Restoration Uncovers Four Figures Hidden in 17th-Century Painting

The discovery sheds new light on the painting’s anti-Catholic message

Kathy Hebb

In a 17th-century painting that hangs in the Yale Divinity School, a group of Reformation thinkers clusters around a table, with Martin Luther occupying pride of place at the center of the scene. But beneath its peeling layers of gray paint, a conservator recently found four Catholic figures hidden among the tribute to revered Protestant leaders, Vittoria Traverso reports for Atlas Obscura. The discovery sheds new light on the painting’s message, revealing a pointed critique of Catholic doctrine.

Conservator Kathy Hebb was performing restoration work on the painting, created by an unknown artist, when she first spotted pops of color under cracks in the foreground of the piece. According to Mike Cummings of Yale News, Hebb used surgical scalpels to chip away at the paint, uncovering four figures located at the bottom of the painting. There, situated in front of the table, she found a pope, a cardinal, a monk and a bull symbolizing the papal bull, an official document issued by the pope. The figures careen their heads upward, trying to blow out a candle that sits on the table.

Original Image
Modified Image
Photo credit: Kathy Hebb

Hebb had suspected that she would find such a scene. Prior to revealing the lost figures, she consulted similar works housed in other institutions—including an engraving at the British Museum—and found that they featured four figures trying to snuff out the Protestant leaders’ light. The engraving also includes an inscription: “The candle is lighted, we cannot blow out.”

The series evokes the iconography of the Last Supper, during which Jesus, surrounded by his apostles, blessed the group’s bread and wine. Luther, the German theologian who gave rise to the Protestant Reformation, occupies Jesus’ place in the Yale painting. He is flanked by 17 prominent reformers, among them John Calvin and Theodore Beza.

Instead of bread and wine, a bible and candle sits on the reformers’ table, a reference to a major point of contention between Catholics and Protestants. Catholic doctrine holds that the Eucharist, or the bread and wine consumed during communion, contains the literal flesh and blood of Christ. John Calvin rejected this notion, maintaining that Christ was spiritually, but not physically, present during the sacred ritual.

“The reformers were arguing against key aspects of Catholicism,” Felicity Harley-McGowan, art historian and lecturer at Yale Divinity School, tells Cummings. “This image makes a statement about the primacy of the Word”—the Bible—“over the Eucharist.”

The newly discovered figures lend a tone of defiance to a painting already rich with symbolism. The Catholics try to blow out the “light” of the Reformation, but they cannot.

Experts believe that the Catholic figures were obscured during the 18th century, but they aren’t sure why. “Perhaps it was done to prevent offense to Catholics,” Harley-McGowan suggests. “Or maybe at a time when the meaning of the image had been lost, an art dealer thought the painting would sell more easily without the Catholic figures and the labels.”

After staying hidden for centuries, the original version of the Yale painting is now on display at the Yale Divinity School. It is a fitting time for the debut of the restored work; October 31 will mark the 500th year since Luther affixed his 95 Theses to the door of a German church, catalyzing the Reformation.

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