Below The Surface: Sad Stories Of Art In Public Collections

When visiting museums, we often don’t stop to think about how these items ended up where they are.

Case in point, Italy is claiming that an 11th century sacramentary, a book used by the priest for the celebration of Mass and other liturgical services, was stolen from the parish church of Santa Anna in the small town of Apiro back in 1925. After passing through several hands, the volume was donated to the Morgan Library in New York in 1984. The Morgan, for its part, maintains that it has clean hands in this affair, having had no idea that the piece was (allegedly) stolen, but Italy wants it back.


I won’t go into an analysis of the legal issues in this particular case. However, I reference it to point out the issue of provenance, an important and interesting area of inquiry that is often overlooked when we focus exclusively on an object’s aesthetic value. The tale of how and why a work of art ended up where it is can often be an interesting and complex tale in its own right.

Stories involving the restitution of art stolen by the Nazis during World War II are perhaps more familiar to a general audience today, thanks to news reporting and films such as George Clooney’s wartime epic “Monuments Men”(2014), or the Dame Helen Mirren/Ryan Reynolds courtroom drama “Woman in Gold”(2015). There’s also at least some degree of regular reporting on movements to return art and artefacts to countries that experienced a significant loss of cultural patrimony to collectors and institutions during the colonial period of the 18th through the early 20th centuries. Yet aside from these particular areas, there are a host of objects on walls and on plinths in museums all over the world that arrived at their current locations via unusual routes.

Take Raphael’s “Colonna Altarpiece” of circa 1504-05, for example. Raphael (1483-1520) painted it for the Franciscan nuns of the Convent of St. Anthony of Padua in Perugia. In the mid-17th century, the nuns decided to break up the altarpiece, and sell it off in pieces. They first sold the predelle, which are smaller panels connected to the base of the main panel, to Queen Cristina of Sweden, who had moved to Rome after abdicating the Swedish throne in order to become a Catholic. The nuns later sold the central image and top panel of God the Father to the powerful Colonna family in Rome. These two panels, along with one of the predelle, were later purchased by financier J.P. Morgan, and donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.


Why did the nuns chop up this magnificent work of art and sell it off? In this case, the likely answer is that most basic of human physical needs: survival. At the time they sold their Raphaels, the nuns were very poor as a result of a steep decline in donations and vocations, so selling these panels helped them to keep food on the table. Today in the U.S., when we see historic churches and monasteries being closed down and auctioned off or demolished because there are not enough members of the congregation or not enough religious to keep them going, we should realize that, from an art history point of view, this is a cyclical problem. Even amidst the Counter-Reformation splendor of the 17th century in Italy, this particular group of women religious found themselves on the ropes.

Raphael’s was not the only impressive altarpiece once housed at the convent. The enigmatic Tuscan painter Piero della Francesca (1415-1492) painted a polyptych, i.e. an altarpiece composed of a number of separate panels joined together in an architectural framework, for the same Franciscan nuns between about 1468-70. Unlike the Raphael commission this altarpiece, which stands over 11 feet tall, was not broken up when it left the convent, although two of the predella panels went missing for a time until they were reunited with the rest of the altarpiece in the early 20th century. The entire piece is now in the collection of the National Museum of Umbria in Perugia.


In this instance, the story of how the altarpiece left the convent is a bit more complicated. As if the 17th century had not been difficult enough for these nuns, subsequent centuries proved to be even worse. Thanks to the anti-Catholicism of the Bonapartes and other European leftists of the early 19th century, the convent was closed down by 1800 and its contents were confiscated. The nuns were allowed to return about a decade later, but their art was kept by the state; the sisters were finally kicked out for good by 1817. If you’ve studied European history at all, you know that the same thing happened all over supposedly Catholic Europe, from Spain to France to Austria.

Obviously this is just a broad overview of some of the sad backstory attached to two altarpieces, albeit artistically significant ones. However, it’s indicative of the kind of storytelling that is possible when you dig more deeply into the history of these objects, and it’s an area that is, perhaps, overdue for a more popular treatment of the subject. So many works of art that we know and love have a great deal more to tell us about their creators, their owners, and indeed human history than is readily apparent.

So the next time you find yourself at an exhibition, looking at a very old painting, sculpture, drawing, decorative piece, etc., ask yourself, “How did this get here?” – you’ll often be completely fascinated by the answer to that question.

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