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Playing peek-a-boo with paint

How new technology is revealing the secrets buried in old paintings

‘The Battle Between Carnival And Lent’ (1559). Photo: Wikimedia Commons
‘The Battle Between Carnival And Lent’ (1559). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A picture, it is said, is worth a thousand stories. But what if some of those stories are hidden deep beneath the surface of the canvas, invisible to the naked eye? The idea sounds fantastical, something that Dan Brown will probably think up, but it does exist in the real world, outside the Da Vinci Code.

A report in The New York Times recently drew attention to a project that uses technology to unlock the secrets of art. Inside Bruegel, initiated with the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, provides a magical look into the work of the 16th century Dutch Old Master, Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Using advanced imaging methods—X-ray radiography, macrophotography, infrared reflectography—experts have created a platform to allow the general public to scrutinize some of the greatest paintings by Bruegel in detail. Click on and you will have tools to inspect works like The Battle Between Carnival And Lent (1559) and Children’s Games (1560) with the hawk-eyed vision of Sherlock Holmes. The imaging techniques allow you to note the changes that were made to the paintings across the centuries.

The first work, for instance, is a panoramic canvas that depicts Saturnalian feasting and austere fasting, denoting the Christian rituals of Carnival and Lent. With his interest in depicting every vice human beings could think up using macabre visual imagery, Bruegel is in dazzling form in this work. Alongside suffering penitents and miserable nuns, there are gluttons holding aloft a suckling pig on a stake and drunks absorbed in merry-making. But under X-ray, strange puzzles emerge: such as a corpse next to a sick child that was painted over or another that was smudged inside a cart. The plague or pestilence as an expression of God’s wrath featured heavily in Bruegel’s work, even though his allegories challenged many premises of Christian thought. But let art historians ponder the reasons behind these alterations. The rest of us can savour the mysteries technology has unlocked.

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