A LARGE painting of the Last Supper, which hung unconsidered in a parish church for more than a century, has been revealed as the work of a series of Venetian Renaissance artists — possibly including Titian.
The true identity of the work in St Michael and All Angels, Ledbury, in Herefordshire, has been unearthed after years of painstaking research led by the art historian and conservator Ronald Moore.
The Vicar of Ledbury with Eastnor, the Revd Keith Hilton-Turvey, said: “It hung at the back of the church, looking pretty grubby, and people sometimes even suggested we should get rid of it. It was in a bad way, covered in old vanish and layers of dirt. Mr Moore had already done some work on another painting in the church, and he suggested that it might be worth looking at.”
He carried out some restoration and cleaning, which led to him to believe that, far from being a later copy of a Venetian master, it showed the hand of the artist Tintoretto. But closer study more recently has detected an under-drawing in the style of Titian, and ultra-violet light revealed the lettering “TITIANVS”.
St Michael and All Angels, LedburyDetail from the painting
Mr Moore believes that the picture was begun in about 1560 by Titian, who died before it was completed; so artists in his workshop finished the work. The apostle in the gold robe on the left of the picture is similar to a known portrait of the painter, and was probably done by his son Orazio.
“There were clearly many different hands involved,” Mr Moore said. “This was a workshop painting; all Renaissance artists had large workshops. Titian had his sons and relatives with visiting important painters, who also had their own studios.”
His findings were supported by a note among the papers of an 18th-century local figure, John Skippes, whose descendants donated the picture to the church in 1906. The letter refers to the purchase, in 1775, during a grand tour of Europe, of “a capital Last Supper by Titian signed and dated”.
Mr Hilton-Turvey said: “From our point of view, it does not change our appreciation of the painting. There is no plan to sell it. It was given to be displayed in the setting it is in, and that where it should remain. I dare say we might do a deal with the Bishop if someone came along and offered us £20 million, but I don’t see that happening.
“It is another chapter in our understanding of the painting, and I am sure it will increase visitor numbers in the short term. We hope it will add to their enjoyment of their visit, and enable them to have some connection with God, if they have not had any before — which is part of the original purpose of it.”
Mr Moore describes his research in Titian’s Lost Last Supper: A new workshop discovery, to be published on 26 March by Unicorn.