Art historian who found lost El Greco painting finally rewarded with Gloria Artis Culture Medal

The Ministry of Culture and National heritage said: 'Thanks to this outstanding doctor of art history, a wonderful art treasure was found and restored, the only El Greco ‘Ecstasy of St Francis’ painting in Poland.' Stanisław Rozpędzik/PAP

An art historian and lecturer at the European Academy of Art has been awarded the Gloria Artis gold medal for her 1964 discovery in Poland of a lost El Greco masterpiece.

Dr Izabella Galicka made the incredible discovery whilst doing mundane inventory work with a colleague for the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences and found the artwork was hanging in the rectory of a small parish church in Kosów Lacki. 

She said: “Everyone thought it was an absurdity, that an El Greco painting would be found in a Podlasie rectory.  

“It was only by chance that we happened to see through the ajar door to the next room of the rectory.”

A parish priest had found the painting in the church’s belfry, stashed away with piles of junk waiting to be burned. Not wishing to burn St Francis of Assisi, he hung it on his wall, where it had stayed ever since. Radek Pietruszka /PAP

“Suddenly we saw an old picture hanging on the wall. Our first question was whether it belonged to Father Stępień or to the parish, as we weren’t inventorying private collections.”

The priest told her his predecessor had found it in the belfry, stashed away with piles of junk waiting to be burned. 

Dr Izabella Galicka said that they found they painting purely by accident and at first no one believed it was an El Greco. Andrzej Rybczyński/PAP

Not wishing to burn St Francis of Assisi, he hung it on his wall, where it had stayed ever since. 

The picture was in poor repair with a hole in the upper left-hand corner and parts of it had been painted over, especially the sky. 

Nonetheless, the researchers decided to have the work examined and sent enlarged photos to El Greco experts. 

El Greco was a Greek painter, sculptor and architect of the Spanish Renaissance. Public domain

The research and documentation took almost two years. 

It was not until several years later that the story came to public attention through the press, and then sightseers came flocking to Kosów Lacki in droves, so many in fact that the small country lanes were sometimes blocked. 

The painting was found in the church in the small town of Kosów Lacki, halfway between Warsaw and Białystok. Google maps

But still, many people refused to believe the artwork was a genuine El Greco.

When PAP published a story about the find, readers even thought it was a joke as it appeared the day before April 1.

A breakthrough came 10 years later during conservation work. Two layers of repainting were removed and El Greco’s signature was finally revealed.  

The El Greco is now on display at the Diocesan Museum in Siedlce. Stanisław Rozpędzik/PAP

Along with chemical and spectral analysis, the signature proved the image of St Francis to be the genuine article. It can be viewed today at the Diocesan Museum in Siedlce.   

Handing out the award, the Ministry of Culture and National heritage said: “Thanks to this outstanding doctor of art history, a wonderful art treasure was found and restored, the only El Greco ‘Ecstasy of St Francis’ painting in Poland.”