The art historians’ hearts sank as soon as they got a proper look at the “Van Dyke” on the wall of a Wiltshire church. The painting they had travelled hundreds of miles to see was clearly an 18th-century copy.
Then a much smaller, darker picture caught their eye.
Holy Trinity, the parish church of Bradford-on-Avon, is now in line for a windfall of hundreds of thousands of pounds after the portrait of Christ was identified as a previously unknown masterpiece by the greatest early 16th-century Flemish artist, Quentin Metsys.
Metsys’s best-known work, The Ugly Duchess, is regularly voted the most popular picture in the National Gallery, but he also produced a series of religious paintings, of which the Bradford Christ has been identified as one of the earliest and finest.
Painstaking detective work has revealed that the painting is one half of a picture that once included the Virgin Mary, sawn in half more than 100 years ago by a greedy art dealer hoping to double his money.
Experts were able temporarily to reunite the two halves at the National Gallery where the painting was taken for further study. Although the two pieces have since been separated, art historians hope that one day they will be restored as a complete picture.
The trail began when Simon Watney, a conservation adviser to the Church Monuments Society, visited Holy Trinity in 2006. Mr Watney is an expert in early religious statuary but it was an oil painting that caught his eye.
Mr Watney said: “I couldn’t get a good look at it because the north aisle was full of a display of tapestries by the local sewing club, but I recognised it as a composition by Van Dyke.” He persuaded Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins, an art restorer and a leading authority on Van Dyke, to travel from her home in Holkham, Norfolk, to inspect the picture with him. “It was immediately clear the Van Dyke was an 18th-century copy but then I saw this little portrait of Christ in a horrible almost plastic-looking frame,” he said. “I was amazed by the quality and I said straight away, ‘This is a Quentin Metsys.’” Examination of the painting, which measures 30cm by 38cm (12in by 15in) and is now believed to date from around 1505, revealed it had been painted on two horizontal boards, an extremely unusual arrangement. It was then that Ms Stainer-Hutchins recalled having once seen a Metsys portrait of the Virgin Mary that was also painted on two boards.
“It was one of those unreal moments,” she said. “It was obviously an exquisite Netherlandish painting from the hand of a master of the highest quality, but it took well over a year to confirm what we already knew.” Over the centuries both pictures had been messed around with. The Virgin, now in the Fitzwilliam collection of Lady Juliet Tadgell, had been heavily and rather poorly restored. It had been cut down to a more regular shape and the boards had been chamfered to make it appear to be a stand-alone picture.
Apart from the damage done by the separation, the Bradford Christ was in untouched condition, having escaped clumsy restoration, though the heavy varnish had turned brown, obscuring the gem-like background detail.
The painting had been hanging in Holy Trinity since being given to the church by Colonel Goff, a local landowner, in the 1940s. The church is on the banks of the Avon and is damp.
Mr Watney said: “The condition is amazing considering it has been hanging on a nail on a damp wall for all these years. Anything could have happened to it. Anyone could have bagged it in their handbag.” Canon Bill Matthews, the incumbent when the discovery was made, had barely given the portrait a glance during his 28 years at the church. Canon Matthews, who has since retired, said: “I never looked at it. No one did.” Canon Matthews’s successor has yet to be appointed and he is reluctant to speculate on how the money might be spent. He agrees that the church could do with refurbishment.
The painting has now been identified as the prototype of a series of portraits of Christ and the Virgin produced by Metsys’s studio but painted by the master rather than his students. The discovery has been published in Burlington Magazine, a leading art journal.
Mr Watney said: “This painting is 500 years old and it is beautiful. It is going to be worth a great deal.” A Metsys portrait sold for $1.1 million (£600,000) in 2008.
But perhaps the $64 million question is whether the two halves will be permanently reunited. Ms Stainer-Hutchins said: “A lot of people including every art historian I know hope they will.”
Text and images by timesonline.co.uk