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Art Attack: Church Painting Fixed After Bungled Restoration

Botched effort switched heads of saints — from Peter to Thomas. 

Experts in Belgium have fixed a bungled restoration by 17th century Flemish master Peter Paul Rubens. It shows Saint Peter being handed the keys to the kingdom of heaven by Jesus — but as Saint Thomas.

The artwork, which appears to be a copy of a famous Rubens painting, was located in Saint Peter and Paul Church in the village of Pulle, Belgium, in the northern province of Antwerp.

The painting, an excellent copy of a Rubens (1577-1640), now hangs in the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It is unclear who painted it, but it is assumed to have been one of his students.

The historic twist was discovered by an art restorer in Antwerp.

Chantal Siebens, owner of an art supplies store, restored the painting in Pulle and found it was not originally Thomas kissing the hand of Christ. It had a layer beneath the surface that showed the artist’s true intent. The image has now been restored to show Saint Peter.

The painting’s latest restoration shows Saint Peter, as it was in the original. (Obeeliks bvba/Zenger)
The painting "Thomas kissing the hand of Christ" located in the Saint Peter and Paul Church, in Pulle, Belgium, before it was restored and discovered that it was overpainted and showed Thomas in the painting. (Obeeliks bvba/Zenger)
The painting “Thomas kissing the hand of Christ” before it was restored and discovered that it was overpainted and should have been St. Peter. (Obeeliks bvba/Zenger)

“Before restoring the painting, the parishioners were convinced it was Saint Thomas kissing the hand of Jesus on the painting. I discovered it was not Saint. Thomas, but St. Peter,” said Siebens, a certified restorer who trained at the Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp.

Copy tradition

Students of the Old Masters traditionally copied their paintings to practice their skills and to honor the masters, according to Sotheby’s auction house.

“It was a matter of pride to possess one’s own version of a great artwork. King Charles I had up to 60 copies of Old Master paintings, commissions or gifts, including many which reproduced original works from his own collection. And copies took on a commercial aspect as the art market gained momentum during the 17th century,” according to Sotheby’s.

Rubens also admired and copied antique sculptures, as wellas the work of Italian Renaissance masters, such as Raphael, Da Vinci and Caravaggio, according to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

In his youth, Rubens was hired by Vincenzo I Gonzaga, duke of Mantua, in what is now northern Italy. His main responsibilities were to copy Renaissance paintings. Flemish artist Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) is perhaps Rubens’ most famous student. He worked as his assistant for several years, learning the art of copying paintings, notably Titian and Raphael portraits.


The botched earlier restoration shows a man kissing Jesus’ hand. In the Bible, the apostle Thomas doubts that Jesus was resurrected until he saw the wounds on his hands, and then kissed the hand.  The scene of Thomas kissing Jesus’ hand is depicted in “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” (1601-1602) by Caravaggio (1571-1610).

During restoration, Siebens said she noticed Jesus’ arm was a bit deformed, as was the head of Thomas the Apostle. “It was obvious that another painter had tried to hide some damage,” she said.

The expert quickly realized, after scanning the painting with a UV light, that it had been poorly restored and there was another layer beneath the top layer of paint.

“It took me about five months to restore this painting,” she said. “The painting was very dark, dirty and greasy, the board was weakened, and it wasn’t stable anymore.

“To remove overpaints is always a risk; you don’t know what caused the damage and what you will find underneath,” Siebens said.

“You protect the painted surface and start to clean and stabilize the back. I had to remove some little pieces of fabric that were hiding some holes and made a new board.

“After cleaning the surface, I removed the overpaints using some gels containing a solvent. The gaps are filled with a mixture of rabbit glue and kaoline. The basic retouches were made with water-based colors and the final retouches with pigments and paraloid. A varnish with UV filter will protect the painting.”

Siebens said the painting was somewhat hidden in a corner because it was considered ugly. During restoration work on the church in the 1970s, it is possible someone from the parish tried to repair damage to the canvas by painting over the head.

Edited by Fern Siegel and Judith Isacoff

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