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Special Exhibition in Summer of 2020: The Restoration of Bastianino’s Living Cross of Ferrara


A project by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin and Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, supported by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. The almost three-metre-tall altarpiece the Living Cross of Ferrara by Sebastiano Filippi (called Bastianino) has been given by Humboldt Universität to the Gemäldegalerie of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin as a permanent loan, and is currently undergoing comprehensive analysis and restoration work in the museum’s restoration workshop with the help of generous funding from the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung. After being held in storage for more than 100 years, as of summer 2020, it will be made accessible to the public once more as part of a special exhibition.   

The Work

The altarpiece was created in the second half of the 16th century by the late Mannerist painter Sebastiano Filippi (called Bastianino, ca. 1532–1602) for the Santa Catarina Martire monastery and church in Ferrara. After the monastery was closed in the late 18th century, the work experienced a tumultuous fate, and until 1985 it was considered lost. The iconographically fascinating and quite rare depiction of the cross with arms sprouting from the end of its wooden cross-beam references an allegory from the Old and New Testament, along with a number of accompanying scenes. The painting is based on an expansive fresco by Garofalo, Il Nuovo e il Vecchio Testamento, today housed by the Pinacoteca Nazionale Ferrara. It is likely the only work by Filippi currently held by a public collection in Germany.

Object History and Condition

In 1912, the descendants of the Hamburg-born consul Eduard Friedrich Weber bequeathed the painting to the then Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität (today the Humboldt Universität zu Berlin). During the war, the painting was stored in the Berlin Cathedral. Due to the unfavourable climatic conditions there, the poplar panel shrank, causing cracks to form. In addition, many of the paint layers began to flake off, meaning significant sections of the painting were lost. Numerous small sections of missing paint, larger sections that had been painted over long ago, yellowed varnishes and the remains of previous consolidation efforts stymied the overall effect of the work. Since 2015, the work has been on permanent loan to the Gemäldegalerie. 

Conservation and Restoration Project

The conservation and restoration efforts made possible by the Ernst von Siemens Kunststiftung got underway in December 2018 with technical investigations being carried out on the panel along with work to stabilise the material. The creation of X-radiographies and UV images helped to ascertain the condition of the picture and the working method of the artist. Pigment analysis work carried out in collaboration with the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin’s Rathgen-Forschungslabor were able to establish that the artist had used a rich colour palette. For the large sky section, Bastianino used the most expensive of all pigments, ultramarine made from lapis lazuli. 

During the extensive conservation and restoration work, the heavily yellowed layers of varnish, the non-original colours of previous retouching and large painted-over sections as well as rough surface fillings from earlier phases of restoration were removed. Additionally, the long cracks in the wooden panel were painstakingly glued together, before the missing sections of the surface of the painting were filled and then subtly retouched. The retouching process is now three-quarters finished. Once the restoration work is complete and a new coat of varnish has been applied to protect the work, the picture will then be placed on display in a brand-new, opulent frame.

Special Exhibition in Summer 2020

The Living Cross of Ferrara, its restoration and its historical and art-historical significance will be at the centre of a focused special presentation in the Gemäldegalerie, which is slated to run from June to October 2020.