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National Gallery’s immersive exhibition of painting in close-up goes online for Easter after lockdown closure

'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, mobile edition'

Issued March 2021

An immersive experience at the National Gallery where visitors could journey through an interactive high-resolution image of a picture with sound, poetry and light in socially distanced pods has now been reimagined as an online experience, the first of its kind for the Gallery.  

'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s 'Adoration', mobile edition' is a digital experience inspired by the ‘sonified' painting which lies at the heart of the Gallery exhibition of the same name. It was forced to close by lockdown just a week after opening on 9 December 2021. This will be the first Gallery exhibition aimed at mobile phone users, allowing more people to enjoy the exhibition wherever they are. It goes live this Friday 2 April at

The online exhibition builds on the Gallery’s hugely popular digital offer of bringing the nation's art to the nation's homes which has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic and during lockdown periods.

In the mobile experience, six poems in the voice of King Balthasar, a character in The Adoration of the Kings, will interpret six scenes from the painting while interactive sound brings them to life guiding people to visual details they may have missed and immersing them in the world of Jan Gossaert’s masterpiece.

Users will journey through the scenes from the painting, starting with the broken pavement in a scene titled ‘Rupture’ and ending with the angels’ celestial bodies of ‘The Star’, using touch to zoom into visual details and see the astonishing skill of Gossaert’s artistic work. They can also share their favourite visual details from the painting on Instagram.

Data analysis from the mobile experience will be used to help understand more about how visitors interact with paintings on their phones.

Both the Gallery exhibition and this online experience have been created as part of the Gallery’s innovation programme.

Emma McFarland, Innovation Programme Lead says: ‘Our aim through the innovation programme is to create enjoyable, meaningful experiences which engage new and more diverse audiences with the collection in different ways, placing our visitors at the heart of the design process. This experimental mobile experience was created as part of our response to the constraints on exhibition visitor numbers as a result of the pandemic.’

The design of the Gallery exhibition and the online experience builds on insights gathered from over 80 members of the public.

As with the Gallery exhibition, collaborators include sound artist Nick Ryan and Theresa Lola, former Young People’s Laureate for London, who wrote and voiced the poems. Ryan is globally renowned for creating experiences that push the boundaries of listening and for engaging new audiences with audio. 

As with the original exhibition, the mobile experience brings together sound, images, poetry and interaction to explore the themes of rupture, transformation and renewal through the perspective of one of the painting’s principal characters King Balthasar, a witness to Christ’s birth.  

Visitors will experience digital images of the painting which have been ‘sonified’ using ambient sound, poetic spoken word and music. The high-resolution digital imagery helps them discover previously unseen elements which include details that the artist deliberately hid away as well as those that reveal the way he used complex and sophisticated painting techniques to create highly illusionistic details. The painting was rescanned by the Gallery’s scientific department in the autumn at very high resolution so that visitors have the best possible viewing experience.

One of the great works of the Northern Renaissance, everything about the construction, composition, content and detail of this painting is designed to focus the viewer on the tiny naked Christ Child in the middle of a desolate scene of ruins. A picture of birth, death and renewal, its exaggerated use of space and perspective gives the sense that the whole world is coming to view this scene; the series of contrasts suggests a moment of significant change in a decaying world (such as the richly dressed kings pictured with dogs at their feet scrapping around among weeds and broken stones.)

As the king standing to the left of Mary and the baby Jesus, and with his attendant behind him, Balthasar is the character who best represents the journey to this point of revelation, as he waits in suspense to see the baby Jesus. The importance of Balthasar is highlighted by the fact that Gossaert signed the painting in two places – on Balthasar’s hat and on the collar of his attendant.

The design and project lead for 'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration,’ mobile edition' is Emma McFarland, Innovation Lab Manager.

Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, the exhibition at the National Gallery, which closed due to lockdown in December 2020, is re-scheduled from 17 May until 13 June 2021, and is curated by Dr Susan Foister, the Gallery’s Deputy Director and Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Paintings. 

'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’' is the first of a series of Room 1 exhibitions to be supported by the Capricorn Foundation, for the next three years, in memory of the late Mr H J Hyams. 

Exhibition supported by

The Capricorn Foundation in memory of Mr H J Hyams

Notes to editors

Publicity images can be obtained from

'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, mobile edition'

From 2 April

About the poet

Theresa Lola is a British Nigerian poet based in London. She was appointed the 2019/2020 Young People's Laureate for London. Theresa has facilitated poetry workshops at St Mary's University and University of Surrey, and schools such as Saint Gabriel's College and St Marylebone School. In March 2020 she had a poetry teaching residency at Bethlem Museum of the Mind centred around poetry and wellbeing, she also held a residency at Wellcome Collection museum. Theresa Lola was a senior judge for The Queen’s Commonwealth Essay Competition 2019.

Theresa Lola has read her work across the UK in places such as Mansion House, Kensington Palace, Southbank Centre, Edinburgh International Book Festival, Goldsmiths University, and internationally in places such as Germany, Brazil, and Singapore. In April 2018 she was invited by the Mayor of London's Office to read a commissioned poem alongside Mayor of London Sadiq Khan and Former Prime Minister Theresa May at the unveiling of Millicent Fawcett's statue which took place in at Parliament Square. Theresa Lola was featured in the September 2019 issue of British Vogue which celebrated people who are forces for change.

Her debut full length poetry collection 'In Search of Equilibrium' described as an extraordinary, and exacting study of death and grieving was published by Nine Arches Press in February 2019. Theresa Lola was the joint winner of the 2018 Brunel International African Poetry Prize, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Poetry Prize. She was awarded Alumna of the Year 2020 by University of Hertfordshire.

About Nick Ryan

Nick Ryan is a composer, audio specialist and artist, widely recognised for his uniquely conceptual approach to sound and listening. His extremely diverse practice straddles orchestral composition, sound art, theatre, instrument making, interactive media, immersive audio, film and radio. His work demands an ‘anti-disciplinary’ and collaborative approach, making use of emerging technologies to generate sound in new ways, disrupt linear listening habits and explore the convergence of audition with the other sensory modalities. Nick regularly introduces people to new ways of thinking about sound and the act of listening, showing work, performing and as a prolific speaker at venues throughout the world such as The MIT Media Lab, The Roundhouse, The BBC, Tate, The BANFF Centre for the Arts and The Royal Institution. He is the recipient of a BAFTA for Technical Innovation, The PRS Foundation New Music Award and Doctorate of Music (Hon) at Plymouth University. He is currently an Artist in Residence at Somerset House Studios in London.

About the painting

Jan Gossaert (Jean Gossart) active 1508; died 1532
'The Adoration of the Kings', 1510–15
Oil on oak, 179.8 × 163.2 cm

This large altarpiece is crammed with onlookers, animals, angels and richly dressed kings and courtiers, come to worship the infant Christ, who sits on his mother’s lap in a palatial but ruined building.

Jan Gossaert has signed the painting on the hat of Balthasar, the king on the left, and on the silver collar of his attendant. Technical analysis has revealed the skill which the artist put into this picture. There is a considerable amount of underdrawing and Gossaert has made a great many changes at all stages. There are virtuoso passages of detail, especially in the foreground: the hairs sprouting from Caspar’s cheek and the decoration of his hat; the fringes of Balthasar’s stole.  

By 1600 this painting was perhaps in the abbey of St Adrian at Geraardsbergen (Graamont) in East Flanders. Gossaert seems to have painted it for the church between about 1510 and 1515, probably for the funerary chapel of Daniel van Boechout, lord of Boelare near Geraardsbergen.

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Image: 'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert's 'Adoration' mobile edition' screen image
Image: 'Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert's 'Adoration' mobile edition' screen image