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Priest claims to have found major painting by Murillo

Experts divided over the authenticity of the newly discovered Ecce Homo

Ecce Homo at Guadix Cathedral

The priest of three small villages in the region of Granada, southern Spain, is claiming to have made a major art historical discovery. Joaquin Caler bought a painting of Ecce Homo, which shows Christ bound and crowned with thorns shortly before the crucifixion, from a family in Seville around nine years ago. He has now put the canvas on display in the museum of Guadix Cathedral and says he believes it is an original work by the 17th-century painter Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

Caler told The Art Newspaper that his Ecce Homo is the “original” treatment of the theme by Murillo, who would then go on to produce numerous different versions of the canvas, including one that is now in the collection of the Heckscher Museum of Art in Huntington, Long Island.

Caler has the backing of Enrique Pareja López, an academic at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and a former director of the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville. López first examined the painting when it was being restored and made the attribution to Murillo. He believes the Ecce Homo at Guadix Cathedral, which he says was painted between 1665 and 1670, is better than the Heckscher’s version. “I am convinced that we are in front of a formidable painting,” he says. It is so good, he added, that it should be considered the original version of the theme.

Others experts disagree. Benito Navarrete and Enrique Valdivieso, two highly respected authorities on Murillo, refute the attribution. They believe the Guadix canvas was painted by an assistant in Murillo’s studio. Navarrete, the professor of art history at the University of Alcalá in Madrid, and a former member of the vetting committee for the Tefaf Maastricht art fair, says that the quality of the painting is too poor to be considered a work by the great painter. “I do not see the hand of Murillo in this work: the face of Christ is [poorly executed] and you do not see the artist’s mastery in the red cloth; it is just a copy,” Navarrete says.

In his blog Navarette also pointed out the Heckscher museum’s painting has been recognised as Murillo’s original treatment of the Ecce Homo theme by numerous art historians, including Diego Angulo and Enrique Valdivieso, who included it in their respective catalogues of the artist’s work. However, the museum itself catalogues the painting as by a “follower” of Murillo.

Enrique Valdivieso, a member of the Royal Academy of Fine Letters of Seville, who has studied the Heckscher’s canvas, believes Guadix Cathedral’s painting is one of the many versions produced by Murillo’s studio to keep pace with demand for such canvases in the 17th century, when wealthy Spaniards commissioned such works for private prayer. “Murillo’s skill is greater than the Guadix painting shows,” he says. Even the Heckscher’s work shows that Murillo did not complete it alone, he added, but it is still the best surviving version of Ecce Homo.

Joaquin Caler’s painting has been examined by Enrique Parra Crego, the manager of Larco, a laboratory that analyses pigments. He says these reveal that the pigments used in the Guadix Ecce Homo match those in paintings by Francisco de Zurbarán, Diego Velázquez, Francisco Pacheco and, of course, Murillo.

The restorer who worked on the Guadix Ecce Homo, Manuel Chiappi, described it as a painting “of high quality” that is in “very good condition”, probably because it had remained in the same place for centuries and had not been moved. Chiappi says he removed “some coats of varnish” and repaired some minor damage to the work. He also said that the work may have been trimmed in the past because the composition is “not well-balanced in comparison with other treatments of the theme”.

For now Caler says he has no intention of selling the work, which had hung in his bedroom for nine years. He says he will keep it on public display at the museum of the Cathedral at Guadix for around a year. Then he intends to move it although he could not yet confirm where.

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