We owe virtually our entire catalogue of historical artifacts to the diligent army of restorers and conservators who beaver away behind the scenes to ensure that our share cultural history is preserved for the future. In fact, almost every piece of art or architecture from the medieval period has been restored or conserved over its lifetime: paintings will have been touched in a little as they degrade, buildings will have been rebuilt or repurposed. Without this careful maintenance, all we we would be left with are moth-eaten canvases and tumble-down ruins. So raise a glass to the restorers!

A conservator works on Michaelangelo’s David at the Galleria dell’Accademia, Florence (via POBA)

The restorer’s trade is a strange one, in that if they do their job well, nobody will ever notice. Sometimes, the best restorations are subtle and unobtrusive, enhancing what remains of the original, without being obnoxious. We’ll have a look at some of the best medieval restorations. But sometimes, things go horribly, hilariously wrong. Caused by well-meaning amateurism, we’ll also see some of the worst medieval restorations too.

Jan van Eyck’s Weird Sheep

Born in what was then the Spanish Netherlands some time before 1390 CE, the painter Jan van Eyck became the leading edge of the Northern Renaissance, which heralded the end of the Medieval period and the start of the Early Modern age, with its radical new ideas about art, architecture and philosophy. Van Eyck’s work is enormously respected in the international art world – and whilst most of it is groundbreaking and spectacular, some of it is a bit odd!

Jan van Eyck’s spectacular masterpiece the Ghent Altarpiece (completed 1432 CE) via Wikimedia Commons)

One such strange detail was discovered by conservators working on his magnum opus, the Ghent Altarpiece. Painted in the 1420s, it consists of twelve panels, depicting a whole panoply of biblical figures – and right in the center of the middle panel is the Lamb of God. The lamb, apparently painted in a naturalistic style, was heavily restored in the Victorian era – and when conservators at the Royal Institute for Cultural Heritage stripped off the old restoration work, a very different face was revealed! Van Eyck had originally depicted the lamb with strange, humanlike features! Rather than keeping the recent overpainting, conservators chose to restore van Eyck’s original intention. Bet the Victorian restorers would feel extremely sheepish for getting it wrong.

The Victorian restoration of the Lamb of God in van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece (left), and the modern restoration of van Eyck’s original intention (right) (via Wikimedia Commons)

York Minster’s Mammoth East Window Restoration

Northern England’s York Minister is one of the finest Medieval buildings in the world, and it took more than 200 years to build: begun in about 1230 CE, it was only finished in 1472 CE. And its crowning glory is its stained-glass, large amounts of which date back to its construction. The enormous East Window is the largest expanse of Medieval stained glass in Britain, the size of a full tennis court, and it took only three years to be made – an incredible feat, considering the scale of the project and the basic technologies available to the artisans. Finished in 1408, it was the work of master glazier John Thornton and a very small team of master craftsmen

A conservator carefully removes one of the East Window’s 311 panes during the restoration efforts in York Minster (via York Minster)

Having been haphazardly maintained until the Industrial era – it survived both its temporary removal during the Second World War to protect it from bombing, and a devastating fire in 1988 which gutted most of the building. The Minster embarked on full restoration of the whole window (all 311 of its leaded glass panes) in 2008. Raising over £11m for the project, the restoration of the East Window took twelve years to complete. Conservators, researchers, glaziers and stonemasons spent 92,400 hours of work to bring the window back to its former glory.

York Minster’s fully restored East Window in all of its glory. (via York Minster)

Tuscany’s Penis Tree Mystery

In beautiful Tuscany, a sleepy town called Massa Marittima was a thrumming metropolis in the 13th century. Becoming rich on its mines and its fertile countryside, the city threw off the influence of its Northern Italian rivals, and from about 1230 became a free state in its own right, entering a golden age. Around this time, a large communal font was built at a spring known locally as the Fountain of Abundance. To finish the place off and make it really stand out, a local artist painted an enormous mural of a tree on one wall – and not just any mural. The tree is festooned with dozens of penises!

The unrestored mural in about 2003, shortly after its discovery. (via Flickr)

Rather than being a fertility mural, it was actually highly political: Medieval audiences would immediately understand that an unnatural occurrence such as penises growing on trees are a ‘bad’ sign – and the tree is shown alongside a flock of crows, the symbol of one of the political factions of the town. So think of it like a political cartoon: voting for the other guy is like a treeful of penises. But there’s little doubt that the art was a careful and considered work: it was large and clearly took some time to make.

The mural laid hidden for centuries, until it was uncovered by chance in building work undertaken in 1999. Although it was in a pretty terrible condition, the gist of the mural – a treeful of testicles – was pretty clear from the off, and the reaction of the townspeople was initially mixed. Some thought it entirely appropriate for a fertile spring, and others felt it was distasteful and pornographic. However, it was quickly adopted as a local feature – and the town council raised money for its full restoration in 2008.

The restored Fountain of Abundance mural – some residents feel that the trees unusual fruit have been ‘airbrushed out’! (via Maremma)

But the restoration was not as straightforward as one might hope. The restorers airbrushed out the penises, drawing arbitrary foliage over them, and leaving only ghostly impressions. The town has been notoriously tight-lipped about the botched restoration since – was this the final revenge of the ‘distasteful and pornographic’ brigade…?

Honorable Mention: Cookie Monster Jesus

Although it’s not a Medieval work, we can’t talk about botched restorations without mentioning Ecce Homo (‘Behold The Man’), the 1930s fresco of Jesus Christ that was spectacularly mis-restored by an amateur painter. A sober (hilarious) warning to leave restoration work to the professionals.

Ecco Homo by Elías García Martínez, original (left), damaged (center) and ‘restored’ by Cecilia Giménez (right), which, despite the restorer’s good intentions, has become a viral sensation for its unique interpretation of the original. (via New York Times)

About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.