At Large  December 23, 2019  Chandra Noyes

X-Ray Reveals Nativity Scene Hidden in Painting

Northumbria University/The Bowes Museum

An x-ray image of The Bowes Museum panel with markings highlighting the Nativity scene.

Conservators at Northumbria University in the UK recently found a surprise lurking beneath the surface of a 16th-century painting. While using x-rays to determine the cause of the painting’s deterioration, scientists discovered a whole other composition that had been painted over.

On the surface is an image from the beheading of John the Baptist, likely part of a larger altar. The canvas stretched over a wooden panel is believed to be 400 years old. Collected by The Bowes Museum founders John and Joséphine Bowes in the 19th century, little else is known about the painting.

Northumbria University/The Bowes Museum

The Bowes Museum panel.

Now researches have discovered a whole new side to the work, offering more intriguing clues to be unraveled about the painting’s origins and history.

While using x-ray technology to determine the cause of the panel’s decay, another image emerged. Renowned conservator Nicky Grimaldi immediately recognized a manger scene in the x-ray images. A radiant infant sits at center, with Magi, Mary and perhaps a structure filling out the scene. She explains: “It was common practice to apply gold leaf to these type of religious paintings and in the x-ray we can see that gold is present in the halo around the baby’s head. Incredibly we can see lines over the x-ray image which we believe to be preparatory drawings, showing where the painting was probably copied from an original drawing (cartoon).”

Northumbria University/The Bowes Museum

A close up of The Bowes Museum panel x-ray showing the baby Jesus.

The work needs further restoration to stop the wood from rotting. As part of this process, researchers plan to do further tests on the painting, including a chemical analysis of the paint used, infrared imaging, and scanning using an electron microscope. These will provide further clues that will help experts better understand the work's place in history.

Though the painting needs further conservation and has more mysteries to be solved, this astonishing new element to the work has made for a lovely unexpected Christmas gift. “We’re simply delighted and astounded to discover that this 16th-century work was hiding such a wonderful secret and to find out at this time of year is really quite fortuitous,” said Dr. Jane Whittaker, The Bowes Museum’s head of collections.

About the Author

Chandra Noyes

Chandra Noyes is Managing Editor for Art & Object.

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