For more than 100 years, a yellowed painting of the Last Supper hung largely unnoticed on a church wall in Ledbury, a town of almost 10,000 in western England. Most worshippers never gave the 12- by 5-foot canvas a second glance, though some did suggest that the parish “get rid of it,” as Reverend Keith Hilton-Turvey tells the Hereford Times’ Charlotte Moreau.
Now, reports Dalya Alberge for the Telegraph, experts have revealed that the seemingly unassuming image was actually created in the workshop of Titian, one of the most prominent artists of the 16th century.
Staff at the St. Michael and All Angels Church initially asked art historian and conservator Ronald Moore to restore a 19th-century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper. But when Moore approached the painting, which hangs above the church’s altar, he found himself drawn to the less prominently displayed canvas.
“I could see it was a bit special, but I didn’t know how special,” the scholar tells the Telegraph. “It’s about ten feet off the ground, so you can’t see it unless you stand on a ladder.”
After studying the work for some 11,000 hours, writes Lianne Kolirin for CNN, Moore and researcher Patricia Kenny found a number of telling clues, including Titian’s signature, a virtuosic underdrawing of the artist himself and a 1775 letter penned by collector John Skippe that references his purchase of a Titian painting. One of Skippe’s descendants donated the Last Supper scene to the Ledbury church in 1909.
“It’s so big and nobody’s taken any notice of it for 110 years,” Moore says to the Telegraph. “Anything coming from Titian’s workshop is very important indeed.”
Kenny and Moore spent around three years analyzing the painting and another three months conserving it. Per BBC News, the pair removed layers of centuries-old varnish and examined the canvas under ultraviolet light, which enabled them to identify Titian’s signature on the bottom left of the canvas and match the face of an apostle to the Old Master’s likeness.
The researchers determined that members of Titian’s Venice workshop completed the piece, which was commissioned by a Venetian convent, between 1560 and 1580. Because Titian’s studio regularly hosted a large group of artists and writers, Moore posits that others, like the painter’s son Orazio Vecellio, contributed to the artwork.
Per the Hereford Times, the painting employs a number of different techniques, styles and materials.
“The biggest problem of all was that the heads are painted by different artists, some of staggering quality,” Moore tells the Times.
When Titian died of the plague in 1576, he left behind a number of unfinished pieces—including, perhaps, the one in Ledbury.
“He was a very popular and busy artist and I think he just never got time to work on it and finish it,” Moore explains to BBC News.
The dynamic religious scene depicts Jesus and his disciples dining on the eve of his death. Intriguingly, reports the Telegraph, facial recognition software and images overlaid on the work by Kenny suggest that some of the apostles are based on Titian and his family members.
“It is almost certainly the only large-scale Titian workshop painting that is undiscovered until now,” Moore tells CNN. “Being created over 20 years, it gives us the opportunity to examine the different hands involved in the workshop.”
Born in Venice in 1488, Titian practiced art from a young age, serving as an apprentice to mosaic craftsman Sebastiano Zuccato. The prodigal painter later left Zuccato’s studio to study with Giovanni Bellini, one of the most prominent Venetian artists of his time.
Titian refined his style as he matured, creating vibrant, realistic depictions of a variety of subjects, from portraits to landscapes to mythological tales. He worked with studio assistants to create some of his most famous paintings, including Venus of Urbino, an alluring scene of a young bride lying nude on a bed.
The Ledbury Last Supper has sustained significant damage over the centuries, losing much of its detail, tone, glazing and coloring. But while the painting is in poor condition, Moore tells CNN, that “it is unique. It’s the first chance we’ve had in art history to be able to look at a Titian workshop painting done over quite a long period of time.”
Moore’s research will be outlined in his upcoming book, Titian’s Lost Last Supper: A New Workshop Discovery.