An Unprecedented Exhibition May Have Solved an Art Mystery

New clues arise regarding missing central panel of the Augustinian Altarpiece
By Newser Editors and Wire Services
Posted Mar 20, 2024 2:51 PM CDT
These Panels Haven't Been Together in Hundreds of Years
A view of the Italian artist Piero della Francesca's paintings on the occasion of the inauguration of the exhibit "Piero della Francesca.   (AP Photo/Antonio Calanni)

An unprecedented exhibition opening Wednesday at the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan reunites for the first time in over 450 years eight surviving panels of the Augustinian Altarpiece by the early Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca—while possibly solving one of its enduring mysteries. Museums have tried and failed in the past to assemble the remaining eight panels, which are spread among five museums in Europe and the United States, of the original 30-piece polyptych, reports the AP.

The Frick Collection in New York, owner of four panels, came closest a decade ago, gathering six. Poldi Pezzoli Museum director Alessandra Quarto succeeded this time, after learning the Frick Collection would be closed for six months. With the works headed to storage, the New York museum agreed to the loan, making it easier to bring on board museums in London, Washington, DC, and Lisbon. In the exhibition, four large panels of saints are staggered against a blue background, flanking a blank wall where the missing central panel would have been. The piece has been missing for centuries and no sketches or records of its subject exist.

New evidence gathered during scientific study leading up to the exhibition indicates that the missing central panel depicted the coronation of the Virgin, not, as long believed, the Virgin and Child enthroned, said said co-curator Machtelt Bruggen Israels of the University of Amsterdam. Infrared and stereomicroscopic studies revealed traces of two wings, one pink, one blue, on panels that would have flanked the central piece, indicating angels. The wings, Israels said, would have been scraped off when the altarpiece was disassembled, the wing fragments no longer making sense.

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Experts also detected the image of a foot beneath a brocade dress on the left panel, the National Gallery of London's St. Michael the Archangel, suggesting a kneeling central figure of the Virgin. A corresponding angel wing is found on the opposite panel, the Frick Collection's St. John the Evangelist. The angels, together with the kneeling Virgin, are typical of depictions of the coronation. "I think it is very difficult, but not impossible" that missing panels could resurface, said Xavier Salomon of the Frick Collection. "The last time any of these were seen together was probably here in Milan. So, I would just suggest to anyone who has an attic in Milan, to have a look around." (Read more on the panels.)

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