The mystery may be about to be solved when a London gallery on Thursday reveals the restored version of what some think is Caravaggio's great lost work.
French art expert Eric Turquin has been looking after the life-size canvas since its discovery during pipe repair work in the attic of an old house in the southwestern French city of Toulouse in 2014.
“Not only is it a Caravaggio, but of all the Caravaggios that are known today, this is one of the great pictures,” Turquin said ahead of the painting's June 27th auction in Toulouse.
“It's not just an addition — it is a major addition to the oeuvre of the artist.”
Caravaggio's mastery elevated Europe's understanding of art by the time he died from what some scientists think was gradual poisoning from the lead in his paint at the age of 38 in 1610. His arresting interplay of shadows and radiant light heralded the onset of the brooding Baroque style that flourished for 150 more years and produced the likes of Rubens and Rembrandt.
Caravaggio's best works resemble scenes on a macabre theatre stage. The Biblical heroes are played by models he picked off the street — mostly beggars and street kids — and cast against dark backgrounds in a candle-lit glow.
But he was a hot-tempered genius who was wanted for murder and hiding from the Rome authorities in his final years of life. He was “notorious for brawling, even in a time and place when such behaviour was commonplace,” the Caravaggio Foundation writes.
Caravaggio's confirmed Judith Beheading Holofernes is on permanent display at the Palazzo Barberini in Rome. Photo: Vincenzo Pinto/AFP
The 144 by 175 cm canvas depicts the moment the chaste widow Judith beheads the Assyrian general Holofernes to defend the city of Bethulia. She decapitates him after plying him with drink.
The more risque takes depict Judith as a seducer who first tempts him to bed — the path also chosen by Caravaggio in a similar work he painted eight years earlier that now hangs in Rome. The general's head is then taken away in a basket or on a silver platter for display.
The old maid in the scene from what could be Caravaggio's missing work is disfigured by bulbous goitres — a condition affecting the thyroid gland — that compete for the eye's attention with the streams of blood gushing down the warrior's chest.
But what if this is not a Caravaggio but an admittedly fine copy by one of his Flemish disciples?
Louis Finson was a recognised artist in his own right who both owned and reproduced Caravaggio's work. Finson was also an art dealer who may have had an ulterior motive in making Caravaggio duplicates and then selling them off to wealthy merchants in his native Bruges and Amsterdam.
Caravaggio expert John Gash told The New York Times in 2016 that Finson was “an inveterate copyist” whose is known to have made at least one reproduction of the missing tableau. That piece now is now displayed in Naples.
An art expert holds up a radiography of the disputed painting. Photo: Patrick Kovarik/AFP
But Turquin said X-rays have convinced him that his canvas was not just another one of Finson's knockoffs.
“Originally, Judith was actually looking towards the face of Holofernes — she was looking at what she was doing, as she did in the 1602 painting. It was only [later] that he changed the painting.”
Turquin argued that going back to a work to shift the direction of the main protagonist's gaze was “no way what any copyist would ever do”.
“If it's a copy, he's a genius, the copyist,” said Turquin.
By AFP's Dmitry Zaks