Chance find sees art mystery solved
The UK National Gallery’s Dillian Gordon was leaving the office when the telephone rang. It was an expert from Sotheby’s. “I have something to show you,’’ he said.
The expert brought the “something’’ into the gallery: it was a small wooden panel that had been hanging on a landing at Benacre Hall, a country house in Suffolk. It was exquisitely painted with an image of the Virgin Mary seated on a high, cushioned thr-one, delicately cradling Christ, flanked by two angels.
Gordon went off to the gallery’s library to do some research — not only might the panel be by the late 13th-century Florentine Cimabue, the first great Italian painter, but it could also hold the key to solving a mystery that had divided art historians for half a century. She realised the panel bore such a strong resemblance to a larger Madonna and Child by Cimabue that it could also be attributed to the artist. She also saw there were strong similarities between it and a panel in the Frick Collection, New York, depicting the flagellation of Christ. For 50 years, rival historians furiously debated whether the Frick panel was by Cimabue, or his Siennese near-contemporary Duccio.
A trip to New York to examine the two small panels side by side settled the question. They had the same decoration punched into the gold-leaf background, the same red borders, “even the same wormholes”.