This scene shows Christ being baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. The composition is directly based on a panel painted by Perugino for the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro in Perugia, Italy. When the work was acquired by the National Gallery in the nineteenth century it was thought to be an authentic Renaissance painting, but was subsequently dismissed as a nineteenth-century forgery. Recent technical examination has shown that its pigments are typical of those used in the seventeenth century, including the rare lead-tin-antimony yellow.
In the mid-seventeenth century, Perugino’s original painting was still at San Pietro, where it would have been seen by Sassoferrato, who was working there between 1630 and 1650. Known primarily for his images of the Virgin Mary, Sassoferrato was also a skilled copyist. This painting demonstrates several of his stylistic idiosyncracies, and he is one of the few painters known to have used lead-tin-antimony yellow.
Previously dismissed as a nineteenth-century forgery, this painting is now known to be a seventeenth-century copy of a panel by Pietro Perugino for the Benedictine Abbey of San Pietro in Perugia, Italy. It is one of two almost identical versions of a Baptism of Christ which were offered to the National Gallery in the nineteenth century as authentic Renaissance paintings. Both are copies of Perugino’s Baptism, from the predella of the high altar that was dedicated in the year 1500. We bought this panel, and the other was sold to the Royal Museums in Canterbury (now Canterbury City Council Museums). Both were subsequently thought to be forgeries, but in 1970 we took pigment samples from our painting and were surprised to discover that it contained no ‘modern’ pigments. In fact, when these samples were analysed again in 2009, it was established that the painting includes a rare pigment, lead-tin-antimony yellow, which has generally been found only in paintings made in Rome in the seventeenth century. Other pigments are also consistent with a seventeenth-century date, as is the warm pinkish ground.
In the mid-seventeenth century Perugino’s original painting was still at San Pietro in Perugia, where it would have been seen by Sassoferrato. Known primarily for his numerous images of the Virgin – such as The Virgin in Prayer – Sassoferrato was also a skilled copyist, following the common seventeenth-century practice of reproducing works by other masters (his Virgin and Child Embracing is a version of an etching by Guido Reni). Between 1630 and 1650 he produced several pictures for San Pietro – some were original compositions but most were copies after Raphael, Perugino and others.
This painting shows several of Sassoferrato’s stylistic idiosyncracies: the rounded faces and broad, flat leaves are quite unlike those in Perugino’s original and more like those in Sassoferrato’s Virgin and Child Embracing. He is also one of the few painters known to have used lead-tin-antimony yellow.
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