi was consistently a masterful storyteller.

Paint and gold leaf fourteenth-century altarpiece
Francescuccio Ghissi (Italian, active 1359–1374), St. John Altarpiece, 1370s, tempera and gold leaf on wood, including paintings from the Portland Art Museum, the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

During the 19th or early 20th century, the altarpiece was dismantled and sawed apart because individual panels could be sold more lucratively to art dealers and collectors. In time, all of the known elements entered U.S. museums. Portland’s painting and three panels in the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) were the gifts of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Three additional panels are in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the central Crucifixion is in the Art Institute of Chicago. After more than a century of separation, the paintings are now reunited in this exhibition, first displayed at NCMA last fall, that retells the story of this Early Renaissance masterwork.

Because the ninth painting has never been found, Dutch conservation specialist Charlotte Caspers was employed to re-create it using 14th-century materials and techniques. Caspers worked with NCMA Curator of European Art David Steel and Chief Conservator William Brown to determine the probable subject, composition, coloring, and other details; then she created the panel with the same type of pigments and gilding used by Ghissi 650 years ago. The exhibition includes a video of the process along with an extensive display documenting all of the pigments and other materials used.

The bright, gleaming new panel would look out of place alongside works that had aged for centuries, so Duke University mathematicians developed algorithms to age Caspers’s work digitally using the crack patterns and faded colors of the original panels as a guide. A photograph of the virtually aged ninth panel will be installed to complete the St. John Altarpiece. The Duke team also used Casper’s panel to calculate algorithms to reverse the effect of aging on the original panels. The resulting images will be displayed, along with Casper’s panel, to give visitors an impression of the altarpiece as it would have looked in the 14th century. Videos explaining the work of the mathematicians will be available in the gallery.

“It was a true collaboration between conservators, curators, and mathematicians,” says Steel. “Everyone learned from each other’s research, and it resulted in this fascinating exhibition that combines art history, mathematics, and technology.”

Organized by the North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, North Carolina.  Curated in Portland by Dawson Carr, Ph.D., The Janet and Richard Geary Curator of European Art.


What’s the story? The Saint John Altarpiece

The Saint John Altarpiece follows the form of one type of fourteenth-century altarpiece, with a large central image flanked by smaller narrative scenes. The center panel shows the Crucifixion with the young John the Evangelist looking out to the viewer on the right. While the story of the Crucifixion is told in the Gospel of John, the source for the other episodes was The Golden Legend (Legenda sanctorum), a popular collection of stories about the major saints compiled in the thirteenth century by Jacobus de Voragine, a priest. Accounts of each scene are available below. Comparison of these texts with the paintings in the Saint John Altarpiece reveals Ghissi’s gifts as a master storyteller in the burgeoning Renaissance tradition of clear, human-centered narrative.

The Crucifixion

Ghissi panel, Crucifixion
Art Institute of Chicago, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson Collection, 1937.1006

Saint John is depicted at right, looking out to the viewer. Younger and without a beard, he wears the same blue and pink robes as he does in the rest of the altarpiece. The widow kneeling beside him likely commissioned the altarpiece, indicating that Saint John was either her patron saint or the patron saint of the chapel. The Crucifixion precedes Saint John’s story in The Golden Legend.

The Resurrection of Drusiana

Ghissi panel, The Resurrection of Drusiana
Portland Art Museum, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 61.31

John returned to Ephesus with honor, and the crowds ran out to meet him, crying: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” As he entered the city, a woman named Drusiana, who had been a dear friend of his and has looked forward more than anyone to his return, was being carried out for burial. This woman’s kinsmen, and the widows and orphans of Ephesus, said to Saint John: “Here we are about to bury Drusiana, who, following your directions, nourished all of us with the word of God. Yearning for your return she used to say: ‘Ah, if only I could see the apostle of God once more before I die!’ And now you have come back, and she was not able to see you.” John thereupon ordered them to set down the bier and unbind the body, and said: “Drusiana, may my Lord Jesus Christ raise you to life! Arise, go to your house and prepare food for me!” Drusiana got up and went straight to her house as the apostle had commanded, and it seemed to her that she had awakened from sleep, not from death.

Saint John Reproving the Philosopher Crato

Ghissi panel, Saint John Reproving the Philosopher Crato
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1960 (60.17.18)

The day after the apostle arrived in Ephesus, a philosopher named Crato called the people together in the public square to show them how they should despise the world. He had ordered two young men, brothers and very rich, to sell their entire patrimony, to buy the most priceless gems with the proceeds, and to smash them to bits while everybody watched. The apostle, however, happened to be passing, and he called the philosopher and denounced this sort of contempt of the world, citing three reasons. For one thing it wins the praise of men but is condemned by divine judgment. For another, such contempt cures no vices and therefore is worthless, as any medicine that never cures a disease is said to be worthless. Thirdly, contempt of riches is meritorious only when they are given away to the poor, as the Lord said to the rich young man: “If you wish to be perfect, go and sell all you have and give to the poor.”

Hearing this, Crato replied: “If your master is truly God, and if it is his will that these gems should benefit the poor, then you put them together again, thus winning glory for him as I have won the applause of men.” Saint John gathered the fragments of the gems in his hand and prayed; and the stones were restored to their former shape. At this the philosopher and the two young men believed, and they sold the gems and gave the money to the poor.

Acteus and Eugenius Implore Saint John to Restore Their Wealth

Ghissi panel, Acteus and Eugenius Implore Saint John to Restore Their Wealth
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1960 (60.17.19)

Their example induced two other young highborn young men to sell everything they owned and give the proceeds to the poor, and they became the apostle’s followers. But one day they saw their former slaves flaunting elegant and costly raiment while they themselves had but one cloak between them, and they began to have regrets. Saint John saw this in their gloomy expression, so he had some sticks and pebbles brought to him from the seashore, and turned them into gold and precious stones. Then he sent the youths to show their new possessions to all the goldsmiths and jewelers, and they came back a week later to tell him that those experts had never seen gold so pure or gems so fine. The apostle said to them: “Go and buy back the lands you sold! Since you have lost the treasures of heaven, flourish, but only to wither; be rich for a time, but only to be beggars for eternity!” He then went on to speak against riches, enumerating six reasons that should deter us from an inordinate desire for wealth. The first is in Scripture, and he told the story of the gluttonous rich man, whom God rejected, and the poor man Lazarus, whom God rewarded. The second comes from nature itself: man is born naked and without wealth, and he dies without wealth. The third is seen in creation: just as the sun, the moon, and the stars, the rains and the air, are common to all and their benefits shared by all, so among men everything should be held in common. The next reason is fortune itself. The rich man is the slave of his money; he does not possess it, it possesses him; and he is the slave of the devil, because the Gospel says that the lover of money is a slave of mammon. Fifth comes care and worry: the rich worry day and night about how to get more and how to keep what they have. Sixth and last, he showed that wealth involves the risk of loss. In the acquisition of riches there lies a twofold evil: it leads to swollen pride in the present life and to eternal damnation in the next; and for those doomed to damnation there is a double loss – of divine grace at present and of eternal glory in the future.

The Resurrection of Satheus

Ghissi panel, The Resurrection of Satheus
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1969 (69.28.1)

While Saint John was carrying on this discourse against riches, a young man who had been married only a month before was carried out for burial. His mother, his widow, and the rest of the mourners came and prostrated themselves at the apostle’s feet, begging him to revive him in the name of God, as he had done for Drusiana. The apostle, after weeping and praying for a long time, raised the dead man to life.

Satheus Speaking to Acteus and Eugenius / Acteus and Eugenius Repenting before Saint John

Ghissi panel, Satheus Speaking to Acteus and Eugenius / Acteus and Eugenius Repenting before Saint John
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1969 (69.28.2)

The apostle ordered the resurrected man to tell the two disciples already mentioned how great a penalty they had incurred and how much glory they had lost. He did so, speaking at length about the glories of paradise and the pains of hell, which he had seen; and he said:  “O wretched men, I saw your angels weeping and the demons gloating over you!” He further told them they had lost eternal palaces built of shining gems, filled with banquets, abounding in delights and lasting joys. He also spoke about the eight pains of hell, which are named in the following verse:

Vermes et tenebrae flagellum frigus et ignis Daemonis adspectus scelerum confusio luctus,

i.e., worms, darkness, the lash, cold, fire, the sight of the devil, remorse for sins, grief.

The revived man and the other two then fell at the apostle’s feet and implored him to obtain mercy for them. Saint John replied: “Do penance for thirty days, and during that time pray that the sticks and stones may revert to their former nature.” After this was accomplished, he said to them: “Go and put those things back where you found them.” They did so, and the sticks and stones became again what they had been before. Thereupon the young men received the grace of all the virtues that had been theirs.

Saint John Causes a Pagan Temple to Collapse

Ghissi panel, Saint John Causes a Pagan Temple to Collapse
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Mrs. W. Murray Crane, 1969 (69.28.3)

When Saint John had preached throughout the region of Asia, the idol-worshipers stirred up a riot among the populace, and they dragged him to the temple of Diana and tried to force him to offer sacrifice to the goddess. Then the saint proposed this alternative: if by invoking Diana they overturned the church of Christ, he would offer sacrifice to the idols; but if by invoking Christ he destroyed Diana’s temple, they would believe in Christ. To this proposal the greater number of the people gave their consent. When all had gone out of the building, the apostle prayed, the temple collapsed to the ground, and the statue of Diana was reduced to dust.

Saint John Drinking from the Poisoned Cup

Ghissi panel, Saint John Drinking from the Poisoned Cup
North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, 1960 (60.17.20)

Thereupon the high priest Aristodemus incited a still greater commotion among the people, and two parties were at the point of coming to blows. The apostle asked the priest: “What do you want me to do to restore order?” He answered: “If you want me to believe in your God, I will give you poison to drink. If it does you no harm, it will be clear that your master is the true God.” John replied: “Do as you say!” “But first,” came the answer, “I want you to see it kill some others, to make you fear its power the more.” So Aristodemus hied himself to the proconsul, obtained the release of two criminals condemned to decapitation, and, in the presence of the crowd, gave them the poison. They drank it and fell dead. Then the apostle took the cup, armed himself with the sign of the cross, drained the drink, and suffered no harm; and all present began to praise God.

Saint John Baptizing Aristodemus

Ghissi panel, Saint John Baptizing Aristodemus
Charlotte Caspers (Dutch, born 1979), in the style of Francescuccio Ghissi, North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh

Aristodemus, however, was not yet convinced and said: “If you can bring the two dead men back to life, I will not hesitate to believe.” The apostle handed him his cloak. “Why do you give me your cloak?” the other asked. John’s answer: “To make you think twice and give up your unbelief!” “No mantle of yours will ever make me believe!” the priest retorted. John said: “Go and spread this cloak over the corpses, and say, ‘The apostle of Christ has sent me to you, that you may rise in the name of Christ.’” He did as he was bidden, and the dead men arose at once. Then the high priest and the proconsul believed, and the apostle baptized them and their families. At a later time they built a church in honor of Saint John.

Text from: Jacobus de Voragine, The Golden Legend: Readings on the Saints, trans. William Granger Ryan, vol. 1 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), 50-55.


Pigments used in the Saint John Altarpiece

Early Renaissance painters had few dependable pigments to choose from, particularly for bright colors. Some naturally existing pigments were discovered in prehistoric times. Others were invented by early cultures. And a few were first created in the fourteenth century. The original pigments were identified through scientific analysis and comparison to descriptions from contemporary manuscripts. Some were common, plentiful, and literally as cheap as dirt, while others were rare and extraordinarily expensive, nearly as dear as gold. Some are long forgotten, but many are still used by artists today.

Recreating the lost panel

Between 2012 and 2014, the lost lower right panel of the altarpiece was recreated by Charlotte Caspers, an expert in historical painting reconstruction, in collaboration with Curator of European Art David Steel and Chief Conservator William Brown, both from the North Carolina Museum of Art. They determined the likely subject of the painting, its figural types, and its composition. Deriving figures from those in the other panels and on another painting by Ghissi’s teacher Allegretto Nuzi, Caspers painted a well-reasoned recreation of the lost panel. She used authentic fourteenth-century materials and techniques described in Cennino Cennini’s early fifteenth-century treatise on artistic practice, Il libro dell’arte (The Craftsman’s Handbook). Pigments chosen for the painting were similar to those found in the original Ghissi panels as identified by scientific analysis. The new panel gives an impression of how bright and vivid the altarpiece must have looked when it was first created.

The Ghissi Project: Charlotte’s painting process

How the altarpiece would have looked brand new

These videos present how a digitally rejuvenated version of the Saint John Altarpiece was created by the Image Processing for Art Investigation (IPAI) group at Duke University. Led by Professor Ingrid Daubechies, a team of mathematicians analyzed high-resolution images of the eight original paintings and the newly recreated panel. Using the new painting’s bright, sparkling appearance and flawless surface as benchmarks, the team developed techniques to renew the original panels’ faded colors and dulled gold, and to detect and remove the network of cracks that occurred as the paintings aged. The images offer an impression of the altarpiece’s dazzling appearance when it was just finished. The IPAI group developed similar image-processing techniques to digitally age the new panel so it would more closely resemble the 650-year-old originals.

An eighty-page illustrated book—with essays by the curators, conservators, and mathematicians who collaborated on the project—is available to view, download, and print free of charge at https://dukeipai.org/projects/ghissi.


Major Sponsor

Laura S. and Roger S. Meier Endowment for European Art


European and American Art Council of the Portland Art Museum*


Don and Linda Van Wart and Friends
Nani S. Warren / The Swigert Warren Foundation
Sandy and Jeff Grubb
Dave Holt

*Roudi Akhavein, Arden Albertini, David Barnard and Akiko Hashimoto, Judy and Bob Bell, Judith and Harlan Bridenbaugh, Carol Ann and Kent Caveny, Carolyn Cosart, George and Barbara Dechet, James FitzGerald and Karen Howe, Paolo and Mary Gramaccioni, C. David Harris, Mary Lou Hautau, Calvin Hennig, Janet Louvau Holt, Ellen Hopper and Eunice Bailey, Patricia Jones, Sivia Kaye, Michael and Kristen Kern, Michael and Mary Klein, Sara Lea, Gregory F. Leiher, LaValle Linn, Fred and Susan Matthies, Patricia McMahan and Larry Moiola, Paulette Meyer, Maureen Moller, Elaine and Ted Molskness, Nancy and Kevin Morrice, Ernie and Annie Munch, Sarah and Richard Munro, Christine Nelson, Didi Nowers, Dennis and Suzie Ott, Jerre Ann and Gus Pappelis, Marilyn Podemski, Charles and Ruth Poindexter, Dee Poth, Caroleigh Robinson, Catherine Rudolf, Diane and Daniel Sagalowicz, Robert and Bonnie Schlieman, Carol and Tom Shults, Sam Stott, Henry T. Swigert, Robert Trotman and William Hetzelson, Jane Wachsler, Karin and Barton Whalen, Sabine Wild, and Anonymous