Along with creating some of the most beautiful and famous works of art in Western history, the “Old Masters” such as Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, and Sandro Botticelli also have another thing in common: they loved using eggs in their paintings.
More specifically, the artists would mix in egg yolks into their paints to create a medium called egg tempera. This technique dates back to ancient Egypt and can be found on many of the paintings from the Old Masters such as Boticelli’s “Birth of Venus.”
We know this because contemporary analysis of the compositions of their paintings reveal that there are added proteins to the works of art. While the reason why they used egg yolks has long eluded us, a new study published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications might reveal why.
The study’s authors found the Old Masters might have added egg yolk to their paintings in order to better preserve them against humidity, surface wrinkling, and–ironically–yellowing of the painting. The proteins from the egg yolk helps prevent water uptake from humid areas, which are particularly prevalent in places like Italy where many of the Old Masters worked their craft.
” Artists may have struggled to regulate the humidity in their paints over the past century,” said the authors of the study. It was an improvement over adding oil to paintings. This could cause discoloration and crack formation as well as wrinkles.
” Adding proteinaceous material to pigment preparation might have prevented the formation of capillary suspensions. This would have resulted in paints that are more stable and with higher pigment contents.
To reach their conclusions, the authors used Old Master paintings like Boticelli’s “The Lamentations of Christ” and Da Vinci’s “Madonna of the Carnation”, along with chemical data and molecular information from laboratory-made egg tempera. The egg proteins created an invisible protective layer over the paint and added texture. This helped prevent it from wrinkling, while antioxidants within the egg yolks stopped it from yellowing over time by slowing down reactions between the air and oil in the paints.
These findings offer new insights into the art of some of greatest artists to ever live. This just shows that, even though da Vinci may be dead now, we still have much to learn from the art and processes of his contemporaries. It’s like the old saying, “You have to crack some eggs” if you want an omelet. And apparently, that is what it takes to create a masterpiece of art.
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