A HEREFORDSHIRE church could be home to a lost masterpiece, it has been claimed, after a signature was found on a painting undergoing restoration.

After languishing for 200 years in Ledbury parish church, a gloomy painting on the north wall was hailed as a “lost” depiction of The Last Supper in 2018.

And it could have been lost forever, rector at St Michael & All Angels, the Rev Keith Hilton-Turvey explained, as the picture had become “increasingly dark” over the years and some even believed the church “ought to get rid of it”.

“It was thought to be of little value or merit, but some of the Friends of the church thought differently," he said.

But, thanks to the committee and a number of benefactors, 250 people gathered in 2018 to watch then Bishop of Hereford, the Rt Rev Richard Frith unveil the large Italian renaissance painting, painstakingly restored by noted expert and art historian Ronald Moore, with vital input from his research assistant Patricia Kenny.

Hereford Times: The painting being taken for restorationThe painting being taken for restoration

There was an audible gasp when Mr Moore presented his theory that the painting was begun by Venetian renaissance painter, Polidoro da Lanciano, who died in 1565, when the commissioned work was probably continued by his small studio and family and probable input from two master painters working on the heads.

Mr Moore said at the time that Tintoretto was “a possibility given the brushwork and fact he worked in Titian`s studio with Polidoro years before”.

Brought to Ledbury in around 1780, the unsigned painting was partly based on Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, a copy of which provides an altarpiece in the church.

A noted painter himself, Mr Moore, who trained at the Courtauld Institute and has lectured extensively in art history, admitted the painting had been a puzzle to him, and to six noted authorities around the world.

He worked out a proposal for attribution and sent it to Professor Alessandra Zamperini at Verona university , expert and author on Veronese and the Venetian Renaissance. She supported his “tentative attribution to Polidoro da Lanciano”, he said.

Mr Moore said they had meticulously researched Venetian renaissance styles, techniques, painting materials and use of colour, concluding that the painting bore the work of a number of painters.

“The biggest problem of all was that the heads are painted by different artists, some of staggering quality,” he said.

Mr Moore put forward his opinion: “Polidoro was Titian’s assistant, he was extremely good and it was the right time,” he said. “In 1564 he knew he was ill, he did the drawings and worked out the composition, produced the cartoon and the studio was possibly helped by his old friend from Titian’s studio, Tintoretto to complete the work over the following year.”

But now, the BBC reports, new discoveries have added further proof that the painting may have come from the studio of the master, Titian, himself.

Titian's signature has been found in the painting, using ultra-violet light, while one of the apostles has been matched to a self-portrait of Titian.

And the theory is further bolstered by the discovery of an under-drawing, something Mr Moore says is a mark of a major painter.

Other characters in the painting resemble Titian's sons, with Mr Moore suggesting that the work, perhaps left unfinished by Titian, may have been completed as a form of family portrait by his son and other artists.

Known works by the painter, whose full name was Tiziano Vecellio, have commanded prices in the millions, with one work – A Sacra Conversazione – selling for $16,882,500 at Sotheby's in 2011.

Titian, who was born around 1488, was a leading figure in Italian Renaissance painting until his death from the plague in 1576.