Rediscovered Raphael? Beautiful Renaissance Image Of The Virgin Mary Comes To Light

I have a potentially major, and extremely beautiful, art discovery for you to enjoy this morning.

Recently, art historian and television host Bendor Grosvenor was researching the collections at Haddo House, a country estate in Scotland that was once owned by the Earls of Aberdeen, when he came across a painting that struck him as interesting. The piece, which was extremely dirty and murky under old layers of varnish, is an image of the Virgin Mary, depicted with her hands crossed over her heart. For some time it has been attributed to a minor Italian artist, Innocenzo di Pietro Francucci da Imola (1490-1550). Mr. Grosvenor thought the painting was too good to be by a lesser hand, and asked for permission to have the painting examined and cleaned.

What emerged is the beautiful painting you see in the photograph below, flanked by Mr. Grosvenor and his co-presenter Jacky Klein from the BBC television show “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces”, which is believed to be a lost work by the great Renaissance master Raphael. A drawing of a similar image by Raphael, plus the fact that closer examination revealed pentimenti – changes to the painting made by the artist as he painted – as well as preparatory underdrawing typical of Raphael’s working method, helped persuade Mr. Grosvenor that this was the real thing. The painting has been dated to about 1505-1510, which would cover both Raphael’s “Florentine Period”, when he spent much of his time living and working in Florence, and the early part of his “Roman Period”, which began after he moved to Rome permanently in 1508.

In looking at some other works by Innocenzo, whom I must admit I had never heard of, it is somewhat difficult to understand why this piece was ever attributed to him in the first place. While he painted in a style that was similar to Raphael’s, his modelling and facial expressions are often somewhat clumsy, and certainly nothing like that shown in this work. For me though, what seals the deal here are the hands: Raphael had a very distinctive, elegant way of painting fingers and fingernails, which you begin to recognize the more familiar you become with his work. Zoom in on the Pope’s hands in Raphael’s somewhat later “Portrait of Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals” and you will see what I mean.

Other details, not conclusive in themselves, are also typical of Raphael paintings of the Virgin Mary from this period in his career, including the dark blonde hair braided into plaits and pulled back into a bun, the diaphanous veil falling over the head, and the simple gold embroidery at the edges of the fabrics. The painting also has a very Raphaelesque color scheme of a salmon pink dress, accompanied by a turquoise blue mantle which has a rich green underside. Raphael frequently used variations on this color combination in his images of the Madonna and Child – including his somewhat faded and dirty “Tempi Madonna” of 1508, which was painted around the same time as the dates of possible execution proposed for the Haddo House painting. Personally, I suspect that the same model posed for both pictures, as we can see if we look at the curve of the lips and the brow of both figures.

Raphael has always been my favorite artist, ever since I can remember (with Velázquez as a close second.) He is the Mozart of painters, and while some exclusively prefer tortured souls or cerebral detachment in their art and music, for me Raphael, like Mozart, is a kind of celestial preview. His art often embodies the “sprezzatura” advocated by his good friend Castiglione, who of course is the patron and inspiration for this blog. There is a seemingly effortless grace in his work that, as Mr. Grosvenor says, makes you ask, “How did he do that?”

Viewed purely as a work of art, this painting is a significant addition to the catalogue of works known or believed to be by Raphael – if in fact a majority of art experts come to accept this as being from his hand. It is obviously very beautiful, aesthetically speaking. It is also hitherto relatively unstudied by art historians, and as such will prove to be a great adventure for those who want to try to research subjects such as its provenance or the materials and methods used in creating it.

As a work originally created for religious purposes, it is a deceptively simple piece. Like some other almost pre-Tenebrist paintings of Raphael, where there are dark backgrounds and no elaborate settings to distract our gaze, this picture is wonderfully direct. Rather than complicated compositional theatrics, we are presented with a very quiet, reflective image of the Mother of the Savior, delicately indicating her Immaculate Heart. It is such a lovely, tranquil image that, within the next few years, I suspect you will begin to see it illustrating covers of spiritual books, prayer cards, and so forth.

For those of my readers in the UK, you can learn all about the details of the discovery when the latest episode of “Britain’s Lost Masterpieces” airs tomorrow night. Unfortunately Mr. Grosvenor’s show does not currently air in the U.S., at least not yet. However his blog is on my list of must-reads every morning, and so I want to highly recommend it to you. He is far more knowledgeable than I about art history, and I often learn new things from him. Therefore if you like what I write here or in The Federalist, you will most definitely enjoy his work – and more importantly, kudos to him for finding this lost masterpiece.

4 thoughts on “Rediscovered Raphael? Beautiful Renaissance Image Of The Virgin Mary Comes To Light

  1. I live in the UK and can highly recommend this programme (what a pity BBC America is not currently broadcasting it..) Bendor Grosvenor is of course well known to BBC viewers through “Fake or Fortune” – in a similar vein, but examining works belonging to members of the public. One of those experts who appears to wear his learning lightly, he does not intimidate the uninitiated viewer, but puts us at ease with his quiet authority and occasional injections of gentle humour (I confess I may be a little in love with the charming Dr Grosvenor..)
    I saw this edition with no prior knowledge of its contents, and yet even at first glance (glimpsed above a door, and without the label plaque in sight) the Haddo painting of the Madonna immediately gave me goosebumps, such was its beauty.
    I too, was unfamiliar with the artist it had been attributed to; I’m by no means particularly knowledgeable about Raphael, either, yet it was abundantly evident the picture was by an expert hand, very definitely in the Renaissance master’s style…had Innocenzo da Imola been such a master, I feel sure his name would have been better known..?
    Examination revealed the picture’s white ground of gypsum, (which helps provide that wonderful luminosity through the pigments) and poplar wood panel, to be contemporary; some revision to the painting of the beautifully rendered hands, as you have mentioned, suggest it is likely an authentic work, since the copyist would have no need of such alteration to the composition.
    Modern methods of testing reveal the underdrawing to be in Raphael’s style; the work was purchased as authentic, and only some time after George Gordon’s death, when necessity forced the sale of some of his treasured collection, was the suspect attribution applied: indeed, the label shows clear sign of alteration, the addition of ‘after’ in front of Raphael’s name.
    To hear Sir Nicholas Penny (who himself discovered a lost work by the artist, I believe at Alnwick Castle..?) say that in his opinion the picture was either “probably” or “by” Raphael, was quite thrilling; let us hope further investigations add weight to the claim.
    [And having discovered your blog, I look forward to reading more of your pieces.]


    • Wow, thank you so much for sharing this! It really is a shame we don’t have either this show or FOF in the U.S. but we can have endless programming about the Kardashians. Thank you for commenting and for your kind words.


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