Art and Science in Partnership: Education of the Virgin

June 16, 2014

Emilio Botín is the chairman of Banco Santander, and last week I accompanied him and the leadership team of his Universia Foundation to the Yale University Art Gallery to visit a painting. Not just any painting, mind you; this was Education of the Virgin, now believed to be Diego Velázquez’s first significant commission. Chairman Botín, a Yale grandparent, and his foundation are supporting the restoration of this painting, which was donated to Yale in 1925. Quite damaged, it had been in storage for decades until John Marciari began to study it in 2005 and identified its true origins. After six years of research, Marciari, who holds a Ph.D. in art history from Yale, affirmed that Velázquez created the work around 1617 when he was only seventeen years old.

I had not seen the Velázquez previously, and I was captivated by the glowing face of the Virgin in this masterpiece, astounded that a 17-year-old painter could convey the purity in her expression. I was also captivated by the facial expression of our guest, Chairman Botín, as he listened to Carmen Albendea Fernandez, a painting conservator from Madrid who came to Yale to work on the restoration, describe the final phase of the process. A lover of the visual arts and obviously proud of the connection of this painting to Spanish heritage as well as “higher” education, he was clearly moved by the image emerging from this restoration project.

Following its amazing discovery, small paint samples from the painting traveled to the Institute for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage (IPCH) on Yale’s West Campus. Using sophisticated equipment at the IPCH, scientists completed a thorough examination of these samples with X-ray fluorescence spectrometry, optical and electron microscopy, and infrared and Raman spectroscopy. The research revealed the identity of the pigments, the use of a drying oil medium, and mixtures of blue and yellow to make greens in a particular technique closely associated with Velázquez.

This is a wonderful example of the intersection of art and science at Yale. With the involvement of Aniko Bezur and Jens Stenger, research scientists at IPCH, Larry Kanter, the Lionel Goldfrank III Curator of European Art at the Yale Art Gallery, Ian McClure, the Gallery’s Susan Morse Hilles Chief Conservator, and Carmen Albendea Fernandez, the visiting conservator from Spain, this stunning work will be returned to its original beauty and preserved for generations. This kind of collaboration across disciplines is a terrific example of what I mean when I speak about “a more unified Yale.”

The Education of the Virgin will travel to Spain for major exhibitions this fall and also will be displayed at the Louvre as part of an important Velázquez show in 2015. When it returns to campus, I hope many of you will visit the Yale University Art Gallery to see it in all its newfound glory.