17c mystery painting still baffling experts

This large picture of 1665 by an anonymous artist is one of the great mysteries of the art world, and is the centerpiece of a forthcoming major Norwich Castle Museum exhibition.

Visually stunning, the cryptic painting entitled The Paston Treasure has baffled art experts around the world for centuries, with its lavish gold and silver, exotic objects, musical instruments, fruits and flowers, a lobster, a monkey and a parrot, plus portraits of a young girl and an African youth.

It is part of The Paston Treasure: Riches and Rarities of the Known World, that will open on June 23 (until September 23), having been organised with the Yale Center for British Art in the US.

The treasures represent a fraction of one was once one of the great private cabinets of curiosities, gathered by the powerful Paston family of Norfolk at their country seat, Oxnead Hall, outside Norwich.

Five years of collaboration between Norwich Castle curators and the historians of the Yale Center, using the painting as a starting point, have gathered items from the Paston collection, and remarkably five of the objects in the painting have been tracked down. For the first time in three centuries they will be reunited with the painting.

One of England’s great magnate families of the 17th century, the Pastons over-reached themselves financially and early in the 18th century went bankrupt. The collection was sold, the male line died out, Oxnead Hall fell into disrepair and only a third of it has survived.

“The painting is not just a typical seventeenth century still life, but the key to unlocking a fascinating, dramatic and ultimately tragic story: of a family, a collection, and a great house” said Francesca Vanke, curator of the exhibition. “The first clues to the story are in this painting. They open up a world we never knew existed, for which evidence is scattered worldwide.”

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