Restored Vermeer uncovers cherub, penis

Johannes Vermeer's Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, painted between 1657 and 1659, has been restored to remove centuries of dirt, varnish and artistic alterations. Most prominently, a painting of a naked cherub was covered up at some point after the artist's death. It was long-clear that something was off about the plain wall behind the girl—the frame could be seen faintly under the new layer of paint and a 1979 X-ray of the board revealed the details of the cherub. But only in 2019 did the owner commission the restoration.

But until recently, experts assured us Vermeer had painted over the chubby amorini himself. In 2019, laboratory tests led to a shocking discovery: the cupid imagery was covered up by someone other than the artist, likely decades after its completion. Conservators at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister (Old Masters Picture Gallery) in Dresden, where the painting has resided for over 250 years, decided to return the work to its original state, removing the layers of varnish and overpaint concealing the original composition.

The reception is mixed. We had grown attached to the muted, minimalist Vermeer of our perception and built a certain mythology around his impossibly subtle reserve. To observe his work as colorful and larded with middlebrow bourgeois symbolism? Hmmmm. Welcome the the early modern Dutch urban middle class, betches.

A more extreme example of this phenomenon was the restoration of Jan and Hubert Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb. The ultra-realistic lamb turned out to have been repainted after the artists' death. The original lamb face, uncovered by the restoration, was anatomically cartoonish, with huge bulging eyes and a pouty cat mouth.

Which is to say the restoration turned one of the Europe's most weird, mystical and unsettling masterworks into a hilarious meme monster like Monkey Jesus. The unilateral collaboration superimposed by a superior remix artist was destroyed to favor the inept daubings of the Van Eycks.