In 2008 the original x ray film of Jan Lieven’s painting The Raising of Lazarus was scanned so that a digital image could be made. Software was used to remove confusing elements in the radiograph such as the wooden stretcher. This makes the paint layers clearer, giving more information about the painting.
Twelve sheets of x ray film were used to make an image of the whole painting. The x ray showed that Lievens had used the canvas at least once before. There is a very clear image of a woman’s head if the canvas is rotated 90 degrees clockwise.
Using x rays to study works of art
It is over a hundred years since x rays were first used by doctors to reveal the inner structure of the body and the process is still in extensive use today. In order to see what is hidden to the eye, x rays are directed through the body to expose film or a digital receptor placed behind the subject. The image is created by the density of the materials the x ray penetrates, or is absorbed by. For instance, in the human body, bones are denser than muscle so they appear white in the final image, whereas the x rays will pass through soft organs to show as dark areas.
In the 1890s it was realised the same principle could be used in the study of works of art. Certain pigments used in painting, such as white lead, are dense and will appear white in radiographs. If an artist has used a canvas more than once and the lower images contain such pigments, it may be possible to see early versions no longer visible on the surface.
This principle was applied to The Raising of Lazarus painting.
In 1968, following an enquiry from the Rembrandt Research Project, the National Gallery in London x rayed the painting. Art historians interested in Rembrandt’s early years have always taken a keen interest in the technique of Jan Lievens, as Lievens and Rembrandt were friends at the start of their careers in Leiden, Holland. The two artists painted the same subjects, challenged and inspired each other and may have shared a studio.
This blog post was originally published on the main Royal Pavilion and Museums’ website.