Exploring the Rijksmuseum dataset

Judith with the Head of Holofernes

Pordenone (circle of), Judith with the Head of Holofernes, 1500 - 1539

  • Oil on canvas
  • h 103.5cm × w 86.5cm

The biblical city of Bethulia is under attack.

General Holofernes is about to deliver his final blow. Only then Judith, a rich widow, decides to protect her city once and for all from damnation.

After nightfall, Judith and her maid go to the enemy camp and with the help of their bewildering beauty manage to easily reach the tent of the General. Holofernes is deceived by believing Judith has romantic intentions. Instead she gets him drunk and cuts off his head. As soon as the soldiers find out their leader is dead, they flee in blind panic.

Around 1500, the Italian painter Pordenone depicted Judith holding the head in the company of her maid and the murder weapon. This is one of the first examples of a painting on canvas rather than on wooden panel in the Rijksmuseum collection.

Canvas took over from panel in Italy by the first half of the 16th century. In the Netherlands a similar transition took place, but only about a century later.

From Panel to Canvas and back again

Traditionally moveable images were painted on panel.

Panels are made of one or more wooden planks joined together, either horizontally or vertically.

In northern Europe oak was the wood of choice, whereas in the south white poplar was the most popular. The thickness of the planks ranged from 5 to 15 mm depending on the surface of the entire work, which was limited due to the weight of its construction.

Around 1500 canvas was introduced as a support medium in Italy, more precisely in Venice. This city was renowned for its high quality canvas made for sailing. The advantages of canvas are the reduced costs and increased portability. Canvas could be transported rolled up to be mounted on a frame after arriving at its destination.

Painting on panel, however, never went completely out of fashion. In the nineteenth century we even see a revival of the use of wooden panels.

Canvas vs. Panel | Stacked area chart


The stacked area chart shows us the use of support mediums in the Rijksmuseum dataset. We can switch between a relative and absolute view. The more years we group together, for example 50, the clearer the graph becomes. This allows us to see the introduction of canvas around 1500, the increase in usage until about 1700, and the comeback of panel around the 1850s.

The devil is in the detail

Over time, panel warps, canvas relaxes, and paint loses its elasticity.

These processes ultimately lead to a fine pattern of cracks.

Paint craquelure can not only be used to determine the age of paintings, but also to detect art forgery. Scientific analysis can equally tell us a great deal about the origin of the materials used. Nevertheless, the eye can certainly be deceived.

Do the test

Art historians are trained to look at the details of an image to discover its truths and mysteries. Try it yourself and take the challenge by answering these questions.

  1. 1. Which of these paintings do you think is the oldest?
  2. 2. Two are made around 1300. Which one is the forgery made 600 years later?
  3. 3. Use your mouse or finger and drag the images in their correct order from old to new. Need a hint?

Reading the image

All three artworks are painted with tempera on a wooden panel.

They also share the same subject, Maria or Madonna with Child, and are painted in a similar style. The style resembles that of the Sienese School, of which Duccio di Buoninsegna is considered to be the founder.

Actually, the third artwork is a carefully executed copy of the first one, Duccio’s Crevole Madonna dating from around 1280. The second artwork was made around 1300 by a Master so close to Duccio that they are hardly distinguishable from each other.

Taking a closer look

As we zoom in on the paintings we see very different patterns of paint craquelure.

The third artwork has an unusual pattern. The exaggerated horizontal cracks of the copy after Duccio tell us that this is a modern reproduction.

You may also notice the use of lines instead of subtle color transitions that can be observed in the first two panel paintings. Even so, the execution suggests the copier was very familiar with the history of art.

The forger not only copied material, subject and painting style, but also aging processes.

Moving over

In the golden background we can detect a finely punched pattern in relief.

Typically a panel was prepared for gilding by applying a red layer of clay, to which gold leaf adheres better. Over time, this red background color can become visible in places where the gilding has worn off.

This is especially visible in the modern copy, which is of course not at all – or at least much less – subject to wear and tear. The display of aging processes no doubt gave additional persuasiveness to the forgery at first sight.

It is relatively certain that the first two Madonna’s were produced in or near Siena. Although we do not always know where a painter worked, the place of birth and place of death have often been preserved.

Unknown, 1890-1920
Duccio di Buoninsegna, 1283-1284
Master of Badia a Isola, ca. 1300

Migration of artists

When describing a work of art we usually only mention its current location.

So for all paintings in the Rijksmuseum digital collection this would be Amsterdam.

The place of manufacture, however, is far more relevant from an art historical perspective. Although we often do not know where exactly a painting was made, the place of birth and death of the artist can give away valuable clues. At the very least these places give an indication of the geographic area where a painter was active during his lifetime.

In the visualization below hierarchical edge bundling is used to display all places of birth and death associated with the painters in the Rijksmuseum dataset. Blue lines show patterns of emigration, whereas yellow or red lines show patterns of immigration. If you hover over the name of a country (inner circle) or city (outer circle), all artist migrations related to that specific country or city light up.

The majority of the artists are from the Netherlands, with the city of Amsterdam as the biggest creative hub. What also stands out is that Italy attracted painters from various nationalities, while most Italians moved only within their own country.

Artist Migrations | Hierarchical Edge Bundling

seven works of mercy, master of alkmaar

Deliberately Damaged

For some of the most famous artworks, we do not know who the maker is.

The Seven Works of Mercy was commissioned by the regents of the Holy Spirit Almshouse in Alkmaar.

It is a polyptych consisting of seven panels held together by its original frame. Despite the fact that the artwork encourages merciful action, it was viciously attacked at the time of the Iconoclastic Fury. Each panel was slashed with sharp objects, especially the faces. The middle panel represents the climax of the violence that was done to the medieval cartoon.

On this panel two scenes have been combined. The upper half depicts the Last Judgment. On Judgment Day, Christ will distinguish between the righteous and the unjust, who will either go to heaven or burn forever in hell. The observance of the Seven Works of Mercy during life can be decisive. The vision of Christ flanked by Mary and John the Baptist remained remarkably unharmed.

The lower half represents the seventh work of mercy, to bury the dead. Monks carry a coffin to a pit. The grave digger and two priests stand beside the grave, and the ceremony is attended by clergymen dressed in black. From 1971 to 1975 all panels of The Seven Works of Mercy underwent large-scale restoration, and were stripped of their later retouches. This revealed the purposeful mutilation of especially the middle panel.

When sliding from the image in color to the recording from the 70s in black and white, the damage becomes clearly visible. All human figures connected to the Roman Catholic Church were scratched or even scraped off completely. The main criticism was their practices of providing indulgences in exchange for money. In the eyes of the perpetrators, part of the Protestant Reformation, this was a foul trade.

The faces where no paint is left now show underdrawings. Nevertheless, the conservation team of the Rijksmuseum decided to only partly reconstruct and retouch the frame and panels of The Seven Works of Mercy. As a result the images can be read without much distraction, while some of the history of the artwork remains visible as well.

Slide with mouse or finger

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Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504

  • Oil on panel
  • h 103.5cm × w 56.8cm

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This article is part of my PhD thesis where I am researching the opportunities and possible impact of digital technologies for art historical research.

Your thoughts and reactions are very welcome and greatly appreciated, so please feel free to drop me a line below.

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