ART experts have discovered a 16th century painting of a nativity scene hidden beneath a 400-year-old work of art.
Conservators working with The Bowes Museum in County Durham made the find while examining a historic painting depicting the beheading of Saint John the Baptist.
X-ray analysis by Northumbria University experts revealed another image underneath, with a baby, angels and the outline of what appear to be stables.
Nicky Grimaldi, senior lecturer in Conservation of Fine Art, said: "It was such a lovely surprise to see the nativity scene revealed underneath the painting we see today. It really is quite unusual to find paintings hidden in this way and to discover a nativity scene in this detail and just before Christmas was really incredible."
The painting, which is in a late medieval style and probably formed part of a larger altar piece, was collected for the museum by its founders John and Josephine Bowes in the 19th century.
As was typical of the era, it is painted on canvas spread over a large wooden panel which, over the years, has deteriorated and led museum curators to contact experts at the university for help.
Initially the aim was to find out what was causing the damage but Ms Grimaldi and forensic scientist Dr Michelle Carlin, now plan to examine it further to determine its age, background and history.
Ms Grimaldi said: "The first stage of most investigations of this kind is to carry out an X-ray to understand what is going on underneath the layer of paint we see on the surface. That was when we realised there was more to the painting than we originally thought."
The X-ray showed up several figures, including the outline of what appears to be one of the three wise men, or Magi– his hands
outstretched as if holding out a gift and the outline of a baby in a manger with a halo around his head is clearly visible.
“It was common practice to apply gold leaf to these type of religious paintings and in the x-ray we can see that gold is present in the halo around the baby’s head.
“Incredibly we can see lines over the x-ray image which we believe to be preparatory drawings, showing where the painting was probably copied from an original drawing (cartoon).
“Those lines were subsequently filled with another paint layer such as lead white which allows them to be visible on the x-ray," added Ms Grimaldi.
Dr Jane Whittaker, the museum’s head of collections, said: “We’re simply delighted and astounded to discover that this 16th century work was hiding such a wonderful secret and to find out at this time of year is really quite fortuitous. It’ll be really interesting to find out more about it as Northumbria University continue their investigations.”