ARTES-CEEH Travel Scholarship Report | Irini Picolou, Durham University

The generous scholarship provided by ARTES and the CEEH gave me the opportunity to conduct an exciting and productive research trip. My findings enabled me to address questions regarding the representation of the body in pain in the Altarpiece of Saint Engracia by Bartolomé Bermejo and to understand further the titular saint’s local significance in Zaragoza and Daroca. I was also able to examine, in detail, Bermejo’s portrayals of alterity in the panels of the altarpiece.

Irini capturing details

For the first two days of my trip, I stayed in Bilbao, where I visited the Museo de Bellas Artes and met the Head of the Department of Conservation and Restauration, María José Ruiz-Ozaita. She first conducted a guided in-situ examination of the Flagellation of Saint Engracia with a UV light to demonstrate the areas of restoration and remaining signs of damage. The conservation team then provided me with a microscopic lens and digital microscopic light to take close-up images of the whiplashes on Engracia’s back, blood spurts, and other minute details in the painting, such as inscriptions and skin pigmentation. This opportunity to gain a precise view of such details, as well as document these findings, enabled me to pinpoint the location of damage and wounds on the pictorial surface. The digital microscopic light also allowed me to detect the exact pigmentation of blood and skin colour which would not have been possible even by looking at a digital high-resolution image. The UV picture provided by the Museum also facilitated the identification of paint damage and uncovered novel conclusions regarding the depiction of the tortured body, thus demonstrating that it was more dramatic to fifteenth-century viewers than it currently appears. The stage micrometre was used to measure the sizes of lashes and blood drops, revealing Bermejo’s detailed and precise representation of torture. This research has opened a new series of questions in outlining the importance of blood and wounding as central elements of Engracia’s pained body.

Conservation Team in the Museo de Bellas Artes

The Conservation team also showed and sent me reflectographic images which demonstrated a possible hidden date referring to the production of the painting. They also revealed the definition of the bodily features and Islamic patterns on the floor tiles and clothing. This access to Bermejo’s drawings has enabled a clearer identification of the regional and religious references in the composition, thereby informing an understanding to Bermejo’s approach in representing alterity.

For the second part of the trip, I stayed in Zaragoza and visited the local museum, which held paintings of Christ’s Arrest, Crucifixion and Resurrection jointly produced by Martín Bernat and Miguel Ximénez, Bermejo’s collaborator and contemporary. Given that these paintings were produced around the same time that Bermejo was working with Bernat in Zaragoza, I was able to contextualize my observations on the portrayals of pain and alterity in the Altarpiece of Saint Engracia. More importantly, the in-situ examination of the Descent from the Cross by Bermejo and Bernat informed further insights concerning Bermejo’s specific depictions of blood, sacrifice, and alterity in comparison with the Flagellation of Saint Engracia.

Visit to the Palacio de la Aljafería in Zaragoza

I also visited the Basilica of Saint Engracia, which marks the location where Engracia was martyred. The building was previously a monastery church destroyed in the Siege of Zaragoza in 1809, and so it was reconstructed into the Basilica. By examining her shrine, I gained a better sense of her regional importance within Zaragoza, which informed the motives behind the commission of the altarpiece in Daroca. My final pursuit in Zaragoza was a visit to the Palacio de la Aljafería, where I observed and took photos of architectural inspirations for the portrayal of Dacian’s Palace in the Arrest of Saint Engracia, Imprisonment, and Flagellation. I was able to identify better some of the patterns and architectural elements depicted in the panels of the altarpiece.

From Zaragoza, I travelled to Daroca, where I visited the Museo de los Sagrados Corporales. I first conducted an in-situ examination of the remaining panels of the Engracia altarpiece held in Spain: the Crucifixion, Arrest, and Imprisonment. During this visit, I explored specific details in the panels constituting the portrayals of pain and alterity. I gained a better understanding of the devotional viewing context of the altarpiece since the panels were displayed in the Museum of the Church, which showed additional references to martyrdom and sacrifice, such as the famous sacred corporals. The ingrained visual and textual representations of medieval Jewish and Muslim people in the town of Daroca has also enriched insights on the propagandistic purposes of the altarpiece.  

Irini in Daroca

I am extremely grateful to ARTES and the CEEH for providing me with the opportunity to make an important contribution to scholarship on the Altarpiece of Saint Engracia and Bermejo. This research has also broadened theoretical insights on the importance of representing pain and female martyrdom in fifteenth-century devotional painting.  

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