Buy one, get one free! Infrared imaging of Sandro Botticelli’s (c. 1445-1510) ‘Man of Sorrows’ has unexpectedly revealed a long-lost Madonna and Child composition hidden underneath the masterful brushstrokes. Sotheby’s is due to sell the painting in New York later this month with a staggering guarantee of $40 million (£29 million).
Conservators at the auction house were eager to undertake technical analysis on the painting, which had remained understudied in private hands for two centuries. Much to their surprise, an upside-down abandoned figural sketch unveiled itself when exposed to infrared light. Specialists soon identified the under-drawing as the ‘Madonna of tenderness’, where the Madonna softly presses the Christ child’s cheek against her own.
Some of the original composition appears to have been traced from a cartoon, whereas the head of baby Christ is entirely unique in Botticelli’s oeuvre. Later on, Botticelli decided to literally turn the panel upside down and create a new, unrelated painting on top. Chris Apostle, Senior Vice President and Director of Old Master paintings at Sotheby’s, explained that “panel was a valuable commodity in the Renaissance…one wouldn’t want to throw it away”.
The composition we currently see underwent some adjustments too. Botticelli moved the position of Christ’s wound, cropped his hair, and shifted his eyebrows down. Botticelli’s technique here is fairly consistent with his other works, “the pigments include chromium, titanium and so on—all the pigments one would expect to see,” Apostle said.
Christ’s frontal pose is the most distinctive element of the painting. Speaking about its striking nature, Apostle remarked “what I find touching is that Christ is a little bit off centre. Botticelli has tilted his head slightly, which is more human.”
He added: “Botticelli would have been 55-plus when this was painted, which in the Renaissance was late middle age, and I feel that there is something about this picture that Botticelli is projecting, an understanding that we are all going to die—it has a profound emotional charge. If he had represented Christ full on and rigid this would be more like an icon; a little bit more impenetrable.”
The combination of Christ’s engaging pose and the extraordinary technical discovery make this the lot to watch at Sotheby’s upcoming auction. Only last year, ‘Portrait of a Young Man Holding a Roundel’ by Bottticelli sold at Sotheby’s New York to a Russian buyer for a record-breaking $92.1 million plus fees (£67 million).
George Wachter, Sotheby’s Chairman and Co-Worldwide Head of Old Master Paintings, concluded “to bring to auction a work by Botticelli of this quality is a major event in the world of Old Masters–but to do so a year after the landmark sale of Botticelli’s Young Man Holding a Roundel is a once-in-a-generation phenomenon.”