Poland's forgotten El Greco languishes in obscurity

6th April 2009, Comments 0 comments

No world-class El Greco specialist has ever visited the tiny provincial museum of the Siedlce diocese in eastern Poland where the painting has been on display for the last four years.

Warsaw -- It was discovered more than 40 years ago in a rural Polish parish. But today the El Greco masterpiece, the Ecstasy of St Francis, still awaits the recognition worthy of a Spanish renaissance master.

"This painting is still ignored by European and American art historians," says Izabella Galicka, 78, who discovered the painting.

"An El Greco in Poland? Found in a priest's quarters in the countryside? It just seems too improbable," says Galicka summing up the views she believes many hold.

"It's a great pity as this valuable canvas deserves recognition," adds Galicka, now retired from her position at the Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN).

No world-class El Greco specialist has ever visited the tiny provincial museum of the Siedlce diocese in eastern Poland where the painting has been on display for the last four years.

El Greco and his students painted more than a hundred different scenes of St Francis. The canvas discovered in Poland dated between 1575 and 1580 shows the saint with the stigmata.

Scouring the Polish countryside for works of art in 1964, Galicka and colleague Hanna Sygietynska found the canvas in the tiny rural parish of Kosow Lacki.

"If a door had not been left ajar that day we would never have noticed it," she recalls. "Sooty and darkened by time, the painting was hanging on a wall over a sofa in a priest's small chamber," she recalls.

"Good Lord! I exclaimed when I saw it. Straight away I knew it was a masterpiece. The stroke of the brush, the gaze of the subject, the colours, all like El Greco."

Initially the two women identified the canvas measuring 104 x 75 centimetres (3.4 x 2.4 feet) as belonging to the El Greco school. But following a comparative study, they boldly theorised the painting was indeed the work of the master himself.

Their thesis was confirmed in 1974. Conservation work by the renowned Polish-born art restorer Bohdan Marconi revealed the authentic signature of Domenikos Theotokopoulos, the real name of "El Greco", an ethnic Greek born in Crete.

It was covered by a layer of paint on which an art dealer trying to pass the painting off as a work of the Dutch master Van Dyck had clumsily forged the signature "Van Dijck," sometimes used by the artist himself, says Galicka.

Having understood the value of the painting, the church quickly hid it for fear that Poland's then communist regime would confiscate it.

Only two clergymen knew its location, Galicka recalls. "Some even thought it had been sold or transferred to the Vatican," she said.

In 2004, 15 years after the collapse of communism, the work finally went on the display behind a sheet of bullet-proof glass. It is estimated to be worth in excess of five million dollars.

"It is perhaps all the controversy surrounding the mystery of its disappearance that still brings up doubts about the canvas," says Dorota Pikula, curator of the Siedlce museum.

"We could understand these doubts when the canvas was not on display, but not anymore. In four years not one renowned El Greco experts from Europe or the US has taken an interest. No mention is made of it in specialist literature," she adds.

Around 10,000 visitors, however, do make the trip to Siedlce every year.

In March Poland's President Lech Kaczynski officially awarded Galicka and Sygietynska high state honours for their historic discovery.

The Siedlce museum is hopeful that recognition might also spark interest among the world art community.


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