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X-rays Help to Uncover Who Painted a Centuries-old Masterpiece in Albania

From the IAEA Bulletin
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A portable X-ray fluorescence spectrometer helps scientists analyse a portrait of Saint George, one of Christianity’s most famous saints. (Photo: A. Silva/IAEA)

Albanian researchers have used X-rays to discover who painted a delicate, centuries-old masterpiece of Saint George, one of Christianity’s most famous saints. Their methods included non-destructive testing (NDT) and non-destructive assay (NDA) involving X-rays, which are widely used to study materials and the quality of objects, from analysing cultural artefacts and biomedical samples like blood and hair, to finding cracks or cavities in oil pipes and aeroplane parts.

“Non-destructive testing and assay let us evaluate the integrity and physical properties of objects without damaging them, which is critical when dealing with old, often very fragile artefacts,” said Esmeralda Vataj, a researcher at the Institute of Applied Nuclear Physics in Tirana, Albania. “X-rays also help us see the inner parts of an object and identify any cracks or flaws that may not otherwise
be visible.”

After recovering the portrait from an old church, researchers at the Institute of Applied Nuclear Physics worked with IAEA experts to study the portrait using NDT and NDA techniques. Their findings have helped conservationists at the National Museum of History in Tirana understand the painting’s history and choose the right methods to restore the precious piece of art.

“Originally when we received the portrait, we thought it had been painted by an anonymous artist,” said Vataj. After checking the structural integrity of the piece using industrial radiography, the researchers used X-ray fluorescence analysis (XRF) to identify the materials used to create the icon (see The Science box). They compared these materials to those used by various artists during different time periods and their analysis led to a match.

“Thanks to X-ray fluorescence analysis we have now identified the colour pigments used in the portrait of Saint George, which helped us to discover that the icon was painted by the Çetiri brothers in the 18th century,” said Vataj. “This information is also key to restoring the piece in an authentic way.”

The portrait of Saint George is one of thousands of cultural and archaeological treasures in the museum’s collection. Many of the pieces have been recovered from historical sites and churches. They are often delicate and deteriorating, which makes them precarious to handle. As NDT and NDA are both hands-off methods, they are often used by researchers to study such fragile objects.

Protecting cultural heritage worldwide

NDT and NDA can uncover valuable details in artwork and cultural artefacts that are undetectable to the naked eye. “Each piece contains a unique blend of elements and isotopes that carries information about the origin of the piece, from the techniques and materials used, to when and even where it was likely created,” said Patrick Brisset, an industrial technologist at the IAEA. “While this information can be used to preserve pieces and discover the history surrounding their creation, it can also be used to identify forgeries.”

Non-destructive testing and assay let us evaluate the integrity and physical properties of objects without damaging them, which is critical when dealing with old, often very fragile artefacts. X-rays also help us see the inner parts of an object and identify any cracks or flaws that may not otherwise be visible.
Esmeralda Vataj, researcher, Institute of Applied Nuclear Physics, Tirana, Albania

Beams of X-rays interact with the atoms in the portrait to reveal clues about its history and how it was created. (Photo: A. Silva/IAEA)

Hundreds of specialists worldwide are working with the IAEA to use NDT and NDA to study and preserve cultural heritage and to identify forgeries. This can include receiving training and the necessary equipment and facilities to carry out these studies through IAEA coordinated research and technical cooperation projects. These projects are also an opportunity for specialists to share their expertise and knowledge, which helps to advance the field and preserve the history of human civilization.

“We are working together with the Institute of Applied Nuclear Physics because icons are one of the most important cultural heritage artefacts that we have. So, we are taking every possible step to make sure that they are being adequately analysed and preserved,” said Arta Dollani, Director of the Institute of Cultural Monuments of Albania, which works closely with the National Museum of History to restore cultural artefacts.

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