Renaissance Madonna painting mystery heats up
Hebrew 'vanishes' up close, reappears at distance:
an artifact of restoration or a well-hidden message? 
•See also three Madonnas discussed

By Michael E. Abrams

Copyright 2011

Cincinnati - It is Dec. 18, 2010,  and ice and snow mark our flight path from a humid 70 degree winter morning in Florida. 

We have departed Florida for the scene of our mystery in Cincinnati with a friend and former colleage, Prof. Gerald Grow, who kindly agreed to join me for this reprise with permission from his wife Christ'l, who happens to be an accomplished artist.

  We want to look more closely at the 1530s Madonna and child, painted by Antwerp master Joos van Cleve, subject of my speculation about the counterfeit passion flower and the surprising Hebrew script on her garment. Dr. Grow, who denies being something of a 'renaissance man,'  has written about art and and is one of those special sure-footed people around the humanities. You could look him up and see

Gerald suggests I brace myself to the possibility that the Hebrew script doesn't exist. He knows that paintings contain illusions, and that people often see what they want to see in paintings.

I don't believe him. I've seen the Hebrew.  I have been talking about this discovery with art historians. Only one has warned me that I could be wrong in the interpretation - but he also sees the script as Hebrew.

Our good fortune is that Cincinnati Art Museum conservator Per Knutas has agreed to put the painting under a lens to examine what from six feet away has been read as Hebrew - and which some art historians say looks a lot like Hebrew.  A rabbi say the Hebrew reads "I am the Lord Your God."

The big surprise

The lens apparatus is focused. I am eager to see. The blue light of the Madonna's garment suffuses my eyes, my senses are sharpening. Scratches. Hebrew? The letters seem to disappear in a higgledy-piggledy of scratches. How can this be? How is it that one so surely sees, and does not see? 

Knutas believes that the Hebrew I saw was the artifact of "impainting" or painting restoration. It looks as if scratches were under repair.  "Sometimes things are painted over," he says. "It is one thing to see under strong light and another to see in the gallery."

I am back home, and have had a few weeks to think and to clear my mind. Meanwhile, a photograph of a third rendering of the Madonna painting has come to me from France.

This painting, darker than the others, is the mentioned by art historian Burton L. Dunbar  of Kansas City, in  The Collection of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art: German and Netherlandish Paintings 1450-1600  (2005, Museum in Association with the University of Washington Press, Seattle).

The Kansas City museum holds Madonna number two. I discuss all three Madonnas.

Neither the Kansas City or the French museum paintings have Hebrew script. But then again, neither alternative madonna holds a counterfeit passion flower, as in the Cincinnati painting.

My friend Dr. Grow has pointed out to me the eyes specialize in illusion.  What we see is not often real. Scientists thought they saw "canals" on the planet Mars.

As I search for explanation, I am aware from a distance, I see the Hebrew. The photographs on the page about this madonna, with the Hebrew, are as real as the one above, but the light is different, the magnification different.

Why we see what we see

James Elkins, in debunking much of what his fellow art historians find nowadays in pictures as pretentious,  wrote Why Are Our Pictures Puzzles: On the Modern Origins of Pictorial Complexity (1999, Routledge, New York). He addresses "hidden images" in paintings and names them "cryptomorphs, anapmorphs and aleamorphs."

"On occasion" writes Elkins, "it is possible to argue against a cryptomorph by noting the part played by the medium, itself. Just as a sponge or rag soaked in paint will produce certain characteristic forms that cannot be cleanly controlled, so oil paint and other media are sometimes recalcitrant or unpredictable, and the simple act of making an image will produce unintended "hidden" images."

Elkins argues we live in a century of cryptomorphic interpretation, and the search for complexity in art is accompanied by this cryptophile bias, Elkins believes.  The century is coincidentally the century of the Rorschach method, where people find visual experience in ink blots, he writes.

A cryptomorph is usually a picture that can be seen only by someone who sees a puzzle in a painting - perhaps a cloud resembling an ankh. My friend Dr. Grow has suggested "homomorph" for words that seem to appear and disappear.

But in arguing the point, we are perhaps missing something. The process of restoration is a two-way street. Something is painted on, something is covered up. In 500 years, according to conservator Knutas,  any such painting would have been restored, perhaps many times.  Every painting that age has a career of restoration.
    Author looks, conservator Per Knutas stands by.      Photo Gerald Grow   
   Close up, what looks like Hebrew appears as scratches.   Photo Gerald Grow

  From a distance the Hebrew letters resolve themselves.   Photo M. Abrams

What if impainting obscured original message?

What if the process of impainting someone with good intentions affected the clarity of the message? Suppose an artisan who thought to restore the painting did not recognize the Hebrew script and began to paint over it?  The missing first letter of the message, the letter Aleph, may have been painted over.  This possibility raises additional questions.

The prism of history

As days go by, my own thoughts turn toward what still, somehow, seems a Hebrew message. The mind travels to old Antwerp, where Joos van Cleve, a master of the guild, worked with his assistants to put his paintings up for sale in the new thriving art markets in the 1530s. Merchants from around the world flocked to bring spices and cloth and rare metals and silks to the second largest port on the continent. Sailing for a different reason from Lisbon to London to Antwerp were refugees from the Inquisition.  These were Jews who had been forced to renounce their heritage and convert to Christianity under penalty of death. Thousands fled Spain and Portugal. The new visitors, known as the Portuguese Nation, were sometimes harassed  and extorted by the ruling class, and usually freed from prison when arrested – upon paying a ransom or bribe. All of this is documented in a groundbreaking book about early Jewish presence in Antwerp by Aron di Leone Leoni, The Hebrew Portuguese Nations in Antwerp and London and the time of Charles V and Henry VIII: New Documents and Interpretations  (2005, KTAV Publishing House, Jersey City, N.J.) As in an underground railroad, many were smuggled to Italy in a terrifying journey over the Alps, through threat of ambush and arrest, where Ferrara was an open city for them. It was one of the few that welcomed the Portuguese and allowed them the freedom once more to practice their religion.

The Mind's Eye - Fantasy or Possibility? 

In my mind's eye  I envision this van Cleve painting adorning the foyer of a safe house, where Portuguese refugees found thick, warm blankets. The painting has been artfully altered. The safe house is a place of the Sign of the Madonna. Outwardly the house is a holy place to the Spanish officials and others, with signs of the most holy Church,  Surreptitiously, it contains a note of sublime irony and brings divine comfort. Here was a painting that could be reverenced by the Church. For the cleric, the passion flower with its whips and wounds and crown of thorns drew attention away from the area containing the patina of Hebrew lettering, fixed in a clear medium. It was tattooed onto the painting by a very clever artisan, who knew the trick of translucence.  The words were painted for the Jews who could witness the symbolism. "I am the Lord thy God who has brought thee out of the land of Egypt." A clever intrigue and a most dangerous game in which the password was recognition of the text. A shibboleth.

I cannot argue with the disappearance of the text under modern lighting and modern lens. But does it not seem strange that this very script would appear at a distance under certain lighting conditions. Does it not seem possible that an artist ot the time would know how to work with translucent paints, as with an egg white, to superimpose a patina upon this Madonna, a patina that still exists today even after restoration?

Science tells me that I am taking the wrong path, but my naive and perhaps unschooled senses tell me I am right.  Despite the evidence, it's difficult to accept the scenario of scratches culminating in a diagram that resembles Hebrew letters and words. Too many coincidentals exist.  The scratches and impainting could have taken thousands of other forms. The fact that the letters appear, even under specific conditions,  seems to reflect an intelligent design. A clock must have a designer as a painting must have an artist. It cannot assemble itself in a thousand years, as a thousand chimpanzees with typewriters will never be able to write a poem.

Feel free to choose the path most consonant with your own perceptions. Better yet, visit the Cincinnati Museum of Art and see the mystery for yourself.  Perhaps you will see the Hebrew letters. Perhaps you will see scratches.

The mystery is solved, yet unsolved.

An answer exists. An answer does not exist.

One must say, the long journey, at least, has been worthwhile.

Michael E. Abrams is a professor of journalism at Florida A&M University.
He may be reached at