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Scanning for secrets

January 25th, 2019

two women look into the cylindrical chamber of a CT Scanning machine at a wooden sclpture.
Lisa Ellis, AGO Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, and Nancy Padfield, Lead Technologist in CT scans at SickKids, line up the statue in the CT machine © Art Gallery of Ontario

It was just a regular day in November when the AGO’s Lisa Ellis, Conservator of Sculpture and Decorative Arts, along with Conservation Intern Julia Campbell-Such, had the not-so-regular task of carefully packing up a 300-year-old sculpture and taking it down the street to the SickKids for a CT scan.

Virgin and Child, an exquisite early 18th-century wooden sculpture is arguably one of the finest in the AGO Collection, and it is rare for valuable artworks like this to travel outside the AGO. To prepare the sculpture for its short journey, it was carefully wrapped in Tyvek (a material used to protect buildings during construction) to shield it from moisture and packed in a special foam-filled Clydesdale case – the same brand used to ship the Stanley Cup.

So, why did we do all of this? Well, there was so much about this precious sculpture that we didn’t know. Who carved it? How was it made? Due to a thin sheet of pounded gold covering the figure, it was impossible to tell if it was made from many or just one piece of wood. As well, the base of the statue is covered with stickers – an old museum practice used when works would travel or enter a collection. The stickers obscure what looks like an artist’s inscription. The AGO’s award-winning conservation team decided that doing a CT scan of the statue would be the perfect way to take an in-depth look at all the things about the artwork that we couldn’t find out – without having to touch it.

Check out the photos below of the statue in the CT scanner:

Julia Campbell-Such, Conservation Intern and Lisa Ellis prepare the statue for scanning © Art Gallery of Ontario
Wooden sculpture on a white table being scanned by lines of red laser light.
The Virgin and Child statue is scanned in the CT Machine © Art Gallery of Ontario

On the day of the CT scan, more than 1,500 images were taken by the hospital’s CT scanner. These were then used to create a virtual model we could investigate further to see inside the painted wooden sculpture. In this way, we discovered the statue was indeed made of one solid piece of wood, which means the work is very stable and less vulnerable to damage. Unfortunately, we didn’t find an inscription underneath the many stickers on the base, but instead found small grooves from an unknown instrument, leaving the identity of the artist still a mystery. The scan, however, did uncover a small hollow tunnel at the bottom of the sculpture, suggesting it was once anchored somewhere, possibly to an altar in a church.

A three-dimensional image on the hospital computer, reconstructed from the data from the CT scan © Art Gallery of Ontario

This is not the first time the AGO has used CT scanning to find answers to questions that have long eluded art historians. During our Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures exhibition in 2016 we worked with colleagues all over the world (including NASA) to find out how our collection of Gothic boxwood miniatures were made.

The AGO conservation team is continuing its research into the Virgin and Child sculpture, using resources from the Canadian Conservation Institute to analyze small paint samples to learn about the colourful make-up of the original painted surface.

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