Rare early paintings often come to major centres such as London, Paris and New York but later this month it will be the turn of Marseille in the South of France where the Maison de Ventes Leclere will offer a chance to purchase a fragment of an Italian primitive from the early Renaissance.
They are offering an unpublished 11¼ x
15in (27.5 x 38.5cm) tempera on panel painting that has been in the
same French family since the 19th century and is attributed to the
Florentine artist Fra Angelico and his workshop, c.1430-35.
It was identified in 2001 by the Italian
Renaissance painting expert Michel Laclotte as one of six sections
from an early 15th century Florentine panel painting measuring
approximately 18in x 3ft (46 x 92 cm) and featuring a complex
At some point, probably in the late 18th or
early 19th century, this large work was cut into sections, probably
for sale. Four of the others are now in museums around the world.
The Apparition of St Romuald to Othon III is in the
Musée de Beaux Arts in Antwerp; St Benedict in the
Desert is in the Musée Condé in Chantilly; The
Conversion of Saint Augustine is in the Musée Thomas
Henry in Cherbourg and The Offering of the Papacy to Saint
Gregory or Celestine is in the Philadelphia Museum of
The connection between the four emerged very
gradually over the course of the past century as museum curators
and academic experts in the field gradually became convinced that
these four dispersed panels were linked and formed part of one
work. There has also been much academic discussion around an
attribution of the work to Fra Angelico and his workshop.
An early opinion was that these formed a
horizontal predella panel for a larger work. Later, however, expert
opinion was revised to the idea of one large work with the pieces
set out as in the reconstruction (see image 2).
Michel Laclotte's 2001 discovery in a
collection in Southern France of the fifth section added a
significant piece to the puzzle, supporting this arrangement and
giving an important clue to the meaning of the reconstructed
Its subject is not a figure group centring
on an episode from the life of one saint; instead it takes the form
of a Thébaïde, a landscape populated with scenes from hermit life
in the Egyptian desert around Thebes.
The Thébaïde was a popular Florentine
subject in early Renaissance painting and there is another famous
version by Fra Angelico painted in a frieze-like form, now in the
This fifth landscape panel is reckoned to be
the central section with the four museum works placed around it
thought to represent fathers of the church and founders of orders
(though not all experts agree on their identification).
The auctioneers have produced a 64-page
illustrated catalogue which details the stages by which the theory
linking these panels evolved, together with the scholastic and
scientific evidence that supports the theory.
That evidence includes matching up different
details within the works. For example, the townscape in the lower
right-hand section of the Chantilly St Benedict, which was revealed
after cleaning, proved to be a continuation of the town in the
upper right section of the Philadelphia St Gregory. Similarly, the
tree and rock in the St Augustine panel continue into the lower
part of the St Romauld panel.
In addition there are horizontal and
vertical cracks that are common to different panels while cracks
and wood fibres have been examined radiographically and seen to
There are also similarities in the painting
style of the different panels and in the use of colour and the
treatment of details which further support the theory.
How much of the work can be attributed to
the hand of the master and how much to his workshop remains subject
to discussion and is thought to vary between the constituent
Four of the five panels also have a shared
history up to the early 19th century when, according to known
documentary evidence, they were all in France. The whereabouts of
the sixth fragment is not known.
The Leclere Thébaïde panel, which is
described as having restorations, is on view in Paris by
appointment until October 20. It will be sold by Leclere in
Marseille on Saturday, October 27.
The estimate for this fascinating
element of an early Renaissance jigsaw puzzle has been set at
In 2007, a pair of panels of Dominican
saints that had formed part of Fra Angelico's high altarpiece for
the Church of San Marco that had been discovered in a house in
Oxfordshire were offered at Duke's in Dorchester, selling for £1.7m
against expectations of in excess of £1m.