Nearly 50 years after it was attributed to the great Italian artist Caravaggio, a haunting early 1600s portrait of St. Francis found hanging in a Roman church began to attract doubters.
Less than two decades later, the discovery of a previously unknown yet nearly identical painting in a small Franciscan church outside Rome muddied the waters roiling around the suspect canvas still further.
Now both images are on view at the College of William and Mary's Muscarelle Museum of Art, which is inviting viewers to decide for themselves if one or both — or neither — sprang from the master's hand.
A third canvas with a solid if once challenged attribution to Caravaggio provides clues for the job, as do numerous magnified details and a pair of X-ray views that delve into the mystery still more deeply.
"This is really a show about looking — and learning to understand what you're looking at," says Muscarelle Director Aaron H. De Groft, who — along with scholar in residence and curator John T. Spike — is an Italian art scholar.
"In this case, the stakes are very high — because this is one of the great, great geniuses of Western art."
Dating to about 1595, the second of these paintings — known as the Carpineto Romano version — is the earliest of the pair, and it bears several hallmarks of Caravaggio's hand from the same period, De Groft says.
Illuminated with a strong raking light, it picks out many details from St. Francis' face — especially the outlines of his ear, nose and cheekbone— and gives them palpable depth and volume.
The painted surface is also "noticeably denser and more compact," notes Spike, writing in a booklet accompanying the exhibit.
Macrophotographic close-ups of the canvas uncover one reason why, revealing many short, thick brush strokes laid down and melded together.
"These little strokes have caused indigestion among a few scholars," De Groft said.
"But the painting is clearly earlier than the other version — and it's handled differently. It's an earlier, less recognized style."
X-ray analysis provides still more clues about the Carpineto Romano version, penetrating below the surface to discover indisputable evidence that — partway through the painting process — St. Francis' figure shifted.
"If you're painting a copy, you don't change the composition," De Groft says.
"So this can't be the copy."
Of the two portraits, the Carpineto Romano is far more like the third painting in the show, an early 1590s work known as "The Fortune Teller."
Although disputed by scholars as recently as 1985, this striking depiction of a young man whose hand is being examined and possibly robbed of its rings by a smiling gypsy girl has been widely recognized since then as a milestone in Caravaggio's revolutionarily realistic representation of daily life, De Groft says.
It's also considered a characteristic example of his style not long after he moved from Milan to Rome in the early 1590s.
Noticeably darker and more brooding is the figure found in the Capuchin version of St. Francis, though — at least in compositional detail — it's indistinguishable from the Carpineto Romano.
"They're virtually the same size," De Groft says — "only fractions of millimeters off."
That similarity is one reason why the museum director and others believe the Capuchin is the copy.
In his mind there's ample evidence that the artist doing the copying about 1605 was Caravaggio, too.
Tying all three canvases together with the Italian master's other works is an idiosyncratic painting process in which the figures and objects — such as the saint and the human skull at which he gazes — are brushed in from front to back — with the background added last.
Then there's the added psychological depth of the Capuchin St. Francis, which — in De Groft's mind — reflects the growing maturity of Caravaggio's ground-breaking struggle to depict his subjects as real.
"This is like a sculpture that has been illuminated with a sharp, dramatic light and then painted by the artist," he says, pointing to the Carpineto Romano.
"But the other one is like a real human being emerging from the darkness into the light."
Erickson can be reached at 757-247-4783. Find more arts and entertainment stories at dailypress.com/entertainment/arts and Facebook.com/dpentertainment.
Want to go?
"Caravaggio Connoisseurship: Saint Francis in Meditation and the Capitoline Fortune Teller"
Where: Muscarelle Museum of Art, off Jamestown on the campus of the College of William and Mary, Williamsburg
When: Through April 6
Information: 757-221-2700 or http://www.wm.edu/muscarelle