Theft of church painting puzzles Belgian police

|     Daniela Berretta     |

BRUSSELS (AP) – It’s probably not a long-lost painting by Michelangelo. It almost certainly wasn’t stolen by a sophisticated gang of international art thieves. But the disappearance of a painting that a priest claimed resembled a work by the Renaissance master has Belgian investigators scratching their heads.

The wood-mounted art piece – The Silence of Our Lady – was snatched last Friday from the St Ludger Church in the town of Zele, 50 kilometres northwest of Brussels.

The Priest Jan Van Raemdonck believes it could be a Michelangelo and said an Italian art expert was due any day to come and authenticate it.

Police have obtained grainy security video of a man walking near the scene before dawn with what appears to be painting propped up against his head.

A feat in itself, as the priest said it took three men to place the approximately five-foot-by-three-foot work on an easel just before Christmas.

Pastor of the Sint-Ludgeruskerk Jan Van Raemdonck holds a photo copy of the work Madonna del Silenzio in his office in Zele, Belgium on January 15
Pastor of the Sint-Ludgeruskerk Jan Van Raemdonck sits in his office with research on the work of Michelangelo in Zele, Belgium on January 15. Van Raemdonck is anxiously awaiting news from the police over the theft of a painting from the church that Van Raemdonck believes is from the Renaissance master himself or perhaps one of his pupils. – PHOTOS: AP

“He was not very smart,” the priest, who was writing a book about the painting, told The Associated Press.

“It was at 5.15 in the morning. Other people passed by him in their cars going to the train station, so I hope other people have seen where he has put that painting in his car, which car it is, and maybe that we can follow him.”

Besides the video, police also want to talk to a man between 17 and 20 who a witness saw near the church that morning, wearing a grey hoodie and carrying a dark backpack.

While finding out where the painting has gone is a challenge, establishing where it came from is almost a mystery in itself. A Belgian lawmaker is thought to have bought it from a friend who was having financial difficulties.

The lawmaker then sold it to an organisation that helps the church.

Thirteen years ago, the organisation gave it to the church in Zele. It languished in a corner where it couldn’t be seen for 11 years, until Van Raemdonck moved it to a more prominent place. Just before Christmas, he proudly put it on display in the middle of the church.

Van Raemdonck said he told very few people about his suspicions that the painting might be a Michelangelo, but despite his enthusiasm for the painting, art experts said it’s extremely unlikely the piece is a 16th-Century masterpiece.

“This painting is a relatively close copy of Michelangelo’s prototype,” Art History Professor Didier Martens at the Free University of Brussels told the AP last Wednesday. “Stylistically there’s a clear link with Michelangelo.”

Martens said he believes that the painter “only knew Michelangelo’s model through an engraving” but said the artist has “succeeded in keeping enough Michelangelo elements in his work”.

Whatever the painting’s origins and the outcome of the investigation, Van Raemdonck has a wealth of new material for his book.