Researchers have discovered a rare painting from the 16th century, which appears to have survived the centuries only because it was turned around, while the back was used for another purpose.
The brightly painted wooden panel depicts the Kiss of Judas Iscariot, a scene of the betrayal of Jesus Christ by one of his followers. It is one of the images used in the Catholic devotional practice known as the Stations of the Cross, and should have been destroyed by during the 16th-century Protestant Reformation, when nearly all religious art was purged. “A regime of systematic iconoclasm was implemented,” explains the website of national art museum Tate Britain. “Orders were given to ‘utterly extinct and destroy’ images ‘so that there remain no memory of the same’.
But the painting went unscathed and was sold to Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge in 2012. When it arrived at the museum’s art conservation department, it was covered with dust, cobwebs, bat feces, and old varnish, conservator Lucy Wrapson told the Guardian. The back was also covered by a plywood board.
Wrapson found traces of handwriting on the back of the panel when she removed the plywood. With the help of infra-red photography, she found that the panel had once been flipped over, whitewashed, and used for other displays. Wrapson attributes the painting’s survival to this repurposing. She added that the ingenious conservation measure was “quite likely” done by “someone who did not want [the painting] destroyed.”
The painting is now on display in the museum’s gallery of medieval works.