Lost Caravaggio: A great work of art is newly dated

In April 2021, news of the discovery of a painting by Caravaggio known only from copies quickly spread. It is still unclear whether the depiction of an Ecce Homo is actually an original. However, the dispute among experts about the correct classification of the picture in the painter’s overall oeuvre has long since begun. Opinions vary between an origin in the last months of his Roman creative phase, when he committed himself to the execution of such a representation in June 1605, and a later date in the time of his stay in Naples in the years 1606 or 1607, as indicated by early collection inventories. The time difference of two years is of course far less serious than the cultural distance between Naples and Rome. The material-technical examination of the picture should provide more precise information in comparison to secured works of the respective creative phase, and in this respect the comparison with available sources appears as a somewhat hasty ritual. However, if the statements of former and current authorities intertwine to form seemingly unmistakable reliability, occasionally a lesson emerges about the critical examination of seemingly firmly established views.

A truly astounding example in this regard is Caravaggio’s monumental depiction of the Nativity, which stood over the altar of the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo for more than 350 years. However, on the night of October 17-18, 1969, thieves cut the nearly three-meter high screen out of the frame and escaped unnoticed. The painting has been lost to this day. Contrary to previous assumptions that it was completely destroyed, a state commission of inquiry came to the conclusion in 2018 that the picture had been cut into four parts and that these may still be preserved. Thus there is still hope that at least fragments of the worship of the shepherds could come to light again.

Traditionally considered a late work

While the criminal investigation of the case is still pending, experts are amazed on all sides by recent assumptions about the origin of the painting. Because following the statements of Caravaggio’s early biographers Giovanni Baglione and Giovan Pietro Bellori, it was actually accepted that the Adoration of the Shepherds in Palermo was the last painting that Caravaggio created at the end of his several-month stay in Sicily, shortly before he left in December 1609 left for Naples in the hope of being pardoned soon and being able to return to Rome after a long exile. As is well known, this was denied to him; he died in May 1610 at the age of only 38. The Adoration of the Shepherds would have been a work from his last creative period.


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