The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty
In the April 2009 podcast, discover the international appeal of Saint George. Plus tall tales about ships and a short guide to religious art in this month's bonus track
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode: globetrotting with Saint George – we discover the international side of England’s patron saint, with a little help from Tintoretto – and…
Russell Celyn Jones: What it looks like to me is the kind of ship you struggle to remember from some other time in your life such as sleep, such as a time in the past, such as childhood.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Novelist Russell Celyn Jones on the final journey of The Fighting Temeraire.
'The Life of Christ' audio tour
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start today with a subject that’s had a greater influence on Western culture than perhaps any other. Take a walk around the Gallery and it soon becomes clear that the history of art is inextricably bound up with the history of religion – and with one story in particular. Masterpiece after masterpiece in the collection is devoted to the life of Christ and this Easter time we’ve brought some of those works together in an audio trail specifically devoted to the subject. Leah Kharibian talked to curator Dawson Carr to find out more.
Leah Kharibian: The Life of Christ trail includes some of the National Gallery’s greatest masterpieces and listening to it made me wonder why is it that this particular sacred story inspired such a huge array of wonderful art?
Dawson Carr: Well, of course, Christianity is the greatest single force in European history. The belief in Christ generated the most awesome art that has been produced and exists in the National Gallery for this reason.
Leah Kharibian: The story itself is an extraordinary story that takes us from this humble birth through all the events of his life and his teachings, each of which are stories within stories, often he’s talking in parables, and then the events of his death, and the Resurrection. I mean, the story itself seems to provide artists with such an array of subject matter…
Dawson Carr: There’s not a greater story in existence, not even the tales of mythology are greater than this story, and of course the artists as well were believers, and this was very much an expression of their faith.
Leah Kharibian: And would you say that it was a spur to creativity, even experimentation among artists, and I’m thinking here about one of the works that appears on the trail, El Greco’s 'Christ driving the Traders from the Temple', which by any account is an extraordinary picture. I mean to me it looks so modern…
Dawson Carr: Well, and of course, this story is truly exceptional in the life of Christ. This is a very non-typical moment. This was the man of non-violence and here we see him being violent on arriving at the temple and seeing it being desecrated by commerce. And he takes his belt and he makes it into a flail and he drives them out of the temple. And in this work, El Greco has thought about this subject over the course of his career. He returned to the subject again and again and again. And by the time he gets to this late phase in his career, he really understands it, and he understands its meaning, its bigger meaning than just the event. It was often interpreted as the cleansing of the soul of sin and so here you see the composition divided in half spinning around the figure of Christ. On the left-hand side, the traders are all in a jumble and on the right-hand side, much more calm are the righteous, who simply sit and comment on the event.
Leah Kharibian: And this is painted around 1600, so that’s the beginning of the 17th century, I mean what sort of function would this picture originally have served – what would it have been made for? Do we know?
Dawson Carr: We don’t know in this case, but because he returned to this composition again and again, we doubt that it was created for any sort of liturgical purpose. This was really the creation of a gallery picture, a picture meant to be viewed much as pictures are viewed in the National Gallery today, hung in a picture gallery, hung in a house, as a work of art. But a work of art that compels those who look at it to think about the subject, think about the deeper meaning, and how the artist has brought that to be.
Leah Kharibian: And do you see people in the National Gallery, I mean visitors today, still looking at the works in that sort of way?
Dawson Carr: Absolutely, you do definitely see people wrapped in front of pictures like this, trying to figure it out. This isn’t something that’s easy, something that is gained with an initial impression. The language of art speaks to those who are willing to stand and look and really analyse what an artist has done and why.
Leah Kharibian: But from a devotional point of view, there are some pictures in the National Gallery that are still operating as devotional pictures – there’s one in particular that you’ve seen people in front of?
Dawson Carr: Yes, there is one painting in my part of the collection that I’ve seen people standing in front of and saying prayers before any number of times. And that’s Sassoferrato’s 'Madonna' and she’s isolated against a dark background. She is prayerful herself and she leads people to prayer still.
Leah Kharibian: Still, so are they kneeling?
Dawson Carr: No, not kneeling, but just standing in front of the work with their heads bowed clearly saying a little prayer.
Leah Kharibian: And a picture like that, would you ever take it down or move it?
Dawson Carr: I’ve only done it once in my time at the Gallery and I started getting telephone calls immediately asking where it is. In the Italian 17th century we have a number of very great works and I tend to keep them rotated, but I don’t take that one down now.
Leah Kharibian: So Sasserferrato’s ‘Virgin’ is staying in place…
Dawson Carr: Absolutely.
Leah Kharibian: Thank you so much Dawson.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Dawson Carr talking to Leah Kharibian. If you’re visiting the National Gallery this month, and would like to take 'The Life of Christ' trail, it’s available from audio guide desks, and features former Gallery director, Neil McGregor. You can also download an excerpt as a bonus track with this episode of the podcast.
Russell Celyn Jones
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next to news of Friday Lates, our new series of evening events. The Gallery is now open until 9pm on Fridays and if you come along after work, you can enjoy the paintings with a glass of wine from the bar, and take in an event for free. The programme includes live music, drawing classes and lectures, as well as a series of talks by novelists about their favourite works. By way of a taster, I caught up with one of the first speakers, the writer Russell Celyn Jones, shortly before his session on one of the best-known works in the Gallery. Voted the greatest painting in Britain in a Radio 4 poll, Turner’s The Fighting Temeraire portrays the end of a great warship as she’s towed up the Thames at sunset. I asked Russell what fascinates him about the work.
Russell Celyn Jones: What strikes me about the painting is the notion of ships having memory. Now this is quite different to ships representing men’s memory, men who’ve travelled on the ship, who’ve even died or fought on the ship, I’m talking about the hulk itself having a memory of some kind that the artist has to interpret for us in the form of colour and in the form of brushstrokes. The Temeraire was sold out of the Navy to John Beatson who paid £5,000 for the ship and then towed it up from its permanent home to Rotherhithe where he had his breaker’s yard. And the ship had had a glorious military past at the Battle of Trafalgar, and at the time, two ships were trying to board and destroy Nelson’s flagship, the Victory, and the Temeraire was there and managed to board both of these ships and take them as prizes. So, in a sense, the Temeraire is accredited with saving Nelson’s ship from being taken over and possibly swung the tide of the war. So as far as the painter was concerned, this ship had a heroic past and he mourned to some extent it being brought up to the knacker’s yard – to be brought up for its timber. You know, it constituted 5,000 oak trees and that was the value of the ship to John Beatson.
What Turner does is transfer the story of the ship, the memory of the ship, or the emotional experience, onto the landscape. So if you look at Turner’s painting and see this golden ship being tugged into London by a dark steamship and of course the sunset and various other elements of the painting, it all adds up to an emotional memory of that ship and the sunset is probably the crucial element to that painting. You know, the blood-red sunset, that seems to be suggesting the ending of an era and the beginning of a new one in the new moon of course. The colour of the ship is the colour of dreams. It’s the colour of the other world. There’s a line of poetry that begins, ‘the sea is the beginning of another world’, and that is, in a sense, what this ship represents, that it travels on this other world. So the spectral colour of the ship, I think, suggests to me, its memory of death, not just its own death, but hundreds of men have died on that ship in the middle of a battle probably, because it has to be remembered it’s a military ship. It’s not a civilian cargo ship and what it looks like to me is the kind of ship you struggle to remember from some other time in your life such as sleep, such as a time in the past, such as childhood. It reminds me of ships that travel in the night, that are lit up like cathedrals, really, in the middle of the night.
There’s something about the painting that is not just about a ship. There’s something going on and even if you don’t know the biographical information, you will feel, I think, something about that painting, which will be stirring up in you a sort of history. It might be for an age gone by, it might be for your own youth, but something about the painting triggers emotions of all kinds in the viewer.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Russell Celyn Jones. If you’d like to see Turner’s 'The Fighting Temeraire' for yourself – with a glass of wine in hand – come along to a Friday Late. There’s a bar as well as free tours, talks and music every week, and throughout this month and next, you can also visit the 'Picasso 'exhibition. For tickets to the show or more details about the free events, visit the website at www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
Globetrotting with Saint George
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A dragon, a damsel, and a sword-wielding saint; the story of Saint George is one of our archetypal national myths, the essence of that slippery concept, ‘Englishness’. On Friday 23 April, the saint’s emblem – a red cross on a white background – will fly from flagpoles around the country, and events will take place in the Gallery to mark the day. I spoke to organiser Karly Allen to find out what she’s got planned, and discovered there’s more to England’s patron saint than an aversion to fire-breathing reptiles…
Miranda Hinkley: With Saint George’s Day coming up on 23 April, I’ve come to have a look at a painting by Tintoretto called 'Saint George and the Dragon'. And I’m joined by Karly Allen. Karly, tell me a bit about this story. We think we all know it very well – it’s Saint George, he kills a dragon, but what do we see here?
Karly Allen: Well, in many respects the story is instantly recognisable – we do feel that we know this tale of Saint George and the dragon. We see them in the centre of the painting. Saint George is the brave knight in shining armour – he’s mounted on a white horse and he’s frozen in this act of challenging and subduing the ferocious dragon. The dragon bears its teeth; it has a long vicious looking tongue, and its claws are embedded in the seashore. This story of Saint George and the dragon is so well known that many people just can’t remember when they first heard it, or a version of it – it’s really embedded in our cultural back catalogue if you like – and I think it’s fascinating to think about how we approach a painting like this of Saint George and the Dragon. What do we bring to it ourselves and what does it mean to us in a modern diverse society?
Miranda Hinkley: I mean, to us perhaps, this looks like a fairly straightforward story of good winning out over evil and the dragon symbolising wickedness, and Saint George coming in and saving the princess and defeating evil, but what’s actually going on?
Karly Allen: I think it’s possible to look at this painting in many different ways and of course around celebrations for Saint George’s Day it becomes a representation of that very English story, that for many people Saint George is an icon of Englishness and he’s really wrapped up in national identity, national pride, so that traditionally people have wanted to be associated with even his saint’s day, 23 April. It’s often noted that Shakespeare, that great English icon, died on 23 April, and Turner, the patriotic English painter, wanted people to believe he was born on Saint George’s Day, although that may have been a figment of his imagination. And of course the English flag, the red cross on the white background, is the Saint George Cross, so for many people it symbolises England.
It’s important to remember that Saint George himself wasn’t English; he was a Roman soldier, he was born in an area which is now in modern-day Turkey, and most of his stories are linked to sites that are in the Middle East. So the cult of Saint George originated in the eastern Mediterranean and then spread out across the world. Today, Saint George is the patron saint of Catalonia, Portugal, Greece, Russia, Brazil, Ethiopia, among many other countries as well as England, so he truly is an international symbol for many people.
In the Gallery, on Saint George’s Day, 23 April, we’re going to try and combine some of these different elements to explore the myth and legends connected to Saint George. So that after a short talk at 4 o’ clock on the painting by Tintoretto, visitors can enjoy an impromptu performance given by a travelling theatre group, the Suffolk Howlers. It’s a traditional mummers’ play, which is performed across the country at different sites on Saint George’s Day, and includes the figure of Saint George, and one of the ways that he rises again from his martyrdom, so that in the secular tradition George becomes much more than the hero on horseback; he actually represents the defeat of darkness, of winter, and it’s significant that he is a symbol of renewal at this celebration of springtime.
So it’s interesting how this then affects our experience of the painting in the Gallery, in the secularised environment of the National Gallery, where I think we can now enjoy that layering of many different meanings. As well as bringing our own personal experience to it, for us these notions can exist side by side, so that George is simultaneously the chivalrous knight, he’s the romantic hero, he’s a focus for national pride, but he’s also an international patron saint of many different countries. And so when we stand in front of it, I think we’re responding to that very universal appeal of Saint George slaying the dragon whatever that dragon might be.
Miranda Hinkley: And so we invite you all to come back on April 23, have a look at the painting and enjoy the mummers’ play. Karly, thank you very much.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): That was Karly Allen. If you’d like to celebrate Saint George’s Day in traditional style, the Suffolk Howlers will be performing their mummers’ play at 4pm on 23 April. You’ll find them in front of Tintoretto’s painting, which will also be the subject of a free lunchtime talk. And throughout the day, there’ll be events outside in Trafalgar Square.
For more details about the Saint George’s Day line up – or any of April’s events – visit www.nationalgallery.org.uk. And don’t forget there’s still time to visit 'Picasso: Challenging the Past', which runs until early June. Exhibition tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee.
That’s it for this episode – until next time, goodbye.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is a bonus track from the National Gallery podcast. In this excerpt from 'The Life of Christ' audio guide, former Gallery Director Neil McGregor introduces The Nativity at Night by Geertgen.
Neil McGregor: This magical little panel by Geertgen, painted in the Low Countries about 1480, shows the moment when the new-born Christ is laid in a manger, in a stable. But it is also a painting about light and the idea of Christ as the light of the world. In the Bible, the different gospels give different details of Christ’s birth. Luke tells of the manger and Matthew of the wise men. But in the 14th century these gospel accounts were expanded by the mystic vision of Saint Bridget of Sweden. In her vision, Saint Bridget witnessed the painless birth of Christ, and Mary adoring her son. She also saw the baby’s radiance eclipsing the light from a candle held by Joseph, and it’s Bridget’s vision that lies behind this picture.
There are three sources of light. There’s the earthly source, which is the shepherds’ fire up on the hillside, barely shedding enough light to see by. There is the heavenly source – the dazzling, luminous angel which has appeared to the shepherds and is hovering in front of them in the night sky.
And then there is the divine source of light, eclipsing all others, the Christ Child himself. And if you look closely, you can see that Geertgen has added thin strips of real gold stuck to the surface of the paint to show Christ’s radiance.
Surrounding the manger, and lit up by the radiance, are childlike angels, marvelling at the baby. Three of them have brought their hands together in prayer, but one seems caught in a moment of pure amazement and delight, hands apart, gently smiling. The ox and the ass have gathered round too. The ox gently warms the baby with his breath. For this is a naked child, totally exposed, completely vulnerable. So vulnerable, he needs animals to keep him warm, just as he will need the love of his mother and Joseph to keep him alive. The image of light shining in the darkness echoes the phrase in the Gospel of Saint John, read in churches on Christmas morning, his description of Christ as the light shining in the darkness, which the darkness did not overwhelm.
It was the advent of paints bound in oil rather than mixed with egg which first allowed artists to tackle such a theme successfully. Egg paint tends to be matt, but oil paints have the lustre and depth to convey light in darkness. And oil paints enabled Geertgen to show the luminous radiance of the Light of the World as it shone out on that first Christmas night.
Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): 'The Life of Christ' trail is available from audio guide desks around the National Gallery.