The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Fourteen

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In the December 2007 podcast, go angel spotting around the Gallery, and glimpse heaven in stained glass at our latest exhibition


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello, I’m Miranda Hinkley and over the next 15 minutes, I’ll be bringing you news from the National Gallery, London. Coming up:

Siân Walters: And art historians over time give us clues as to how to recognise these different categories, so you can spot for example cherubim and seraphim. Cherubim usually wear blue; seraphim usually wear red…

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): How to tell your cherubim from your seraphim. We go angel spotting in the Gallery and discover there’s more to being a heavenly creature than harps and halos. And, curator Luke Syson takes us on a personal tour of the exhibition that explores an often neglected area of Italian art: ‘Renaissance Siena’.

‘Art of Light’ exhibition

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): We start, though, with a visit to our latest show. It’s become a commonplace to liken the peaceful calm of the museum to the hushed reverence of a church. But the recently opened ‘Art of Light’ exhibition takes this comparison a stage further. The Gallery space is transformed as German art from the 15th century is displayed alongside a rainbow coloured array of stained glass from the same period. I went along to talk to Susan Matthews from Ely Cathedral’s stained glass museum, which has lent several pieces to the show.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of two very similar images. They’re both of the Virgin presenting Christ at the temple, but they’re both done in completely different media. One is a painting and one is a beautiful, illuminated stained glass panel. Susan, this exhibition is a fantastic opportunity to see two very different kinds of artwork back together once more, in the context that they would have originally been seen in.

Susan Matthews: That’s right. And all round the exhibition you’ve got pairs of panels. You’ve got a panel painting – in other words a painting often on wood – next to a stained glass panel. The same subject and with the same degree of skill really been employed by the artist. Stained glass panels tended not to be painted by terribly well-known – what we would think of – as masters. The masters may well produce the original drawing, or if it wasn’t too prestigious a work of art, then the stained glass artist might borrow a wood cut or a print from, say, Dürer, and adapt that. But in many cases and I’m sure for this, the design was specially made for this particular window, because the windows had to be made to fit a specific opening. It’s not like a painting, where you can put it on a wall that’s big, or not so big – with a stained glass window it has to be made in proportion to the space it’s being made for. 

Miranda Hinkley: What do you think the effect of this would have been on a visitor going into a cathedral which had beautiful stained glasses like these and being able to see those with the panel paintings?

Susan Matthews: It’s hard to imagine. Astonished… It depends on their social level, I guess, ‘cos they may have seen them in private houses where they were also available. But if they were ordinary people, to have gone into a cathedral or a chapel or a cloister and seen this kind of thing – I mean it just would have been a glimpse of heaven, I think to them. To see the light streaming through, or being reflected from, these panels and just to, they’d stand in front of them, they’d empathise with them, they could feel themselves a witness to that particular scene or incident from the bible. I suppose they really felt… they felt part of it. I guess it would have lifted their spirits as it does now when you go into a church and you see the sun coming through the windows, or being dappled on the floor. It is just a very wonderful experience, I think.

Making stained glass with Richard Paton

Miranda Hinkley (on location): Well to find out more about how stained glass is made, I’ve come to Stoke Newington to talk to Richard Paton, who’s the owner of Rainbow Glass Studios. Let’s just see if he’s here.

Richard Paton: Miranda – hello!

Miranda Hinkley: Hello – hi Richard.

Richard Paton: Nice to meet you.

Miranda Hinkley: Nice to meet you. So Richard, you’re running a workshop on stained glass at the Gallery on Tuesday 11 December…

Richard Paton: That’s right. I’m hoping to recreate a panel which was actually made in the 1920s by Carl Parsons, and I think it’s quite a fun piece. So what I will be doing is rebuilding this stained glass panel in the same way that he did that and the same way that these German artists in the exhibition have done 500 years before – exactly the same techniques.

Miranda Hinkley: So you’re going to actually show me now how the bits of glass are cut out?

Richard Paton: That’s right. What I’ve got is a pattern on the bench at the moment which is drawn to scale and I’m just going to cut a strip of glass off from the sheet which I’ve bought from the manufacturers and then I’ll cut them down further to fit the shapes that I’ve got on the pattern. So I’m just going to put this set square on the glass and using my cutting tool which has got a tungsten wheel to it, draws along the glass – this is what you’ll see in glaziers up and down the country – nothing different there. And then split the glass like that.

Miranda Hinkley: So what happens to the glass after it’s cut? Does it then go straight to be leaded? What happens next?

Richard Paton: Well, sometimes it does if it’s a very simple window but in this case what we’re going to do is paint it with a vitreous paint which is a mixture of… which is ground glass essentially with a metal oxide and what I do is paint the surface of the glass. And what we use are brushes with long hairs called rigours to form the trace lines first of all. So I’m just going to finish painting this one and then we’ll pop it in the kiln and fire it into the surface… That’s the initial pilot light – just keep that down for a couple of seconds to warm it through and then we can turn the gas on and we’ll hear the small explosion in the kiln as the gas fires.

Miranda Hinkley: So actually when you’re putting together the whole piece you’re sort of working on these individual segments and it’s not really until you fit the whole thing back together at the end that you see what you’ve created.

Richard Paton: Exactly. You only know what you’re going to make before you start making it with the design, and you just hope that it’s all going to fit together as a jigsaw in the right way and you stand back from it and it has the desired effect. But experience tells you that that’s going to happen. Hopefully!

Miranda Hinkley: So once the pieces are cool enough to handle you then bring them across to this panel and sort of fit it all together?

Richard Paton: That’s right. So all I’m going to do now is cut off little bits of lead to the right size. So first of all, I stick a piece of – this is called quarter inch round lead – and I need to cut it about two millimetres in from the edge of the glass to allow for the overlap of the other piece of lead that’s going to come on later, so that all the pieces of lead are butting up together before I solder them. So now I’ve just sliced through that – it’s very soft material – and slotted that into shape and now I need another piece of glass to slot in the other side of it, and I need to hold that in position so that it doesn’t slide all over the place. So I’m using a piece of off cut of lead, a horseshoe nail on the opposite side, and now I’m just going to knock a nail in to stop that from moving around and the glass should line up exactly with the pattern underneath. When I’ve cut this to shape, what I’m going to do is put the pieces of lead around it and then solder those joins using this iron. Then the glass needs to be sealed inside the lead and we use leading cement, and I can show you over here as you can see it looks like cream cheese, black cream cheese…

Miranda Hinkley: Yeah, we’ve got this bucket filled with – yeah it does look exactly like grey-black cream cheese.

Richard Paton: This horrible, gloopy, messy stuff.

Miranda Hinkley: Smells amazing!

Richard Paton: Yeah, that’s the white spirit and the linseed oil in the putty.

Miranda Hinkley: So once you’ve finished your beautiful panel you have to smear this stuff all over the top of it?

Richard Paton: That’s right. We push it in with this – it’s just basically a scrubbing brush – and push it inside the lead, all the way round, on both sides and then use chalk to absorb all that moisture out. Once we’ve waited for about an hour, it’s safe to take all that leading cement away from the surface of the glass and we clean off all the lead with another dry brush so that all we’ve got left is the glass and the lead. After that then you give it a good polish…  

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Susan Matthews and Richard Paton.  ‘Art of Light: German Renaissance Stained Glass’ is free and runs until February. And if you’d like to find out more about how stained glass is made, Richard’s workshop takes place on 11 December. See our website – – for details.

Understanding angels in art

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: from TV adverts to the top of Christmas trees, the word angel brings to mind harps, halos and fluffy white clouds. But as a series of free talks will reveal this month, our modern-day cliché is a distillation of a much richer theological tradition. Take a walk around the Gallery, and angels, it seems, are a far more diverse bunch than you might have thought – as lecturer Siân Walters explains.

Miranda Hinkley (in the Gallery): I’m standing in front of a very unusual painting, painted by Botticelli in about 1500 and it’s a Nativity scene. In the very centre, we’ve got the holy family, surrounded by oxen. On the right and left there are adoring figures. But at the top and bottom of the painting the scene becomes almost completely unrecognisable. At the bottom, we’ve got angels embracing men and there are fleeing demons scurrying away under rocks and at the top, we’ve got a group of angels dancing.

Siân Walters: It’s a very unusual scene of the Nativity. Unfortunately, we don’t have an enormous amount of documentary evidence telling us about why Botticelli painted it or for whom he painted it, which in some ways makes it even more exciting and even more intriguing. But when we put the painting in context, all of a sudden it starts to make sense. The painting was done at the time when they were moving into the year 1500. I’m sure you remember when we were moving into the year 2000, there were lots of prophecies and people saying that the end of the world was nigh. Imagine that multiplied by about 50 – you know, there was very much an apocalyptic sense of trepidation. I think that this painting, although it reflects the fear that was going on in Italy at this time, it reflects more than anything an ultimate message of salvation – that everything is going to be ok. So there’s an understanding of the apocalypse, but on the other hand the overall message is one of unity, of concord – everybody’s holding hands. Have a look at the angels at the top – they’re holding olive branches, and an olive is a well-known symbol of peace. So it’s one of literally peace and good will to all men.

Miranda Hinkley: What do we know about angels? Winged spirits or angelic figures appear in a lot of different cultures and religions and angels were obviously very important round about this time. They’ve kind of dropped out of our religious canon haven’t they? They’re not so important as they were. What was the belief in angels about? What were angels for?

Siân Walters: I think angels are fascinating. It seems as though angels can be traced even as far as 3000 BC to the Sumerian culture in present-day Iraq and they had winged messengers rather like angels and they also had this belief in a sort of guardian angel or spirit, very much like we have the idea of a guardian angel today, so it’s not just Christianity. And there are lots and lots of different categories of angels too… And we know that in about the year 500 AD, somebody published a book called ‘On the Hierarchy of Angels’, splitting them up into nine different categories so that’s when you get the appearance for example – oh, there are all sorts of angels – cherubim, seraphim, powers, all these different categories, and art historians over time give us clues as to how to recognise these different categories, so you can spot for example cherubim and seraphim. Cherubim usually wear blue; seraphim usually wear red, powers are usually dressed in armour – so there’s another painting for example that we have at the Gallery by Fra Angelico where you can spot all these various categories of angels, and in fact, we’ve got one by Lorenzo Costa, where they’re all very neatly organised into their nine different categories – that’s probably the best example that we have here in London.

What we tend to imagine is that angels rather like in the painting here are do-gooders; they’re often symbols of harmony, celestial beauty – I mean they’re gorgeous, lovely peaceful characters and creatures, but actually when you do a bit of research and you look around the collection at the National Gallery, you’ll see that they’re not always as lovely as we see here. Sometimes they’re really getting stuck in – they’re very hands on, vengeful, quite aggressive sometimes. In fact there are loads of biblical references, telling us about angels often involved in massacres, in killing people – they’re not always as I say, as peace loving as we might imagine, and when we think about the message that angels often bring – one of the first things that they often say is ‘fear not: don’t be afraid’. Why is that? I think because they are often associated with being rather scary and descriptions of them in the bible are often a little bit scary. So if you’re coming to the Gallery, have a look at the ‘Mystic Nativity’, but if you’re bored one Sunday afternoon, see if you can do a little bit of angel spotting – see if you can find some rather nasty angels too.

Miranda Hinkley: So that sounds like a great way to spend an afternoon – come and see if you can figure out what these categories of angels might be, and how many different angels you can see. Thank you Siân very much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Siân Walters, whose talk on Botticelli’s ‘Mystic Nativity’ will take place in the Gallery at 1pm on 5 December. It’s free to attend, as are a series of other angel-related events scheduled for Wednesdays throughout the month. See our website for more details.

Siena’s reverence for the Virgin Mary

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This month’s final report sees Leah Kharibian pay a visit to the ‘Renaissance Siena’ exhibition. It’s well known that the figure of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus Christ, had a very special place in Italian renaissance art and culture. But in Siena she was held in particular reverence, so much so, that Siena styled itself the ‘City of the Virgin’. Leah began by asking curator Luke Syson about the origins of this powerful attachment…

Luke Syson: It’s a story that goes back a long way, right back to the middle ages, and in particular to a moment of acute rivalry with their neighbouring city Florence… and on the eve of a battle, which the Sienese really were destined to lose, they dedicated the city to the Virgin Mary in a great ceremony in the cathedral, so at that point – because they then won the battle against all the odds the next day – the Sienese felt themselves to be under the special protection of the Virgin, so the relationship of the Sienese citizenship to the Virgin Mary was both very personal and political.

Leah Kharibian: And this sort of image of the protecting Virgin appears in lots of pictures, particularly in the first room of the exhibition, and she seems to appear at moments of crisis which the Sienese want to give thanks for being rescued from.

Luke Syson: Yeah, she appears in a whole range of different guises and the emergencies that the Sienese could face might have been political or they could actually be kind of physical, actual. So for example, she would appear… she appears on a wonderful scene showing her protecting Siena in times of earthquakes and you see all the Sienese citizens having dashed out of the city and set up tents around the city walls.

Leah Kharibian: Oh yes, this is a really beautiful painting, isn’t it? There sits Siena in the centre, and the Virgin sort of hovering above on her cloud, with her white cloak.

Luke Syson: Surrounded by angels and you see across the middle of the picture the inscription: ‘In time of earthquakes’, and so there she is hovering, literally, above the pink city walls and the liquorice allsort stripes of the cathedral.

Leah Kharibian: The feast of the assumption, which is the moment at which the Virgin is believed to have gone up to heaven three days after her death – both her body and her spirit are sort of raised up by angels – this feast was really important for the Sienese calendar, wasn’t it?

Luke Syson: That was the key date, and still is in fact, in the Sienese civic calendar. It’s the main day for celebrations, for processions, for horse races, the famous…

Leah Kharibian: And in the exhibition, you have an absolutely stupendous ‘Assumption of the Virgin’. Shall we go and have a look at it now?

Luke Syson: Yes, absolutely…. We’re now looking at, I guess, one of the great knock out pictures in the show and one of the great visionary paintings of the 15th century showing the assumption of the Virgin. The angels swirling about her feet and lifting her up to heaven as they play this whole range of very accurately observed musical instruments. And she’s the biggest figure in the picture by far in her great white cloak which she wears as the Queen of Heaven. She’s letting down her girdle to a rather diminutive and very over-excited doubting Thomas below – this is proof that she and she alone goes up bodily to heaven – and she’s really kind of floating out of the picture in the most remarkable way. The Sienese go on using these gold grounds at a period when in other cities they were seen as rather out of date, and they do so in such a way that they blur the distinction between the space which the figures occupy and our space, so this whole group feels as if it’s literally floating up towards heaven and out towards us and that’s a very incredible effect, and it’s to do with the way that the light is absorbed by the gold behind the figures.

Leah Kharibian: I think anybody who goes to Siena will realise that the Virgin Mary, the city’s saints, are still really living presences. They’re not something – I mean we might come to this exhibition and feel this is all in the past – but for the Sienese it isn’t, is it?

Luke Syson: No, the Sienese have a wonderful sense of connection with their own past and a wonderful sense of their own tradition, both of those things are absolutely key to their own sense of Sienese identity, and yeah – the Palio continues to be run on Assumption Day and as recently as the Second World War the ceremony of rededication to the Virgin was repeated, so it’s very much a sense that the Virgin continues to be the city’s chief protector. And one of the privileges of doing this show has been just to be able to get a small sense of… as an outsider… of how deep some of these beliefs go among the Sienese.

Leah Kharibian: Wonderful, thank you very, very much.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Luke Syson ending that report by Leah Kharibian. ‘Renaissance Siena’ is open throughout the festive season, so if you’re in need of a break from last minute shopping or holiday TV, why not come along? It’s late night opening on Wednesdays until 9pm and on the 5th there’ll be authentic Sienese food and wine to enjoy along with the art. Tickets to the exhibition are available online, where you can also find information about related talks and workshops. And if you’d like to hear more from curator Luke Syson, extensive interviews with him feature on the audio guide that accompanies the show.

That’s all for now – join us again next month for news of all the National Gallery’s upcoming exhibitions and events.

Until then, goodbye!

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