A rare nativity painting created more than 500 years ago by Baldassare Peruzzi has been rescued by the government as a “Christmas gift to the nation” after an export ban was imposed.
The Nativity, Peruzzi’s only work in the UK, will be shown in Northern Ireland next year. It was acquired by National Museums NI after raising funds to purchase the work from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, Arts Fund, Department for Communities NI and the Esme Mitchell Trust.
The painting, worth £277,990, had an export bar placed on it by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport last year. Cultural items deemed too important to leave the UK may be placed under an export bar.
The DCMS said at the time: “An extraordinarily rare painting depicting the Nativity is at risk of leaving the country unless a British buyer can be found to save the work for the nation.”
The Nativity was painted around 1515 by Peruzzi, one of the leading figures in art in Rome in the first decades of the 16th century who worked with Raphael and Donato Bramante. He was an architect, theater designer, painter and draftsman.
Most of Peruzzi’s paintings were in fresco and have been lost to history. The Nativity is one of only a handful of works outside Italy.
The painting is undergoing conservation work at the National Gallery in London before moving to its permanent home at the Ulster Museum in Belfast in 2023.
Peruzzi depicted his nativity scene at night. The “nocturnal setting is most striking … Peruzzi’s use of dark tonalities for a work on this intimate scale was unusual, even daring,” the Arts Council said.
Arts and Heritage Minister Stephen Parkinson said: “For many, being part of a nativity play is one of the first ways we learn the story of Christmas. That is why I am delighted that this Christmas Eve we can announce that this incredible painting of that famous event has been saved for the nation thanks to the export bar system.”
Simon Thurley, the chairman of the National Heritage Memorial Fund, said the painting was “an incredibly important work of art” and its acquisition was “a fantastic Christmas present for art lovers, and especially for Northern Ireland”.
Jenny Waldman, the director of the Art Fund, said: “This is an extraordinary, and beautiful, work of art. We are delighted that … a painting by Peruzzi will now enter a public British collection for the first time.”
The National Heritage Memorial Fund contributed £99,990 towards the cost of the artwork. The Arts Fund gave £100,000, the Department for Communities NI contributed £70,000, and Esme Mitchell Trust gave £8,000.