Wednesday, January 25, 2006


LOCHES, France

In one of France’s most exciting artistic discoveries of recent years, two paintings by the 16th-century Italian artist Caravaggio have been found in a church in the central town of Loches, the town’s municipal authority said yesterday.

“Pilgrimage of Our Lord to Emmaus” and “St. Thomas Putting His Finger on Christ’s Wound” hung ignored for nearly two centuries under the organ loft in the Church of St. Anthony but have been verified by experts.

“When I walked into the room where the paintings were, I was completely shocked … . It was very emotional. This kind of thing happens once in a lifetime,” says Caravaggio specialist Jose Freches.

According to Loches municipal officials, the paintings are almost certainly two out of a batch of four that are known to have been bought from Caravaggio by Philippe de Bethune, a minister of France’s King Henry IV.

Caravaggio, whose full name was Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, was born around 1570 and died in 1610. He was renowned for his biblical scenes, which were painted with what was then a radically new attention to natural detail.

“A whole series of technical clues plus the pictorial quality of the works were enough to convince me without any doubt that these are originals,” Mr. Freches says.

“Scientific tests have shown that the linen canvases are identical to those used by Caravaggio, and the same goes for the pigments. The pictures are in their original state — they haven’t been restored, as so many Caravaggios were. On top of that, we know their provenance,” he says.

The Emmaus picture is similar to Caravaggio’s “Supper at Emmaus,” which is in the National Gallery in London, and the St. Thomas resembles “The Incredulity of St. Thomas,” which is in the Sanssouci Palace near Potsdam in Germany, according to Mr. Freches.

“But they are not exact copies. The London Christ is beardless and more chubby than the one in Loches. And in the Loches St. Thomas, the collar of one of the apostles is blue, unlike in Potsdam. We know that Caravaggio did many versions of his pictures,” he says.

An enthusiastic art collector, Philippe de Bethune, Count de Selles, served as French ambassador to Rome, where he is known to have befriended Caravaggio, at one point helping the painter — who was a renowned brawler — escape a prison sentence.

An inventory signed by the count and currently in the national archive in Paris lists four Caravaggios and the price he paid for them. His collection was broken up at his death, and the paintings are believed to have been kept in a family chapel.

The pictures were confiscated in the French Revolution, but in 1813, they were given to the newly created parish of St. Anthony. In 1999, they were taken down for examination after a curator inquired about a coat of arms on the frames. This turned out to be the Bethune emblem, which sparked the hunt.

The paintings are being kept in the town in the Loire Valley region, where they will go on display later this year.

In 1990, a lost Caravaggio painting called “The Taking of Christ” was found in the residence of the Society of Jesus — the Jesuit religious order — in Dublin and is one of the star attractions at the National Gallery of Ireland.

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