TITIAN’S death by plague in 1576 means he may never have seen the finished version of Ledbury’s now famous ‘Last Supper’, and that his son and others were left to complete it.

That is the theory of art expert, Ronald Moore, who restored the substantial canvas, in Ledbury Parish Church, and discovered Titian’s signature upon it, with the aid of ultraviolet light.

Mr Moore’s extensive research and reasoning are outlined in his brand new book, Titian’s Lost Last Supper, a New Workshop Discovery. (Unicorn) .

It is a poignant thought that, as the UK eases out of a lockdown caused by the Covid pandemic, another rampaging plague could have played a significant role in the creation of a painting which, only now, is being fully appreciated as a unique work.

Mr Moore said: “Anything coming from Titian’s workshop is very important indeed.

“The importance of this painting is that it is the only large-scale, undiscovered Titian workshop example. It was produced over a long time which necessitated many different painters being involved; certainly five and six, and probably many more at assistant level. I have identified some of them in the book. In time, x-ray analysis and new technology will surely enable further information on the underdrawing and technique on each figure which with similar examinations on existing Titian workshop paintings will develop our knowledge of a little understood and undocumented area of art history.”

Titian’s presence is discerned not only through the signature, but in a “virtuosic underdrawing”, believed to be of the artist himself; but other hands have been discerned too.

Mr Moore said: “I believe that Titian would have been involved in the initial composition together with Francesco his son and possibly Girolamo Dente and Polidoro da Lanciano.”

Meanwhile, an exciting paper trail is coming together, going right back to the eighteenth century when Ledbury grandee John Skippe bought the painting.

Mr Moore said: “There were two major breakthroughs in research. The first was the discovery of a note from Skippe stating that he had purchased a Last Supper signed and dated by Titian. During conservation no signature was apparent. I then returned to the church and examined the picture under ultra violet light. I eventually discovered a small signature, almost invisible under normal light, on the metal ewer, where Titian signed on another Last Supper.

My researcher, Patricia Kenny, then pioneered a new technique on a computer program to clarify the letters by removing all extraneous specks of colour, varnish and overpaint After hundreds of hours of work, the remnants of the signature became much clearer, although still damaged.

“The second major discovery was the Titian self portrait drawing. Patricia Kenny developed a technique of creating each head identical in size and angle. The same was done with the Titian self portrait. This indicates we have a newly discovered portrait of a younger red haired Titian.”

It is possible that Titian was shown as a younger man on the Ledbury Last Supper to match the perceived ages of the Apostles.

A Skippe descendant donated the painting to Ledbury Parish Church in 1909.