A painting long thought to be a later imitation of Sandro Botticelli’s famous Madonna of the Pomegranate has been revealed to be a rare example by the artist’s own workshop.
The discovery was made while the painting was being cleaned by conservators from English Heritage. Bought by diamond magnate Julius Wernher in 1897, Madonna of the Pomegranate (Madonna della Melagrana) (c.1487) is the closest version of the famous masterpiece by the Florentine master Botticelli, now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy. Showing the Madonna and Christ Child flanked by four angels, the title refers to the pomegranate that is held by the Madonna and Child to symbolize Christ’s future suffering. The assumption that the painting was a later imitation arose because of its variations in detail to the original and the thick yellow varnish that concealed the quality of the work. However, x-ray testing, infrared studies and pigment analysis have revealed that the painting is from the very workshop in Florence where Botticelli created his masterpieces.
“Being able to closely examine and conserve this painting for the first time in over 100 years has really given us the chance to get up-close and personal with the paintwork,” said Rachel Turnbull, English Heritage’s Senior Collections Conservator. “I noticed instantly that the painting bore a striking resemblance to the workshop of Botticelli himself; stylistically it was too similar to be an imitation, it was of the right period, it was technically correct and it was painted on poplar, a material commonly used at the time.”
“After removing the yellowing varnish, x-ray and infrared examination revealed under-drawing, including changes to the final composition uncommon in straight imitations. After consultations with our colleagues at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery London, we are finally able to confirm that Madonna of the Pomegranate is from the Florentine workshop of master painter Sandro Botticelli.”
Running a successful workshop in Florence from 1470, Alessandro Filipepi, known as Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510), employed a number of assistants who would execute large parts or even whole panels of his paintings to help him meet demand. It was not unusual for popular paintings by Botticelli to be commissioned again by other patrons, but these were often reduced in size, composition or detail by the master and his workshop assistants to fit a smaller budget.
This is the case in this tondo (a kind of circular painting), which is the closet copy of the original. It is painted in exquisite detail with gold leaf adorning Mary’s halo and the wings of the angels flanking her on either side. The angels worship the Madonna and child with lilies (a symbol of Mary’s purity and virginity) and garlands of roses (a symbol of Mary’s love of God) and hold books of prayer. Conservators from English Heritage have removed the surface dirt, the nineteenth-century overpaint and old varnish to reveal the paintings’ true quality and its vivid reds, blues and golds.
The painting is now on display at Ranger’s House, in the Greenwich Park neighbourhood of London. This Georgian villa is home to an assortment of over 700 works of fine and decorative art collected by Julius Wernher, including medieval jewellery, Gothic sculptures, Italian ceramics, Renaissance paintings, eighteenth-century French furniture and British portraits.
Top Image: Photo courtesy English Heritage