A Late 18thC Inscribed Oil on Panel; Imago Veritatis; Formerly Belonging to Hugh Algernon Percy, the 10th Duke of Northumberland

Origin: English School
Period: Late Eighteenth Century
Provenance: Formerly the Property of the Duke of Northumberland & Ex Christies London, 29th April, 1966
Date: c.1760-1800
Height: 21.75 inches
Width: 16 inches

The oil on oak panel showing the Imago Veritatis (Image of Truth) or true likeness of Jesus Christ depicted three quarter bust length on a sea green ground with a gilt inscription “This form of our saviour was imprinted in emerald fory’ great turke and sent to pope innocent for the ransome of his brother that was taken prisoner”, to the lower section and bearing Christie’s stencils verso giving it provenance to the Duke of Northumberland’s estate, the whole surviving from the later half of the eighteenth century and last offered at Christies Auction House in London in 1966.

The condition of the painting is unrestored, uncleaned and unframed and is in as found order. There are areas of loss with flaking to the top surface and a vertical line through the centre of the work. The painting is extremely decorative as it is but could be extensively cleaned, restored and framed if so desired to restore it. As always, we prefer things left as they are.

The picture is stencilled verso ‘338 RZ’. This is a Christie’s Auction House stencil. Spotting a Christie’s stencil is a good indication of a work’s potential importance, and the alphanumeric cipher of the type shown here has been in use almost since Christie’s founding in 1766, originally applied to the backs of pictures with a brush, before stencilled stock numbers were introduced. Every Christie’s stock number matches a unique record in the Christie’s Archive, a legendary repository of detailed information on provenance and prices for every picture sold in the company’s almost two-and-a-half centuries.

In this case, the stencil shows us that the work was offered on the 29th April 1966 with the following description:

Lot: 57 English School
Imago Veritatis – inscribed – on panel – 21 in. by 15 ½ in.
The Property of the Duke of Northumberland

The painting remained unsold, possibly to due a large reserve. There is also a further stencil ‘243 PG’ and this stencil is recorded as a consignment of 6 pictures, and we know that 3 were sent to Fosters and 3 were unsold so it is impossible to attain what happened to the picture after this time.

At the time this painting was consigned to Auction in 1966 the Duke of Northumberland was Hugh Algernon Percy, 10th Duke of Northumberland, (6 April 1914 – 11 October 1988), who was the son of Alan Percy, 8th Duke of Northumberland, and Lady Helen Gordon-Lennox. He succeeded to the dukedom of Northumberland in 1940, when his brother Henry, the 9th Duke, was killed in Flanders in World War II during the retreat to Dunkirk. He would have been 52 when this painting was consigned to Christies though it is unclear where it has resided for the past fifty years.

The seat of the Dukes of Northumberland is Alnwick Castle, in Alnwick, Northumberland; their London residence is Syon House in Brentford which replaced as their London residence the demolished Northumberland House in the Strand and so this painting would have hung at either or both of these residences. The traditional burial place of the Dukes of Northumberland is Westminster Abbey in London, the Percys thus being the last family to maintain such a privilege.

Due to severe flooding in 2012 the current Duke of Northumberland was forced to sell £15million worth of art and antiques including paintings by Old Masters and letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I . The extraordinary depth and richness of the artifacts, objects and paintings within the family seat is legendary, charting not only the Percy family’s history over an entire millennium, but also important moments in the artistic development of many schools and nations.

The inscription to the lower section of the painting is of the same wording as that of the engraving by a contemporary of Jesus in the first century. This was the only authentic likeness of Jesus Christ and was cut on an emerald by command of Tiberius Caesar, and given to Pope Innocent VIII from the treasury at Constantinople, by the emperor of the Turks, for the ransom of his brother, then a captive of the Christians. The emerald with the portrait of Christ, is a likeness of this particular portrait, and was given by the Sultan Bajazid II to the Pope Innocent VIII (+ 1492). The Emerald disappeared probably with the sack of Rome (1527), but the same profile-image of Christ appears on papal medals, as of the Pope Julius III and also on paintings largely of flemish school origin, and of course, this particular picture. The illustration of such a painting and further information you will find in: Pauline Hinze, Deus Homo, Vol. I, Evangelische Verlagsanstalt Berlin (Eastern Germany), Berlin 1973, fig. 8, page 28 f. The fact this example was in the possession of the Duke means it must surely have been by a capable hand, which we can see in the work itself.

This picture therefore brings up the debate surrounding the likeness of Christ, what is true and what is false. Likenesses depicted of Christ vary from painted to engraved, with the inscriptions in Latin or English, some say the original was "engraven in emerald by the predecessor of the Great Turk;" others, that is was "engraven in emerald by command of Tiberius Ceasar;" All accounts agree however that the portrait was given to Pope Innocent VIII by the Turkish emperor for the ransom of his brother who was held captive by the Christians.

So, this important picture with its authoritative provenance could very easily be derived from the only true likeness of Jesus Christ. Leaving the fables of men and the estate of the Duke of Northumberland aside, this is a covetable and decorative portrait of Jesus which one should surely rejoice in calling their own.