Paintings we see in the galleries today engage the viewer as independent, complete works of art. Many of them, however, are fragments of larger compositions, although it is not always known what the original would have looked like. The scale of figures in relation to other elements in the painting, overall compositional balance, and different artworks that share similar elements help determine whether a work is a fragment. Examination of the edges of a painting may also confirm any alteration to the original work. Fragments could also be modified and sometimes combined with other fragments from different works to serve a new purpose. As partial sketches, disassembled and cropped pieces, and components of reconstructions, these fragments offer us an opportunity to reflect on the history of objects and how they have taken on new lives in different contexts.

Image depicts Saint Bernard in off-white robes with his hands together in prayer. His head is tilted slightly towards his hands, with his eyes looking at his hands with a curious expression.

Modified and reconstructed

Objects separated from the original context could be reconstructed or modified to serve a new purpose. Careful examination of atypical iconography and analysis of materials help discover whether an artwork was altered or reconstructed with pieces from different sources.
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Image depicts St. Jerome at a writing desk, wearing a bright red robe and hat. He is sitting on a seat with a gold lion's head in front of a torquoise background.


Large altarpieces and small devotional paintings from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance often comprise multiple panels of Christian imagery. Taken out from their original settings, however, many of these works were dismantled, and their components dispersed.
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Image depicts an unsmiling bearded man with black hair parted in the middle. He is in a three-quarter view, looking at the viewer. The framing is cut very close around his head.


Until the early twentieth century, it was common practice to salvage a painting by cropping its damaged parts and displaying each intact area as an independent work of art.
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Detail of a painting of a young boy by Peter Paul Rubens

Conceived in parts

Artists often worked in parts when planning large pictorial projects such as altarpieces and ceiling paintings. They sketched their ideas for important passages on a reduced scale in order to articulate their compositions and to show them to their clients for approval. These parts would be eventually incorporated in the final design.
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