By Gonzalo Guillén / El Nuevo Herald

A vault of a Swiss bank in New York guards what is probably the most valuable painting that has ever belonged to Colombia: a work by Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (1483 –1520), universally known as Raphael. The picture reached the Caribbean coast of what is now Colombia in the 17th century, surviving a hurricane near Cuba on its way, wound up in the bank 60 years ago and will not be able to return to Bogotá until July 2039.

The adventurous story of this oil painting on wood began at the famous battle of Pavia in 1525, when 25,000 soldiers of the Spanish-Imperial army of Emperor Charles V defeated a similar number of French soldiers led by King Francis I to ensure the Spanish-Habsburg ascendancy in Italy.

The Emperor seized the painting as war booty and presented it to the captain of his guard, Gonzalo Suárez Rendón, an aristocrat who, among other triumphs, defeated the Turkish privateer and Ottoman admiral Barbarossa Hayreddin at Tunis. Some years after the Battle of Pavia, Suárez sailed to the New World to take part in the conquest of the interior of the Nuevo Reino de Granada, the territory which later became Colombia, where in 1539, he founded the Andean city of Tunja.

The painting, the last of the 37 Madonnas by Raphael  – one of the three giants of the Renaissance, along with Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci – traveled with him from Europe to the port of Santa Marta and then to the Andes.  After Suárez Rendón died in Tunja, knowledge of the picture was all but lost, until it reemerged in 1938, hanging above the chimneypiece of a simple country house in the town of Madrid, south of Bogotá.

By that time it was in a poor state: full of soot and split in half.  In a newspaper interview, the owner of the house, Mrs. María Mendoza de Martínez, said that she had inherited it from her husband, Carlos Alberto Martínez, son of the well-known writer and Conservative-party politician Carlos Martínez Silva.

Carlos Alberto Martínez  had inherited it from his ancestor Domingo Ospina Camacho, who, in turn, had inherited it from the Augustinian friar Salvador Camacho. Without knowing who the artist was, the priest was concerned about the negligent care of the painting, which was being kept in the cell of a convent after it had fallen to the floor and split in half during the earthquake that devastated Bogotá on the night of March 9, 1687.

The Señora Mendoza de Martínez had a relative look at the ill-treated oil painting, the Bogotá painter Santiago Martínez Delgado, who had a feeling that it might be very valuable. A year later, after consulting with art experts in Chicago and New York, he unraveled a story which, in a certain way, is a microcosm of the early history of Colombia, and, at the same time, an example of the controversies that arise over the ownership of long-lost masterpieces.

As told in a recent book by Santiago Martínez Concha, the son of Martínez Delgado, one of the first parties to take an interest in the painting after its rediscovery was the Nazi government, which unsuccessfully offered $100,000 to buy it and exhibit it in Germany.

It now lies in the vaults of a Swiss bank in New York, where Santiago Martínez Delgado deposited it in 1939 under a trusteeship agreement which stipulated that it could only be withdrawn by his son and then only fifty years after his death, which occurred in 1954. In the case of that condition being unmet, the Madonna would have to remain in the care of the bank for another 40 years and then be handed over to the colonial church of San Agustín in Bogotá, which had owned it centuries earlier through a donation by the Conquistador Suárez Rendón or one of his heirs.

Martínez junior was not able to get hold of the picture in time. “I arrived three months after the 50th anniversary of my father´s death”, he explains, and so the painting must remain in the bank until the year 2039, when its ownership will pass to the Bogotá church.

The reason for his delay – and frustration – is that the information about the painting’s whereabouts was contained in a series of sealed letters and numerical codes which his father had left him. The bank would only allow him a photo of himself alongside the Madonna. He did nevertheless manage to uncover the unknown story of Colombia’s most valuable painting, now written in the form of his historical novel: El lío de la Madonna (The problem of the Madonna).