University of Basque Country thesis analyzes technique of applied brocade in 6 pieces

June 16, 2010

Applied brocade is a relief technique representing, in a highly realistic manner, embroidered textiles in gold and silver in sculptures and paintings. It involves a filling reinforced with a sheet foil of tin. Invented in Germany between 1415 and 1430, it became highly successful. It was one of the hallmarks of Flemish art in the XV and XVI centuries, its use spreading throughout Europe. In the Basque Country, this applied brocade is found in six wood altarpieces in churches in Errenteria, Zumaia, Oñati and Altzaga.

Given that this technique has not been greatly researched to date and, likewise, little restoration work has appeared in the literature, researcher Ms Ainhoa Rodríguez analysed the above-mentioned altarpieces. She describes these works of art in detail, as well as specifying a protocol of analysis. Her PhD thesis is entitled, Analysis and classification of applied brocade in altarpieces in the Basque province of Gipuzkoa.

Renteria and Oñati highlighted

In concrete, the works analysed were the Assumption-Coronation of the Virgin triptych in the church of the Assumption of Santa María in Errenteria (1505-1510), the triptych of San Antón in the church of San Pedro in Zumaia (1510-1515), the La Piedad (1535-1537) and San Juan Bautista (1530-1555) altarpieces in the church of San Miguel in Oñati, the altarpiece of the Santísima Trinidad in the monastery of Bidaurreta in Oñati (1531-1533) and the San Miguel altarpiece of the church of Altzaga (1530-1550).

With the results of the analysis at hand, the researcher highlighted two of the altarpieces. One was that at the church in Errenteria. As suggested in a number of bibliographic references, Ms Rodríguez confirmed that the triptych of the Assumption has a Flemish origin. On undertaking the technical research and studying the materials used for the brocade, several features have been observed thereof that are not found in the rest of the altarpieces. This is why, in part, she was able to confirm that the triptych had its origin, effectively, in Flanders, concretely in the western Low Countries. Ms Rodríguez also highlighted the altarpiece in San Juan Bautista in Oñati. The present polychrome painting covers a previous one, and, according to some experts, there were traces of applied brocade below the more modern polychrome painting. The researcher has confirmed this hypothesis.

As regards the features common to the six altarpieces, Ms Rodríguez observed that they have details pertaining to the XVI century, in terms of painting material. The brocade was also produced using a limited range of materials, but with considerable variation in the number of mixtures and arrangement of the layers. In this way she found new combinations, hitherto unknown in the specialised literature.

A useful protocol for analysis

The analysis protocol behind these conclusions, created by Ms Rodríguez, is also one of the contributions of the PhD. In fact, according to the author, this protocol is applicable to research in other painting techniques.

Ms Rodríguez started with analysing the altarpieces in the mentioned churches, carrying out a highly specific sampling. Then she analysed the samples in the laboratory - undertaking stratigraphies in order to characterise the layers of the samples and identify the material used. To this end, she was helped by a combination of very varied techniques: optical and electronic microscopes, tincture tests for proteins and lipids, spectroscopies, etc. Thanks to this diversity of techniques, Ms Rodríguez was able to, on the one hand, identify organic and inorganic components and, on the other, compare results from each technique, and thus classify the applied brocade by typology, technique and materials.
About the author

Ms Ainhoa Rodríguez López (Donostia-San Sebastián, 1975) has a degree in Fine Arts, specialising in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage, and she has the European PhD in Fine Arts from the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). She undertook her thesis under the direction of María Teresa Escohotado Ibor, Professor in the Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage at the Department of Painting of the UPV/EHU's Faculty of Fine Arts; Narayan Khandekar, scientist at the Straus Center for Conservation and Technical Studies at the Harvard Art Museum in the United States; and Fernando Bazeta Gobantes, senior lecturer in Conservation and Restoration of Cultural Heritage at the Department of Painting of the UPV/EHU's Arts Faculty. Ms Rodríguez is currently working on research tasks with Harvard. In order to carry out her PhD thesis, she collaborated with laboratories at the Straus Centre, those of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, those at the Department of Microscopic Research of the Dutch Institute of Cultural Heritage and with those at the Restoration Service of the Government of the Basque province of Araba/Álava.

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