If you’ve not seen the story already – and it both pleases and amuses me greatly that a number of my readers immediately contacted me about it when the story broke – an extremely rare painting by one of the most important figures in art history was recently discovered hanging in a French kitchen.
Cimabue (c. 1240-1302) was a Florentine artist who could be considered either among the last of the Gothic painters, or among the first of the Early Renaissance painters, depending on how you look it. He worked in a style that was largely dependent upon accepted Byzantine models, but he pushed the boundaries of that style in search of a greater degree of realism than had been seen in Italian art since the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. He was also the teacher of Giotto (c. 1267-1337), a multi-faceted artist who took many of the lessons learned from his master and ran with them, leading to an even greater degree of expressiveness and sense of volume in his art.
Although he was highly regarded in his day, very few paintings by Cimabue have survived down to the present, which makes the discovery of this small, otherwise unremarkable painting all the more significant. It depicts the scene in the Bible described in St. Matthew 27:27-31 and elsewhere, when Jesus was mocked, slapped, and beaten by the Roman soldiers. The small panel, which about the size of an 8×10 photograph, is believed to be a part of a now-dismantled polyptych, i.e., an altarpiece made up of many individual paintings on panels. Two other panels by Cimabue of roughly the same size, scale, and date are known, one of which is in the National Gallery in London, and the other of which is at the Frick Collection in New York, and when you see the three works together – the image below shows the newly-discovered work in the center, and to-scale reproductions of the other panels on either side – the relationship between them is obvious.
The most focused-upon aspect of the story in the mainstream press has been the fact that the elderly woman who owned it, and didn’t realize what she had, hung it on a wall above the hotplate she used for cooking. However to my mind the most interesting part is the theory that the altarpiece of which this was originally part was split up at some point by an art and antiques dealer in the late 19th century, since the parts were worth more than the whole. If that supposition is correct, it means there’s a reasonable likelihood of other Cimabue panels from this same polyptych floating around out there. The Frick painting turned up at an art dealer’s in Paris in 1950, while the National Gallery painting turned up at a stately home in England in 1900. Perhaps somewhere else in France, Italy, or the UK, more of these little jewels are languishing, forgotten, above a night stand in a guest room or perhaps on the landing of a back staircase, just waiting to be brought back into the light.
The painting will be sold by Acteon Enchères at their salerooms in the city of Senlis, about half an hour or so north of Paris, on October 27th. If you happen to find yourself in Paris today however, you can trundle along and see the painting at the Acteon showrooms, located a couple of blocks from the Palais-Royal. The pre-sale estimate for the picture is somewhere around $6-7 million, which may seem like a lot for something that isn’t very large, but in terms of rarity and importance to the history of Western art, it’s truly a small price to pay.
And now, let’s move on to some other art stories of interest this week.
VAN DYCK VINDICATION
Speaking of astonishing art discoveries made in humble circumstances, here’s another one for you. An amateur art collector who loves to scour auction houses, flea markets, and the like, looking for what he calls “orphaned art”, i.e., works by important artists that go unrecognized and unloved, came across a cracked, flaking painting of an elderly nude man, a detail of which is shown below. He was convinced that this was something rather special, and after a great deal of research over a number of years, his hunch turned out to be correct: the piece, as he suspected, is an extremely rare, early oil sketch of a live model by Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641). It was painted as a preparatory study for Van Dyck’s “St. Jerome with An Angel” (c. 1618), which is now in a Dutch museum, one of three variations on the same theme from around the same time, painted while the artist was still an apprentice to Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640). The picture is currently in dire need of conservation and restoration – as its discoverer noted during a press conference, it’s even got bird poop on the back, which makes me think it resided in a barn at some point – but it’s currently on exhibit at the Albany Institute of History & Art in Albany, New York through October 6th.
Readers may recall my previous reporting on the missing “Adoration of the Shepherds” (1609), also referred to as the “Nativity With St Lawrence and St Francis”, by Caravaggio (1571-1610), which was stolen in 1969 from the Oratory Church of St. Lawrence in Palermo, where it had hung above the high altar since its creation. This week The Guardian dropped something of a bombshell discovery in the still-unsolved crime, in the form of a previously unknown interview of Monsignor Rocco Benedetto, the now-deceased parish priest of St. Lawrence’s who, at one time, was unjustly targeted by police as having a hand in the picture’s disappearance. Apparently, the mafia attempted to extort a ransom payment from the Church in exchange for the return of the painting, going so far as to cut off a part of it and mail a piece of it to the Monsignor as a kind of proof of life. The priest tried to get the Italian authorities involved, but according to his videotaped testimony, they didn’t seem to be interested. Sadly, the whereabouts of the masterpiece remain unknown, and some question whether the painting even still exists.
On a much happier note, my dear friends travel and documentary filmmakers Diana and David von Glahn have a new series premiering on Catholic TV this coming Monday. “The Faithful Traveler In Portugal” is a highly informative, thoughtful, but fun tour of Fatima, Lisbon, Coimbra, Porto, Braga, and many other locations around Portugal, with the added benefit of a distinctively Catholic perspective which is sensitive to the deeper meaning of many of the sites and stories presented. Simultaneously, the camera eye feasts on things like beautiful art and architecture, or the subtle pleasures of things like breakfast pastries, coffee, and port wine, inviting the viewer to pause to reflect, enjoy, and savor.
The combination of host Diana in front of the camera, while her husband David is doing the filming, allows them to use their respective strengths to work together on the content and form of the films, so that they can pick up on aspects of Portuguese history, art, and culture that other travel shows would simply miss or gloss over entirely. For example, I particularly loved seeing the highly unusual architectural design of the confessionals at Lisbon’s former Hieronymite monastery church, as well as the nearby royal sarcophagi held up by rather charming pairs of miniature elephants. This attention to detail, as well as the taking of time to connect art and Christian spirituality, is something unique to their presentation: I’ve always appreciated that aspect of “The Faithful Traveler” shows over the years, and that is certainly the case yet again with the latest series.
“The Faithful Traveler in Portugal” premieres Monday, September 30th at 8:00 pm Eastern on CatholicTV. See the full upcoming schedule for all 9 episodes, and learn how you can watch from wherever you are on almost any device, by visiting the Faithful Traveler’s series site.