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Intern discovers rare hidden Bruegel print at Royal Library of Belgium

New Bruegel print found at Royal Library of Belgium (KBR)
11:57 27/08/2022

A summer intern at the Royal Library of Belgium made a remarkable discovery when restoring a 16th-century print by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

The innovative Flemish Renaissance artist’s The Stone Operation (1559) was in desperate need of restoration, says the national institution in a press release. Glued to acidic cardboard, it needed this backing to be removed before the cleaning process could be started.

After tests to ensure the glue was water soluble, French student Margaux Nogues placed the engraving in a hot bath to remove the cardboard.

KBR Mont des Arts

As the 23-year-old peeled away the cardboard backing, she was surprised to find a second print on the back of the document. It was Patientia (1557), also by Bruegel the Elder. Both engravings had been published in Antwerp by Hieronymous Cock.

It’s highly unusual to find two engravings on the front and back of a printed sheet as recto-verso printing was uncommon in the 16th century, says the library.

It believes the find could have been a printing proof, not intended for the art market. The copper plates used for the prints were of different sizes and the ‘plate edges’ did not match up.

Although the KBR is already in possession of three Patientia prints in its collection, this new discovery remains exceptional, it underlines.

Back of the print after restoration

Patience personification

The new Patientia print shows the personification of patience (pictured above after restoration). The small female figure in the foreground is surrounded by an unruly collection of monsters and fantastic creatures. They’re in the style of the then-popular Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516), representing evil and sin in the world.

A caption in Latin is freely translated as: “Patience is the calm endurance of evil that befalls you.”

In the work, Bruegel also mocks the Roman Catholic Church by including monks and even a giant wearing a cardinal’s hat. This part of the design was censored in later prints.

Exceptional internship

For Nogues, this signficant find was a highlight of her work experience at the Belgian library. "It was a very important moment. This discovery had a strong impact on my internship," the student told RTBF.

"I've only been in the restoration business for five years. It's exceptional, I think I'll remember it for a long time to come." The budding art restorer will return to Paris at the end of September to defend her dissertation. Now, thanks to her time at the Belgian library, Nogues boasts a CV that’s likely to stand out.

Photos: © KBR


Written by Sarah Crew