The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seventy Eight
A stunning Barocci masterpiece for Easter, plus experience a painting through 13th-century eyes, and sibling rivalry with Raeburn.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.
We start with our major exhibition Barocci: Brilliance and Grace. Described by the critics as 'beautiful, thrilling and intelligent', this rediscovery of a great forgotten master of 16th-century Italy is delighting visitors.
Among the unprecedented loans from Barocci's home town of Urbino and its environs is a monumental depiction of the 'Entombment of Christ' from a local church. In 1582, it took 16 men working under Barocci's supervision to install this altarpiece. This show is the first time it's travelled since.
The exhibition's co-curator, Judith Mann, led us through this little-known painting and revealed how Barocci drew the faithful into this scene of profound sorrow.
Judith Mann: First and foremost it’s the figure of Christ being carried and he’s right smack-dab in the centre of the painting and he’s supported by John the Evangelist at his feet, who has this wonderful, lovely, flowing drapery. He’s being ministered to by Joseph of Arimathea, who’s donated his tomb to place the body of Christ in and then Nicodemus who holds him at his head. So you have this beautiful grouping of these three men supporting the now dead weight of Christ that’s receiving this bit of a glow. In fact when you’re in the church you think it’s the light from the window – it cannot be and yet it still seems this marvellous, natural light flowing over the body.
Then behind you have the Virgin and she’s feeling a bit woozy, you can tell. She’s ministered by two women, one who dries her own eyes. So it’s this wonderful, fluttery detail in the background. And then in the foreground – like you the visitor, who approaches the altarpiece to look at it – you see the kneeling Mary Magdalene, who there very intensely gazes up at Christ. But really it is this beautiful colour, the colour of her drapery, the colour of Saint John’s golden robe and the fluttering pink cape – I think those are the things that engage you initially when you see this beautiful altarpiece.
Leah Kharibian: Yes, the colour is extraordinary – it’s all golds and yellows and pinks and lilacs – and in a way it seems that it lends a sort of sweetness and a gracefulness to the picture slightly at variance with the sombreness and sadness of the subject. But there’s a detail in the foreground, in the left-hand corner, which somehow gives us an edge or gives the whole image an edge, and I was just wondering if you could say a little bit about that?
Judith Mann: Sure. The figure of Christ obviously has been taken from the cross in the distant background and is being moved toward that marble slab on the lower-left part of the picture. And on that slab we have all these marvellous still life elements that are also the tools or the instruments of torture for Christ. There is the crown of thorns, that he mockingly... Christ who said he was a king... he was mocked by this crown of thorns placed on his head imposing physical pain.
Then there are the nails that actually held him onto the cross, and they are bloody nails, although Barocci minimises the amount of blood. If you look at the figure of Christ, you’re not struck by the brutality of his crucifixion, and yet the nail holes are all there; the wound on his side is there. There are theologians of the time who encouraged viewers to think about what the wood of Christ’s cross felt like, what the physical aspects of the events of the Bible... to think of them in that very physical, very tactile way... and I think Barocci is very aware of that and captures that sense. There’s a certain appeal of this lovely little still life; it’s beautifully painted, but then one also has to think about what the meaning of that still life is. So there is this double-play between utter beauty and a kind of transformative experience of beauty, and yet the physicality and the brute nature of the event that is referred to here.
Leah Kharibian: And do you think that really sums up what Barocci is about? I mean, do you think that’s his real innovation?
Judith Mann: Barocci's innovative in a lot of ways. I think, you know, people debate why Barocci is not as well known today as some of the other giants of the 16th century, and I think one reason is there is this overall sweetness to the imagery that for the early 20th century – so steeped in modernism and this kind of Cubist aesthetic or modern aesthetic – Barocci was as far away from that as you possibly could be. And yet when you really look beyond that first surface sweetness, then there is also this great sense of naturalism; this great sense of, kind of, lived life in a number of his paintings.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Judith Mann. ‘Barocci: Brilliance and Grace’ is open till 19 May. Tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at www.nationalgallery.org.uk
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next, to one of the earliest works in the collection – The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Narrative Scenes.
This mid-13th-century altarpiece by Margarito of Arezzo is almost a metre high by two metres wide and depicts the Virgin and Child surrounded by scenes from Biblical stories. We see Saint Margaret being swallowed by the dragon; Saint Benedict rolling in brambles to overcome temptation; and Saint Nicholas saving three innocent men from decapitation.
The drawings can seem crude and simplistic to our eyes – but Laura Jacobus – an art historian from Birkbeck College – thinks we should look again.
Laura Jacobus: You need to imagine that this went into, maybe, the church of a small town or even a village, where going into this church was the only time they saw an image. We’re completely bombarded with images these days – we see thousands every single day. But if this was the only time you saw an image and there it was, glittering and golden in your church, it really would have seemed quite, quite magical.
The church at the time was very, very wary about images. It was very ambivalent about them. There had been a time a few centuries earlier – the period of iconoclasm – where religious doctrine strongly argued, or some in the church strongly argued, that images were a bad thing; they broke the commandment not to worship idols.
And Pope Gregory the Great in the 6th century came out with a justification for images, which lasted for a thousand years or more. And he said images are alright because of certain things they can do: they can teach the simple folk the stories of the saints, they can make those saints easy to remember for those people, and they can also show people what it is that they’re meant to adore, what it is that they’re meant to worship. So it was okay to look at an image of the Mother of God, seated there on that throne if that helped you to imagine the Virgin Mary. What wasn’t okay was to pray to that image as if the image itself was going to grant your prayers because that would be idolatry.
So because the church was really very anxious all the time that what they called the 'simple folk' would misunderstand what the image was, there’s actually a disincentive to make the image realistic. What images in the medieval period needed to do was to tell a story or to convey an idea to help you with your own mental image of the Virgin Mary – but they mustn’t look realistic. So when...
Miranda Hinkley: So that explains perhaps the slightly, sort of, cartoonish look of this and it explains, you know, the very red cheeks and the very stylised fingers, the sort of, very long fingers on the hands.
Laura Jacobus: Absolutely. What you see is paint applied really quite schematically to a surface to conjure up the idea and nothing more than that. There’s no attempt to give three-dimensionality. There’s no attempt at realism.
You also see the language of symbolism as well. If we look at these figures up in the corners here, we can see an angel. Now that actually is the sign of Saint Matthew. And if we go down, we can see down here a lion – that’s the sign of Saint Mark. Over there is Saint Luke, who’s a bull…
Miranda Hinkley: On the right?
Laura Jacobus: Yes.
Miranda Hinkley: And at top-right?
Laura Jacobus: And up here we have the eagle of Saint John. So again to avoid this naturalistic language they use a language of symbols. And people would have that explained to them. I don’t think the 'simple people' in the church would know that, but there would be a priest there who would teach these things. And then of course the stories to either side are what are really delightful about this altarpiece.
Miranda Hinkley: The one that I find intriguing is the image that’s on the top left, immediately to the left of the Virgin and Child. And there’s a saint, who’s in some sort of giant cauldron and it must be pretty uncomfortable because there are flames licking up the sides. But he’s sort of shrugging as if to say ‘I’m in a cauldron… what are you going to do?’
Laura Jacobus: [Laughs] Absolutely. This is the story of how later in life, well after the death of Christ, Saint John became a missionary. And in one of the pagan countries that he was in – in fact in Ephesus which I think is in modern Turkey – he was seized and thrown in a cauldron of boiling oil, and that’s what you see there. And the shrug that you see is actually a prayer gesture, imitating the position of Christ’s arms on the cross. It’s called the orans gesture and in every single mass, whenever the mass was celebrated in a church, at some point during the mass the priest would make that orans gesture. So it’s a gesture that would be very familiar to the audience. We look at it and we think, as you say, he’s saying, ‘I’m in a cauldron – what can I do?’ but actually it’s a sign of his faith.
Miranda Hinkley: So it’s not only a beautiful object and a very finely worked object and an object of wonder for people at the time, but it’s also a storybook.
Laura Jacobus: It’s absolutely a storybook. And strangely enough, what the church used to call paintings at this time was ‘Bibles of the illiterate’ because they did think of them as a means of storytelling for those that couldn’t read.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Laura Jacobus. And if you’d like to take a look at some of the other scenes, the altarpiece is on display in Room 51.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): And now a tale of two brothers.
Lots of people have a favourite picture that they like to visit whenever they come to the Gallery. But what about staff who are on site all the time? Gill Hart, Head of Adult Learning, took Leah Kharibian to Room 34 to pay respects to Henry Raeburn's 'The Archers', a double portrait from the late 18th century showing two teenage brothers: Robert and Ronald Ferguson.
Gill began by asking Leah to look at the work from a distance.
Gill Hart: There are certain aspects of this composition that really stand out when you look at it from a distance. And one of those is the geometry. Let’s start perhaps with the older brother, Robert, who is situated on the left of the painting. He’s shown in profile and he’s really strikingly lit and in a really striking pose as well. He’s actually extending his left arm fully out in front of him and that forms a horizontal, almost directly across the middle of the painting. His right arm is right up, almost at the height of his shoulder and what he’s actually doing is drawing back the string of a bow, ready to release an arrow, which also forms, of course, or accentuates that horizontal across the centre of the painting. The bow itself creates a vertical frame to the right and that’s echoed in the vertical trunk of the tree behind him to the left. And what I find most fascinating about the setup is the way that that bow held out in the outstretched arm of the older brother frames the younger brother, Ronald, who’s actually located just a little bit behind his older brother, on the right-hand side of the painting.
Now it’s often said of this that the geometry – the verticals and horizontals of limbs and the bow – are somehow alluding to the emotional geometry of the relationship between these two brothers. And when you think about that it’s easy to start imagining that this is a younger brother who lives in the shadow of his older brother. But what’s always struck me about this is the fact that he’s the one who is meeting our gaze, and if you just pay attention to the look on his face for a moment, this does not look like a younger brother who has resigned himself to living in the shadow of his elder sibling. It’s an incredibly self-confident and self-assured way in which he looks back at us. So I’ve always wondered if what perhaps Raeburn was really doing here was somehow intuiting the different personalities of the brothers – the extrovert pose of the older brother alongside the perhaps more introverted pose of the younger brother, who very quietly and calmly and incredibly confidently looks back out at us.
Leah Kharibian: Ronald’s face in particular is just extraordinary. He’s got one of those, sort of, noses that are slightly thick at the top, and those lovely pursed lips of his, and that gaze. He really is an individual – there’s no two ways about it. That’s just not made up; that’s someone real.
Gill Hart: That’s right. And his mouth is actually quite fantastic – if you do have a closer look at that, there’s almost... almost but not quite, the hint of a smile playing around the corner of the lips.
Leah Kharibian: And I can tell how much you love this picture – but you’re here every day, you’re here in the galleries every day, does this work still sometimes make you stop and go, ‘Wow!’.
Gill Hart: Every time! Every time I walk through Room 34, this is the painting, for me, that shines off the wall. I think possibly because it does look different than the other portraits in the room – than the English portraiture in the room. It has a very different feel and look to it, so for that reason I think it’s absolutely one that stops me in my tracks every time.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Gill Hart, talking about Raeburn’s 'The Archers'. And Gill will be leading a short course on the painting at the Gallery in June – see the website nearer the time for details.
That’s it for this month. You can view the National Gallery’s collection online at www.nationalgallery.org.uk or in person 10 till 6 daily, and till 9 on Fridays.
Until next time, goodbye!