Unexpected discoveries found deep in the collections are one of the joys of working at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The Gold Room, or more correctly, Panels from Palace of the Grand Prior, Knights of Malta, Temple, Paris, continues to surprise me, and I have been conserving and researching the piece for nearly 25 years. This lavishly gilded and painted paneling was acquired in 1942 and installed on the first floor as part of a 17th-century French period room. (See FIG. 1. Gold Room, 42-39, old installation.) In the 1980s, it was walled up to create a new gallery, since the paneled room was considered a shadow of its former self.
It was, in a sense, re-discovered in the 1990s, when the conservation team looked behind the temporary walls. A tantalizing clue was revealed on one of the panels — a white Maltese Cross. (See FIG. 2. Maltese Cross, 42-39, Panel 31.) Similar crosses appear on other panels, either partially erased or covered with fresher gold leaf. A freelance researcher who worked in the Parisian archives proposed that the paneling might be from a palace built in 1667, belonging to the Knights of Malta in Paris, whose grand priors were closely connected to Louis XIV. Very similar panels are depicted in a magnificent room from the Temple seen in a 1777 painting by J-M. Ollivier, which is now in Versailles. A recent examination of this painting revealed a paneled room with at least one small Maltese Cross under the heavy old varnish on the painting, confirming a link to our Gold Room.
The Getty Museum has 10 panels of a very similar style. On several of them we noticed an odd blank area of gilding. Scientific imaging revealed a Maltese Cross covered up by a later application of gilding, indicating that the panels are probably from the same room as ours. But when were the crosses hidden? During the French Revolution, or perhaps by someone who did not want to be associated with the Order
Another mystery remains in an elegant monogram visible on one panel, perhaps that of an owner of the room (FIG. 3. Monogram and erased Maltese Cross, 42-39, Panel 8). It does not conform to any grand priors or royals of the time, though the use of smalt suggests that is part of the oldest paneling. A possible candidate is Adrien de Wignacourt, the Grand Master of the Order of Malta in 1690, who died in 1697. “W” was not used in French at the time — could this be the “V”? Some contemporary French texts name the Grand Master as de Vignancourt. If this is so, the date of the paneling can be narrowed to 1690-97. More research is needed.
Scientific studies have been invaluable in sorting out our 104 panels, distinguishing original pieces of the room from later additions. When the palace was torn down in 1853, the panels were sold to an aristocratic family in Russia and then ended up in a palace in Florence. Each installation would have required fitting to a differently shaped room, so pieces of paneling were re-configured or added to. Pigments studies can provide valuable clues. For example, smalt, a historic blue pigment that went out of use in the 18th century, is found on the panels with the Maltese Crosses, which are the ones with the finest painting. Less well-executed panels do not use smalt, and are likely to be from a later date. Microscopic studies show that original oak wood framing was painted an off-white color, not the dirty brown we see now.
Cleaning of the panels began in 2018, and now the original sparkling gold and bright colors are slowly emerging (FIG. 4. Detail of the East Wall, partially cleaned). We look forward to exhibiting our discoveries when the cleaning is completed.
–Kate Garland, Senior Conservator, Objects, all photos courtesy of The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art