Unveiling Fake Medieval Art through Science

In 1962, the Taft Museum of Art received an artwork as part of a donation – a beautiful painting depicting the crucifixion of Jesus. For the next sixty years it was believed to have been the work of an Italian Renaissance master. In reality, it was a fake.

Forgeries are a lucrative global market created by artists so skilled in both their craft and their duplicity that they sometimes fool even the experts. Curators at the Taft Museum of Art are using scientific tools more commonly associated with geology and chemistry to answer questions about masterpieces that have perplexed generations of art historians.


The museum invited geologists, chemists and art historians from the University of Cincinnati to their conservation lab to deploy X-ray fluorescence spectroscopy and microscopy on two beautiful but suspect paintings in its collection.

University of Cincinnati geologist Daniel Sturmer and UC chemist Lyndsay Kissell use XRF spectroscopy to examine a painting in the conservation lab of the Taft Museum of Art. The museum invited scientists to examine its “Panel with the Crucifixion,” by an imitator of Bernardo Daddi, late 1800s or early 1900s, possibly Florence, Italy, tempera and gold on canvas adhered to panel. Taft Museum of Art, Bequest of Jane Taft Ingalls, 1962. Photo credit: Andrew Higley/UC

The Taft Museum of Art’s curators and other scholars have traced the origins of nearly all of the museum’s nearly 800 works, including paintings, decorative art and furniture. One of them was ‘Panel with the Crucifixion,’ which was painted a wood panel with a gold background, measuring 42.2 x 23.2 cm. The first mention of this painting dates back to 1927, when it gets a paragraph in the multi-volume work The Development of the Italian Schools of Painting. The author attributes it to Bernardo Daddi (1290-1348), who was the leading Florentine painter of his generation. The painting was dated to 1344, but the author added another curious detail: apart from an additional figure in the background, the work was almost identical to another piece by Daddi.


‘Panel with the Crucifixion’ was in private hands up to 1962, with it being sold at least once in 1931, then given to the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati. However, there were doubts about the painting. For example, a 1995 catalogue of the Taft’s works offers this assessment:

In addition to these problems of conversation and technique, there is the problem of quality. It must be said that the Crucifixion is an inferior painting, clearly unworthy of Bernardo Daddi, the great Florentine master to whom it had previously been attributed. The faces, for example, are crude in both formal conception and expression, and the execution of the work is clumsy. The composition resembles that of a Crucifixion by Daddi in Thyssen Collection (Lugano) and seems to have been copied after that work, as Everett Fahy has suggested. The question then becomes a matter of when the copy was made, and one cannot discount the possibility, as Fahy has also noted, that the panel is a modern work.

The painting would be kept in Taft’s collection, rarely getting public viewing. Eventually, it was handed over to an interdisciplinary team of researchers at the University of Cincinnati. Assistant professor of chemistry Pietro Strobbia, his postdoctoral chemistry researcher Lyndsay Kissell, assistant professor of geosciences Daniel Sturmer and art historian and assistant professor Christopher Platts brought some of the same powerful tools NASA uses on the Mars rover Perseverance in its search for evidence of ancient life.

Platts has an enduring fascination with the history of art forgery. He notes that forgeries sometimes are made explicitly to fool buyers but, at other times, artists are merely inspired by the greats. “Artists will sometimes emulate those they admire and do so in such a convincing way that it’s hard to tell their works apart,” he said. “The way artists learn is by duplicating others’ work.”

University of Cincinnati chemist Lyndsay Kissell gives a demonstration to an art history class on tools such as Raman spectroscopy that scientists can use to identify art fakes and frauds. Photo credit Andrew Higley/UC

Chemical analysis revealed modern pigments in the painting. Tamera Lenz Muente, a curator at the Taft, explains, “Zinc white was not available during the Italian Renaissance. Finding that would be a giveaway.”

But it’s still unknown whether the painting represents an intentional forgery or merely an imitation. “There are many layers to these stories. Using both science and scholarship to reveal the true origins of a work of art is fascinating but still leaves some questions,” Muente adds.

There are more cases where the research team has uncovered forgeries. They recently helped the Cincinnati Art Museum determine if portions of a restored 1,300-year-old Chinese dancing horse sculpture were original to the work. Strobbia’s chemical analysis determined that a tassel on the ancient sculpture’s forehead was made from a different material than the rest of the terra cotta horse.

The Taft Museum of Art invited University of Cincinnati geologists, chemists and art historians to the museum’s conservation lab to examine a painting on a lab table titled “Landscape with Canal” bearing the signature of landscape artist John Constable. The museum and art historians suspect the painting was actually by a follower of Constable’s named Frederick W. Watts. Landscape with Canal, about 1820–60, oil on canvas. Taft Museum of Art, Bequest of Charles Phelps Taft and Anna Sinton Taft, 1931. Photo credit: Andrew Higley/UC

Next, the researchers turned to a more recent work titled “Landscape with Canal,” circa 1820-1860, once thought to be by English landscape painter John Constable whose signature adorns it. It depicts a pastoral scene of a farm reflected in the placid water of a canal. There are sleepy horses, heads drooped, and passengers embarking on a boat down the canal near two other boats docked in a corner next to some grazing cows.

Art historians said the painting is very much in the manner of Constable’s works. But experts have said the artist more likely was Frederick Waters Watts, whose work follows the landscape master. The researchers’ examination was inconclusive. Constable’s signature is partially covered in brush strokes, suggesting the artist had signed it and then made some later final touches to the masterpiece.

Platts said yellow paint strokes over the signature are a red flag. “It was almost as if they were trying too hard,” he said. “Why would you paint over the signature?”

Last year, the Taft Museum of Art held an exhibition titled Fakes, Forgeries, and Followers in the Taft Collection, which showcased paintings, decorative arts and furniture previously attributed to artists such as Dutch master Rembrandt and Spanish artist Goya.


The article, “Scientific investigation to look into the conservation history of a Tang Dynasty terracotta Dancing Horse,” by C. Conti, M. Catrambone, C. Colombo,  E. Possenti,  K. M. Rectenwald,  M. Realini and P. Strobbia, appears in Heritage Science. Click here to read it.

See also: “The Vinland Map is a fake” – new research suggests map is a 20th-century forgery

Top Image: ‘Panel with the Crucifixion’ – a modern fake.