Sienese panels found in English parish church

The paintings, by Sano di Pietro, were part of a 15th-century Tuscan altarpiece

LONDON. Two 15th-century Sien­ese panel paintings have been discovered in an English parish church in a Yorkshire mining village, outside Sheffield. They had hung unrecognised in the Church of St John and St Mary Magdalene in Goldthorpe.

The two paintings were in the Lady Chapel, where it was difficult to see them properly. They had remained unstudied and are not recorded in Pevsner’s “Buildings of England” series. When it was eventually suspected that the previously unattributed panels might be important, Christie’s was brought in to advise. The auctioneers in turn sought advice from Everett Fahy of the Metro­politan Museum, New York.

The paintings were then identified as works of Sano di Pietro of Siena (1405-81), a pupil of Sassetta. Dating from the mid 15th century, the two gold ground panels depict an unidentified saint (possibly St James) and San Bernardino. They presumably originally formed part of a large altarpiece in a Tuscan church.

The panels are five feet high and are among Sano’s largest works outside Italy. They remain in fine condition and have not required conservation. Nothing has been published on the paintings and they are reproduced here for the first time.

Christie’s valued the paintings at £300,000, and it was then decided they should be removed for security reasons. Faculty permission was obtained from the Diocese of Sheffield to allow a loan.

The Sano di Pietro paintings have just gone on temporary display at York City Art Gallery, without publicity. Next spring they will go on long-term loan to York Minster, to hang in the treasury. Initially the loan will be for five years, then renewable.

A spokesman for Sheffield Diocese told us that “it is unlikely at this stage that they would be considered for sale.” This is not being ruled out, but would require a further faculty approval from the Anglican authorities.

How the panels arrived at Goldthorpe remains a mystery. The most likely explanation is that they came from Lord Halifax, who paid for the building of the church in 1916. He may have acquired the Sienese paintings on a grand tour or they could have come from the family’s seat, nearby Hickleton Hall.

There are no records to show whether the panels were a gift or a loan, but it is now assumed to have been a donation. By coincidence, the present Lord Halifax is deputy chairman of Christie’s UK, which did the recent valuation.

The other claim to fame of Goldthorpe’s St John and St Mary Magdalene is that in 1916 it was the first church in England to be constructed entirely with reinforced concrete, including the altar and font. The concrete later deteriorated, and the church has just been restored, assisted with a £950,000 grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Built by Alfred Nutt, the church was designed in an Italianate style, which made the Sano panels particularly appropriate.

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