Authors: Arturo Pérez-Reverte
The Secrets of Meister Van Huys
God moves the player, he in turn the piece.
But what god beyond God begins the round
Of dust and time and sleep and agonies?
Jorge Luis Barges
A sealed envelope is an enigma containing further enigmas. This particular one was of the large, bulky manila variety with the name of the laboratory stamped in the lower left-hand corner. And, as she weighed it in her hand whilst scrabbling for a paper knife amongst the many brushes and bottles of paint and varnish, Julia could never have imagined the extent to which the gesture of slitting it open would change her life.
In fact, she already knew what the envelope contained. Or, as she discovered later, she thought she did. Perhaps that’s why she felt no special sense of anticipation until she’d removed the prints from the envelope, spread them out on the table and looked at them, almost holding her breath. Only then did she realise that her work on
The Game of Chess
would be far from routine. Unexpected discoveries, in paintings, on furniture, even on the binding of antiquarian books, were commonplace in her profession. During her six years of restoring works of art, she’d uncovered her fair share of preliminary sketches and pentimenti, of retouching and repainting and even forgeries. But never had she come across an inscription concealed beneath the painted surface of a picture: three words revealed by X-ray photography.
She picked up her crumpled pack of unfiltered cigarettes and lit one, unable to take her eyes off the prints. Given the evidence of the 12 x 16 inch X-ray plates, there was no possible room for doubt. The painting was a fifteenth-century Flemish panel, and the original sketch, done in grasaille, was as clearly visible as the grain of the wood and the glued joints of the three pieces of oak that made up the panel on which, out of lines, brush strokes and layers of underpaint, the artist had gradually created his work. At the bottom of the painting, brought to light after five centuries, thanks to radiography, was the hidden phrase, its Gothic characters standing out in sharp contrast against the black and white of the plate.
QUIS NECAVIT EQUITEM
Julia knew enough Latin to be able to translate it without a dictionary:
interrogative pronoun meaning “who”,
“to kill”, and
the accusative singular of
“knight”. Who killed the knight? Adding a question mark, which, in Latin, the use of
rendered redundant, lent the phrase an air of mystery.
WHO KILLED THE KNIGHT?
It was disconcerting. She took a long pull at her cigarette, holding it in her right hand whilst with her left she rearranged the X-ray photos on the table. Someone, possibly the painter himself, had planted a kind of puzzle in the picture and had then concealed it with a layer of paint. Or perhaps someone else had done so at a later date. That gave her approximately five hundred years to play with in dating the inscription. The notion pleased Julia. Solving the mystery shouldn’t prove too difficult. After all, that was her job.
She picked up the photos and got to her feet. The grey light from the large window in the sloping ceiling fell directly on to the painting on the easel.
The Game of Chess,
oil on wood, painted in 1471 by Pieter Van Huys. She stood in front of it and looked at it for a long time. It was a domestic interior painted in minute fifteenth-century detail, the sort of scene with which the great Flemish masters, using oil for the first time, had laid the foundations of modern painting. The main subjects were two gentlemen of noble appearance, in their middle years, sitting on either side of a chessboard on which a game was in progress.
In the background to the right, next to a lancet window framing a landscape, a lady, dressed in black, was reading the book that lay in her lap. Completing the scene were the painstaking details typical of the Flemish school, recorded with a perfection that bordered on the obsessive: the furniture and decorations, the black-and-white tiled floor, the design on the carpet, a tiny crack in the wall, the shadow cast by a minuscule nail in one of the ceiling beams. The painting of the chessboard and chess pieces was executed with the same precision as the faces, hands and clothes of the people depicted, with a realism that contributed to the painting’s extraordinarily fine finish, its colours still brilliant despite the inevitable darkening caused by the gradual oxidation of the original varnish.
Who killed the knight? Julia looked at the photo she was holding and then at the picture, where, to the naked eye, not a trace of the hidden inscription was visible. Even closer examination, using a binocular microscope x7, revealed nothing. She lowered the blind over the large skylight, plunging the room into darkness, and near the easel placed a tripod on which was mounted an ultraviolet lamp. Under its rays all the oldest materials, paints and varnishes would show up as fluorescent, whereas more recent ones would appear dark or black, thus revealing any later repainting and retouching. In this case, however, the ultraviolet light revealed only a uniformly fluorescent surface, including the part concealing the inscription. This indicated that it had been painted over either by the artist himself or very soon after the painting was completed.
She switched off the lamp and raised the blind. The steely light of the autumn morning again spilled onto the easel and the painting; it filled the whole book-cluttered studio, its shelves overflowing with paints and brushes, varnishes and solvents, the floor a jumble of carpentry tools, picture frames and precision instruments, antique sculptures, bronzes and wooden stretchers, pictures that rested, face to the wall, on the valuable but paint-stained Persian carpet. In a corner, on a Louis XV bureau, sat a hi-fi surrounded by piles of records: Don Cherry, Mozart, Miles Davis, Satie, Lester Bowie, Michael Edges, Vivaldi… On one wall a gold-framed Venetian mirror presented Julia with a slightly blurred image of herself: shoulder-length hair, faint shadows (from lack of sleep) under her large, dark and, as yet, unmade-up eyes. Whenever Cesar saw her face framed in gold by that mirror, he used to say that she was as lovely as one of da Vinci’s models,
ma pui bella.
And although Cesar could be considered more of an expert on young men than on madonnas, Julia knew that what he said was absolutely right. Even she enjoyed looking at herself in that gold-framed mirror, because it always gave her a sense of having suddenly emerged on the other side of a magic door, a door through which she’d leapfrogged time and space, and it returned to her an image of herself that had all the robustness of an Italian Renaissance beauty.
She smiled to think of Cesar. She always smiled when she thought of him and had since she was a child. It was a smile of tenderness, often a smile of complicity. She put the X-ray photos down on the table, stubbed out her cigarette in the heavy bronze ashtray signed by Benlliure and sat down at her typewriter.
The Game of Chess
Oil on wood. Flemish school. Dated 1471.
Artist: Pieter Van Huys (1415-1481).
Base: Three fixed oak panels, joined by glue.
Dimensions: 60 x 87 cm (three identical panels of 20 x 87).
Thickness of panel: 4 cm.
State of preservation of base: No warping. No noticeable damage by woodworm.
State of preservation of the painted surface: Good adhesion and cohesion of the layer structure. No changes in colour. Some craquelure due to ageing, but no blistering or scaling.
State of preservation of surface film: No apparent traces of salt exudation or damp. Excessive darkening of the varnish due to oxidation; varnish removal and new varnish advisable.
The coffeepot was bubbling in the kitchen. Julia got up and poured herself a large cup, black, no sugar. She returned with the cup in one hand, drying the other on the baggy man-size sweater she was wearing over her pyjamas. A light touch of her index finger and the sounds of Vivaldi’s
Concerto for lute and viola d’amore
burst upon the room, gliding on the grey morning light. She took a sip of thick, bitter coffee that burned the tip of her tongue. Then she sat down again, her feet bare on the carpet, and continued typing the report.
UV and X-ray examination: Detected no obvious major changes, alterations or subsequent repaints. The X-rays reveal a concealed inscription of the period, in Gothic lettering (see enclosed prints). This is not visible using conventional methods of examination. It could be uncovered without damage to the original by removing the layer of paint now covering the area.
She removed the sheet of paper from the typewriter and put it in an envelope with the X-ray photos, drank the rest of the coffee, which was still hot, and settled down to smoke another cigarette. Before her on the easel, in front of the lady by the window absorbed in her reading, the two chess players were engaged in a game that had been going on now for five centuries, a game depicted by Pieter Van Huys with such rigour and mastery that, like all the other objects in the picture, the chess pieces seemed to stand out in relief from the surface. The sense of realism was so intense that the painting effortlessly achieved the effect sought by the old Flemish masters: the integration of the spectator into the pictorial whole, persuading him that the space in which he stood was the same as that represented in the painting, as if the picture were a fragment of reality, or reality a fragment of the picture. Adding to this effect were the window on the right-hand side of the composition, showing a landscape
the central scene, and a round, convex mirror on the wall to the left, reflecting the foreshortened figures of the players and the chessboard, distorted according to the perspective of the spectator, who would be standing
the scene. It thus achieved the astonishing feat of integrating three planes - window, room and mirror - into one space. It was, thought Julia, as if the spectator were reflected between the two players, inside the painting.
She went over to the easel. Arms folded, she stood looking at the painting for a long time, utterly still, apart from drawing occasionally on her cigarette and screwing up her eyes against the smoke. One of the chess players, the one on the left, looked to be about thirty-five. His brown hair was shaved just above the ears in the medieval fashion; he had a strong, aquiline nose and a look of intense concentration. He was wearing a doublet painted in a vermilion that had admirably withstood both the passage of time and the oxidation of the varnish. Round his neck he wore the insigne of the Golden Fleece and near his right shoulder an exquisite brooch, whose filigree pattern was rendered in minute detail, right down to the tiny gleam of light on each precious stone. He was sitting with his left elbow and right hand resting on the table on either side of the board. Between the fingers of his right hand he was holding one of the chess pieces: a white knight. By his head there was an identifying inscription in Gothic lettering:
FERDINANDUS OST. D.
The other player was thinner and about forty. He had a smooth forehead and almost black hair turning to grey at the temples, where the finest of white lead brush marks were just distinguishable. This, together with his expression and general air of composure, gave him a look of precocious maturity. His profile was serene and dignified. Unlike the other player, he was dressed not in sumptuous court clothes, but in a simple leather cuirass, with a gorget of burnished steel that gave him an unmistakably military air. He was leaning further over the chessboard than his opponent, as if concentrating hard on the game, apparently oblivious to his surroundings, his arms folded on the edge of the table. His concentration could be seen in the faint, vertical lines between his eyebrows. He was looking at the pieces as if they were confronting him with a particularly difficult problem whose solution required every ounce of intellectual energy. The inscription above his head read:
RUTGIER AR. PREUX.
The lady sitting next to the window was set apart from the two players by the use of a sharp linear perspective that situated her on a higher plane within the picture. The black velvet of her dress, to which the skilled application of white and grey glazes added volume, seemed to come out of the painting towards you. Its realism rivalled even the painstaking detail of the carpet border, the precision in the painting of the tiled floor, every knot, joint and grain of the ceiling beams. Leaning towards the painting to study these effects more closely, Julia felt a shiver of professional admiration run through her. Only a master like Van Huys could have used the black of a gown to such advantage, employing colour created out of the absence of colour to an extent few would have dared. Yet it was so real that Julia felt that at any moment she would hear the soft swish of velvet on the embossed leather of the low stool.
She looked at the woman’s face. It was beautiful and, in the fashion of the time, extremely pale. Her thick blonde hair, carefully smoothed back from her temples, was caught up beneath a toque of white gauze. Her arms, sheathed in light grey damask, emerged from loose sleeves; her hands, long and slender, held a book of hours. The light from the window picked out the same metallic gleam on the open clasp of the book and on the single gold ring adorning her hand. Her eyelids were lowered, over what had to be blue eyes, in an expression of serene and modest virtue characteristic of female portraits of the period. The light came from two sources, the window and the mirror, at once connecting the woman with the two chess players and keeping her subtly separate, her figure more marked by foreshortening and shadows. Her inscription read:
BEATRIZ BURG. OST. D.