The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child is recognised as one of the finest examples of Italian Renaissance art and is considered the most important painting of the period in a British private collection. It is one of only a handful of paintings by the artist in Britain.
Signed by Botticelli and painted between 1480 and 1485, it shows the Madonna kneeling over her son in an enclosed garden, surrounded by sprouting wild flowers, among them violets and strawberry plants. It was last seen in public in 1957.
Although in earlier times dismissed as not by Botticelli, it has now been fully authenticated. There were fears the painting would go to the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, when it was sold by the Earl of Weymys and March, in whose ancestral home in Gosford, East Lothian, it has hung since 1859.
To secure the painting for the nation, the Heritage Lottery Fund offered a pounds 7.69m grant, second only to the pounds 8.26m it gave in 1997 to the National Gallery in London to buy Stubbs's Whistlejacket.
The size of the grant reflects criticism from some quarters that in, for example, paying pounds 13m to Winston Churchill for his grandfather's papers, the fund has neglected great works of art.
The National Galleries of Scotland in Edinburgh used the grant, alongside other donations - including a record pounds 550,000 from the National Art Collections Fund - to buy the picture for a gross figure of pounds 15m, well below its pounds 20m market value and at a total cost, after tax concessions, of pounds 10.25m.
Yesterday, the Heritage Lottery Fund defended the outlay. "It is a large part of our budget," said Sir Angus Grossart, one of the fund's trustees, "but this is an outstanding opportunity to bring to a wider audience a great work of art that has been largely hidden from public gaze for many years." The fund said it had now spent a total of pounds 51.5m on 151 works of art.
The National Galleries of Scotland said it was able to put together the bid, whose size is unprecedented for the institution, in under three weeks. "There has been much excitement about the coming millennium celebrations, but little or no emphasis on the birth of Christ," said the Countess of Airlie, chair of the trustees. "Perhaps, Botticelli's Gosford Madonna, a most spiritual and tender image, may prove a timely corrective ... truly a Madonna for the Millennium."Reuse content