Quinten Metsys – Discovering a lost masterpiece

Quinten Metsys (1465-1530), Christ Blessing with the Virgin in Adoration c.1491-1505, oil and mordant gilding on oak panel, original dimensions c. 37.6 x 57 cm


Discovering a lost masterpiece.

In 2006 Kiffy and Hugo, together with Simon Watney (independent Art Historian) were called to Holy Trinity Church, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, to advise on a painting that purported to be by Van Dyck.  Whilst assessing the possible Van Dyck, we noticed hanging next to it a little jewel of a painting of Christ with a label attributing it to the Spanish painter Louis de Morales (1509-1586).  Clearly this attribution was wrong and with the approval of Canon Revd. Bill Matthews (the then Rector of Holy Trinity Church) we undertook to find out exactly what it was.

With the painting back in our Norfolk studios, meticulous and detailed work ensued.  This involved art historical and provenance research, as well as extensive technical study and comparison with other known authorised works by Metsys in order to help secure a firm attribution.

Investigations quickly showed the panel fragment of Christ Blessing to be the left half of a single devotional panel depicting Christ and the Virgin together as one unified image.  A little later on, and quite by chance whilst flicking through an old Christie’s sale catalogue, Kiffy spotted the missing right half – The Virgin in Adoration.  With the help of Dr Lorne Campbell at the National Gallery London, we located this other half in a private collection belonging to lady Juliet Tadgell.

This rare single devotional panel turned out to be Metsys’ earliest known prototype for this image – an image which the rest of his studio and his circle used in various other guises throughout the first half of the 16th century and beyond.  Following dendrochronological and x-radiographic comparisons, the panel also turned out to be made from the other ends of the very same two oak planks that make up Metsys’ earliest known work, The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels, which is in the National Gallery London; it was then clear that these two major works by Metsys were painted around the same time.  Additionally, whilst paint analysis confirmed a palette and technique entirely typical of Metsys, it also confirmed the existence of an original 500 year old varnish layer that had been applied by the artist and that was surviving in parts over the gold background – this was a very rare find indeed.

The panel of Christ Blessing was very stable and had received very little attention from restorers in the past (some retouching along the horizontal panel join only).  Beneath several layers of aged and very darkened varnish the paint layers were found to be in exquisite condition.  Close examination of the exceptional technique and incredibly fine detailing was an experience rarely encountered with a painting of this age – not least including the creasing in the skin of Christ’s lips and the tiny beaded eyelash strokes apparently rendered in water based paint over the dried oil paint of the skin.  In the past such details (including original varnish layers) were so easily and all too frequently removed unintentionally during cleaning.  Thus it was partly because of the good condition and partly for budgetary reasons that it was decided not to clean and restore the Christ Blessing at this stage.

During the project Kiffy records: “One of the most memorable occasions of my career occurred in the conservation studios of the National Gallery London.  Everyone connected to the project, plus many other National Gallery dignitaries (who seemed to secrete themselves silently from the walls just at the right instant), gathered to see the moment when the two halves were unpacked and placed together on an easel.  This was undoubtedly the first time they had been seen as one single image since they were sawn in half well over a century ago.  The pieces fitted together like a perfect jig-saw and the whole room (of 15 or 20 people) fell into a stunned and rapturous silence.”

Finally, after seven years and two publications later, the project concluded in 2013 when Dr Maximiliaan Martens (Flemish Academic Centre for Science and the Arts , Ghent University) formerly confirmed Quinten Metsys as the author of the painting:

 “Based on the findings of our previous research of nearly all documented and many paintings that have been unanimously attributed to Quinten Massys [Metsys], both Mrs Annick Born and myself came to the conclusion that the attribution of both panels cannot be doubted. The paintings show all typical stylistic and technical  idiosyncrasies of the master. Moreover, the quality and the state of preservation of both panels is remarkably good. The argument to consider them as two halves of one original panel is also very solid.”

 Thereafter, in describing our work on this project, Alex Bell (Joint International Department Head and Co-Chairman Worldwide of Sotheby’s Old Master Paintings Department) stated:

 “Kiffy and her team’s identification of this lost masterpiece represents perhaps the most important rediscovery in the field of early Netherlandish art in the last generation.”

There have however been many other specialists and interested parties whose assistance, support, guidance and collaboration have been essential to the success of this project – and in order to achieve the best possible outcome we consulted far and wide.  Of course most importantly this has included both the owners of the two panels as well as our collaborator Simon Watney, who was part of the initial discovery and who placed the painting in its proper art historical context for us.

Thereafter we are especially grateful for the invaluable and massive contributions from the paintings conservation and conservation science departments of both the National Gallery London and the National Gallery of Art Washington DC – primarily Cathy Metzger, Lorne Campbell, Rachel Billinge and Jill Dunkerton, but also Sarah Fisher and Martin Wyld.  Other significant and essential contributions have come from Libby Sheldon (independent technical art historian and leading paint analyst) and Ian Tyers (independent dendrochronologist).  Those others who assisted with our many research enquires include conservators Nicola Costaras (V&A), Joe Fronek (LACMA), Alexandra Walker (independent), Bill Brown (NCMA); art historians, archivists  and collection managers  Yolande Decker (KMSKA), Xanthe Brooke (NML), Alastair Laing (NT), Desmond Shawe-Taylor (RC), Baroness Willoughby de Eresby (Grimsthorpe Castle), David Koetser (Koetser Gallery), Max Martens and  Annick Born (GICAS).  Other help has been gratefully received from Karen Sanig (Mishcon de Reya), Alex Bell (Sotheby’s), Konrad Bernheimer (Colnaghi’s) and Johnny van Haeften (Johnny Van Haeften Ltd).

Some other comments on the project include:

“I’m hugely grateful for all your skill and work on this amazing discovery.  As someone who loves looking at paintings, it has been both a fascinating ‘detective story’ and quite an education!  I’m delighted that all that research has finally found its proper recognition.  Please pass on my warmest congratulations to you and your team.”  Canon Revd. Bill Matthews, formerly Rector of  Holy Trinity Church, Bradford on Avon.

“The discovery of the Quentin Metsys is a wonderful story and we are extremely conscious that if it wasn’t for your initial sharp eye and subsequent huge and very sensitive and thoughtful efforts on our behalf, we quite simply wouldn’t be in the fortunate position in which we find ourselves today.  What is more the painting can finally be appreciated for the true masterpiece it really is.  On behalf of the PCC  Standing Committee and the Parish I would therefore like to say a big thank you for going the extra mile!”  The Revd. Joanna Abecassis, Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Bradford on Avon.

“Absolutely awe-inspiring. Our grateful thanks to Kiffy and her team.”  Tony Haffenden, Churchwarden of Holy Trinity Church, Bradford on Avon.

“Just to say many, many thanks for everything.  Our painting is one of my favourites in our collection and it has been so wonderful (and not a little exciting and interesting) to find out so much about it!  Thank you so much for all your very impressive efforts!”  Lady Juliet Tadgell.

“Nice work indeed.  Congratulations to all!  Kudos!!”  Cathy Metzger, formerly Senior Painting Conservator, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

“Congratulations, Kiffy.  What fun!”  Sarah Fisher, formerly Head of Paintings Conservation, National Gallery of Art, Washington DC.

“The gallery’s new Netherlandish catalogue with which you gave so much help on Metsys is now published with an image and extensive excerpt on your Christ and the Virgin.  Congratulations to you all and thank you again.”  Dr Lorne Campbell, formerly George Beaumont Senior Research Curator, National Gallery, London.

“I am delighted that everything went so well.  Many congratulations.”  Jill Dunkerton, Senior Conservator, National Gallery, London.

“Well done!”  Rachel Billinge, Conservation Research Associate, National Gallery, London.

“What an amazing piece of detective work!  What a distinguished company!”  Alastair Laing, formerly Curator of Pictures and Sculpture, National Trust.


For more information on this project see:

Emma Rebecca Boyce, Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins and Hugo Platt, ‘Another Fragment-Half of a Flemish Devotional Panel; Mater Dolorosa, c.1520, by an Anonymous Artist Associated with the Master of the Holy Blood’, The Picture Restorer magazine, Spring 2016, pp. 18-24 and 26-28.

Lorne Campbell, ‘The Sixteenth Century Netherlandish Paintings, with French Paintings Before 1600.’ London National Gallery Systematic Catalogue, 2014, pp. 471-479.

Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins, Simon Watney and Hugo Platt, ‘A rediscovered prototype by Quinten Metsys: Christ Blessing with the Virgin in Adoration’, The Burlington Magazine, Vol. CL11, February 2010, pp. 76-81

Martin Bailey, ‘Massys Discovery; Flemish Work Found in Church’, The Art Newspaper, no. 211, March 2010.

Simon de Bruxelles, ‘Painting in a Damp Church that Nobody Noticed is the Missing Half of a Masterpiece’, The Times Newspaper, 1st March, 2010.

Ian Tyers, ‘The tree-ring analysis of two paintings: “Christ Blessing” and “The Virgin in Adoration” attributed to Quinten Metsys’, Dendrochronological Consultancy Ltd, unpublished report no. 363, July 2010, pp. 1-12.

Kiffy Stainer-Hutchins and Hugo Platt, ‘Christ Blessing with the Virgin in Adoration by Quinten Metsys, c. 1491-1505: A Technical investigation’, The Picture Restorer magazine, Autumn 2010, pp. 18-21 and 29-33.

Jill Dunkerton, ‘The Technique and Restoration of The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Four Angels by Quinten Messys’, London National Gallery Technical Bulletin, Vol. 29, 2008, pp. 60-75.


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The late Canon Rev. Bill Matthews & wife Jean

We are eternally grateful to the late Canon Revd. Bill Matthews (here with his wife Jean), former Rector of Holy Trinity Church, Bradford-on-Avon, whose invaluable support and help throughout two thirds of this long and complex project was unwaveringly strong and intelligent.  We are only sorry he did not get to see the final outcome; he was a lovely man.