The Unveiling of the Painting ‘St John the Baptist Before Execution’

The start of a conservation journey

An exciting artwork has been brought to the Paintings Conservation Studio for investigation.

This painting represents the martyrdom of Saint John the Baptist, Christ’s herald and forerunner. In the foreground John the Baptist and the executioner are depicted moments before the decapitation. In the background, Herodias’s daughter Salome receives the Saint’s head as a reward for dancing for Herod (Matthew 14. 1-12). This latter scene is yet to be unveiled. The panel is possibly of German origin and is arguably influenced by the German painter Matthias Grunewald. According to a hand written note by John Bowes he bought it from the Barberini Palace in Rome as a Leonardo, though it is evidently not.

The panel painting has been covered up with protective facing tissue since 1992, and this is the first time in a long while that we have had an opportunity to look at the picture closely.


St John The Baptist Before Execution – the painting appearing from under the facing tissue
St John The Baptist Before Execution – the painting appearing from under the facing tissue

There have been good reasons to apply facing tissue; the paint is flaking and the wood itself has split due to weakening of the panel by wood worm, which has left the painting in a fragile state.


Detail showing an area of flaking paint
Detail showing an area of flaking paint


The vertical boards that make up the panel have warped because of fluctuations in relative humidity. There has been a leak on the bottom left of the panel (the Museum’s roof leaked quite badly until it was replaced in 2002) which luckily has been protected by the facing.

This is a very challenging project and we are looking forward to carrying out a full investigation into the exact condition of the painting and what we can do to conserve it to bring it back towards its former glory.

The cleaning test in the top left corner (see below) reveals bright colours underneath the thick, yellow varnish. This degraded and discoloured varnish disguises the original colours of the paint layer reduces the contrasts and flattens the depth in the painting.  As a Conservator it is exciting to imagine what the painting would look like if all the discoloured varnish were to be removed.


Detail, cleaning test
Detail, cleaning test


Later on before Christmas, experts from the National Gallery in London will visit The Bowes Museum and take a look at the panel painting to give us some of their expert advice on options to conserve the picture. Hopefully we will be able to conserve the painting so we can exhibit it.

By Jon Old, Head of Conservation


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