When the Madonna della Cintola arrived in the hands of the restorers and scholars at the Vatican, it not only stood out thanks to its immense size, but the work introduced quite an imposing task for the team in the upcoming years. It was originally discovered in the nineteenth century, then left abandoned in the Lateran depository. The painting was seized by decades of water damage and ambient conditions that undermined both the structural integrity of its wooden supports and the pictorial surface. Layers of color had fallen off to the point of revealing the naked canvas preparation and even the wood backing itself. Heavy coats of varnish applied over the years presented a real dilemma regarding how to identify the accurate materials to clean it and a proper plan of execution. Its state of disintegration also required creative research approaches in order to authenticate the author and geographical origin of the piece, which would influence restoration procedures.
When faced with the task of finding the right tactic to revive the painting—to bring it literally from the grave to a rebirth—restorer Marco Pratelli considered it a “true challenge…and an act of faith.”
And so began the process of rejuvenation. The team embarked on a six-year endeavor to elicit forth the visages of the saints, during which a complexity of scientific and historical-artistic studies were conducted behind the scenes. Dr. Adele Breda was the scholar of the work, and Professor U. Santamari and Dr. F. Morresi organized the scientific diagnostics. Marco Pratelli carried out the painting restoration with collaboration from M. Alesi for interventions with the wooden supports.
This team of workers put themselves in the middle of a project that was, indeed, a great act of faith. Countless hours were spent making the image more recognizable, and rehabilitating its framework. Ironically, in this remediation process, the four saints whose likenesses were being restored were themselves dedicated to the conversion and healing of others.
Saint Thomas in particular had abandoned his life to evangelizing the people of India, was therefore absent during the Assumption, giving rise to the legend depicted in the Madonna della Cintola. According to an ancient narrative, the Apostles were miraculously brought to Jerusalem to participate in witnessing the virgin mother Mary’s death. Poor St. Thomas who also missed the Resurrection was late again for this event! A few days later when he finally arrived and wished to venerate her body, the Apostles found the tomb was empty. There are different variations of the story, sometimes saying flowers and a sweet fragrance emanated from the sarcophagus. Of more interest in this case is the tradition of Mary gifting Her belt, or cintola, to the saint who expressed great belief and devotion to the Virgin Mary. Perhaps knowing his proclivity to doubt, the Virgin may have removed her belt as an everlasting sign of the Assumption, in the same way Christ invited St. Thomas to put his finger in His wound. But most probably Mary bestowed the belt to Thomas as a reward for his faith.
Many unknowns shroud this painting, among them being the motive for illustrating the particular group of saints along with St. Thomas. One could hypothesize that the person who commissioned the painting had a particular devotion to these four. There does, however, exist a commonality of each saint being graced such that their legacy involved a Holy presence made physically manifest during their lives of faith. For Thomas, it was his reception of the Virgin’s belt. To the right of Thomas, we see San Rocco, who had a steadfast sympathy for the poor and the sick, to whom he devoted his life of healing. Often when he would make the sign of the cross over those who suffered, they were miraculously cured; his vocation literally indicated by a birthmark in the form a red cross marked on his breast. Saint Catherine of Alexandria, while she is well recognized for her eloquence and grace in converting pagan philosophers, it is lesser known of her own quest for conversion. When her desire to unite her heart to the Lord was so strong, He blessed her faith in the form of a physical wedding band, which she wore until death. In the case of St. Bartholomew, who holds the knife in the painting, it was his own holy relics that were incapable of being destroyed. Although the Persians threw his coffin into the Black Sea during their siege of Mesopotamia, 250 years later in the 9th century, it was found on the coast of Lipari, where the faithful were once again found to venerate and be healed by his relics.
Not unlike those healed and strengthened by these saints, the restorers at the Vatican practically worked a miracle to bring back the Madonna della Cintola to life. The precarious and illegible state of the work required much patience, experimentation, innovative materials, and the use of new applications such as enzymes and bacteria for biological cleaning.
Structurally, the original containment system did not support the work but rather restricted the natural movement of the wood, creating significant cracking and splitting. New carbon fiber crosspiece supports were created for the work to provide paths for natural “breathing” of the wood. Wooden “axis” were then fixed to the supports and laid at appropriately calibrated springs to ensure a correct weight distribution for the massive work.
Reintegrating the image of the Cintola necessitated a delicate workmanship. Though the exact origin of the piece still remains unknown, the restoration process allowed scholars to attribute the painting to the workshop of artist Pagani. In this early 16th century work, Pratelli consulted prototypes and images from Pagani’s bottega as references. Where color was missing, he used a stippled watercolor effect with a tonality slightly less chromatic than the original, eventually rendering the piece readable.
Thanks to the compassion and determination of the restoration team, and the generosity of the Texas Patrons, this labor of love resulted in quite a transfiguration. A piece arrived in a tortured state and was nursed back to health. The Madonna della Cintola is one painting that bears witness to the power of faith.
To learn more about this painting’s cameo appearance in the Pinacoteca of the Vatican Museums, click here:
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