Paintings in focus

Explore the paintings with curators, conservators, artists and authors.
Paintings decoded
Discover hidden symbolism in 'The Ambassadors'

Paintings decoded

Discover hidden symbolism in 'The Ambassadors'

About the video:


Decode Holbein's symbols, and see the painting in the context of the religious tensions of the 1530s.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'


Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian


Find out more about Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Louise Govier (in the studio): Another crucifix is hidden in the corner of one of the most famous Renaissance portraits, [Hans] Holbein’s painting of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, known as ‘The Ambassadors’. Again, it is a subtle sign that these two successful young men know not to feel too proud of their expensive clothes, and of the range of objects which show the viewer just how learned they both are. We are assured that they are always aware of death which floats in front of them in the form of a distorted skull; when viewed from the side it becomes instantly recognisable.

The sheer vanity involved in commissioning such a magnificent portrait is balanced by this firm reminder that all of these beautiful things will crumble to dust; the only everlasting life is with God. This painting was made in 1533, a time of particular religious tension. Dinteville was a French ambassador sent to the English King Henry the VIII’s court, just as Henry was preparing to break from the Catholic Church. Several of the objects seem to suggest anxiety about the situation, for example, the lute has a broken string, a sign that harmony has temporarily been disrupted. Dinteville commissioned this portrait when his friend came to visit him, noting that de Selve’s presence had greatly cheered him during a rather miserable time in his life.

More from Paintings in focus (22 videos)

Paintings decoded
Discover hidden symbolism in 'The Ambassadors'

About the video:


Decode Holbein's symbols, and see the painting in the context of the religious tensions of the 1530s.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'


Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian


Find out more about Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Louise Govier (in the studio): Another crucifix is hidden in the corner of one of the most famous Renaissance portraits, [Hans] Holbein’s painting of Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve, known as ‘The Ambassadors’. Again, it is a subtle sign that these two successful young men know not to feel too proud of their expensive clothes, and of the range of objects which show the viewer just how learned they both are. We are assured that they are always aware of death which floats in front of them in the form of a distorted skull; when viewed from the side it becomes instantly recognisable.

The sheer vanity involved in commissioning such a magnificent portrait is balanced by this firm reminder that all of these beautiful things will crumble to dust; the only everlasting life is with God. This painting was made in 1533, a time of particular religious tension. Dinteville was a French ambassador sent to the English King Henry the VIII’s court, just as Henry was preparing to break from the Catholic Church. Several of the objects seem to suggest anxiety about the situation, for example, the lute has a broken string, a sign that harmony has temporarily been disrupted. Dinteville commissioned this portrait when his friend came to visit him, noting that de Selve’s presence had greatly cheered him during a rather miserable time in his life.

Paintings decoded
Examining the skull in 'The Ambassadors' (part 1)

About the video:


Skulls are not uncommon in paintings. Why did Holbein choose to display one in this peculiar way?


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors'


Find out more about Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Alexander Sturgis: Beneath the shelf of objects hovers the strangely distorted image of the skull and here there can be no dispute about meaning. It is there as a reminder of death, its presence undermines the painting’s overall ambiance of opulence and worldly accomplishment. Skulls are not uncommon in portraits, and their meaning is always the same – all things must pass and death will come to us all. In 'The Ambassadors', the skull was also surely intended to be seen in opposition to the other hidden object, the crucifix, which points to the possibility of eternal life after the withering of the flesh.

If the portrait as a whole presented particular problems, those presented by the skull were of an entirely different order. The painting of objects in distorted perspective, known as anamorphosis, was not [Hans] Holbein’s invention, and other 16th century examples survive. What does seem unique to 'The Ambassadors' is the presence of a single, distorted object in a painting otherwise conventional in its perspective; the skull is only visible when the rest of the painting is not, and vice versa.

Paintings decoded
Examining the skull in 'The Ambassadors' (part 2)

About the video:


Now you see it, now you don't. How did Holbein create the distorted anarmorphic skull in his painting 'The Ambassadors'?


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Making and Meaning: Holbein's Ambassadors'


Find out more about Hans Holbein the Younger, The Ambassadors, 1533

Alexander Sturgis: Two particular questions raise themselves in relation to the skull: how did [Hans] Holbein [the Younger] do it, and how were people meant to look at it? 

The earliest handbooks relating to the creation of anamorphoses date from well after Holbein’s painting, but the methods they describe were probably known to him. In the simplest of these, a square grid is drawn over an image, a second grid of rectangles is then constructed, and the drawing is copied using the two grids as guides. A more sophisticated and correct method of producing an anamorphosis is to use a grid, not of rectangles, but of trapezoids to take into account the angle of viewing, and this would produce a skull like that in the painting. If we reverse the process with the aid of computer technology, we arrive at an image of a skull which must be close to Holbein’s starting point.

[Classical music playing in background]

Alexander Sturgis: It has been suggested that Holbein might have arrived at his finished skull without the use of a grid, but by a more direct method; an identical anamorphosis could be achieved by directing a light through a drawing made on translucent paper to cast a distorted shadow on a wall or picture surface. Whatever method Holbein used to arrive at his anamorphosis, its distortion is such that it is best viewed from the right of the painting at a height of about a metre from the bottom of the picture. In the case of the skull, it has been suggested that it was not meant to be looked at from the side at all, but from the front with the use of a glass cylinder, such as a drinking glass or bottle, which acts as a lens, squeezing the image in one direction.

The results achieved by this method are reasonably good, but although the glass tube compresses the skull, it cannot correct the increased elongation of the skull to the left, which can only be resolved satisfactorily by viewing from the right-hand side. We also do not know if this method of viewing an anamorphosis was known about in Holbein’s day. If the skull was intended to be viewed from the side, the painting might have been hung on a wall with a doorway to its right; the skull could have then surreptitiously revealed itself to someone leaving the room in which it was hung.

Paintings decoded
Discover the background of Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

About the video:


Feel the drama as love-struck Bacchus approaches the abandoned Ariadne. Revel in Titian's contrasting colours and find out about his frustrated patron, Alfonso d'Este. With James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

James Heard: He was born in Cadore, in the mountains above Venice, and his name is Titian. In many ways, he is the first great modern painter, because he was using oil paint on canvas. To painting, he brought new vibrancy. Vibrancy of colour, in particular, which we can see in this painting of 'Bacchus and Ariadne', painted between 1520 and 1523.

James Heard (in the studio): The subject is taken from the Latin poetry of Ovid and Catullus. They both give slightly differing versions of Prince Theseus, slaying the Minotaur, and then, abandoning his lover, the Cretan princess, Ariadne. Titian chooses the moment when Theseus sails away, leaving Ariadne to very different fate, with the handsome young Bacchus, just returning from a tour of India. Bacchus, with his crown of ivy, and train of inebriated companions, makes an extraordinary impact, leaping from his chariot, to declare his love for Ariadne.

[Classical music playing in background]

His companions are neither polite, nor civilised, having just torn apart the limbs of a young calf, in their drunken frenzy.

[Classical music playing]

Bacchus though, makes the romantic gesture, of taking Ariadne's crown, and throwing it into the sky, where it becomes a constellation of stars.


Titian painted this for a special gallery, in the castle at Ferrara. The owner, Duke Alfonso d'Este, became impatient at the length of time Titian took to complete his masterpiece. What makes it so impressive, is the relationships between the individual characters, the repeated rhythms and, above all, the colour. Titian has used highly saturated hues, in the shadows, to create a powerful combination of colours, such as the juxtaposition of Bacchus' red lake cloak, against the lapis lazuli of the sky.

Quick insight
Learn the lessons of love in 'Cupid complaining to Venus'

About the video:


Never sweetness without pain? Learn about Venus' message about the inevitable pain of love – with James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Lucas Cranach the Elder, Cupid complaining to Venus, about 1525

James Heard: This picture would probably have been bought by a courtier, rather than a religious man.

It shows the goddess Venus and her son Cupid – the boy has take a honeycomb from a tree trunk and complains when the bees sting him. Venus has little sympathy, explaining, 'There is never sweetness without pain'.

She looks knowingly out to the viewer, her nudity emphasised by her elaborate necklace and hat. Her body, elongated to suit the tastes of Cranach's German patrons, displayed for our enjoyment.

In the context of these two mythological characters, the message of this painting is about the pleasures and inevitable pains of love.

The landscape is also designed to suit local tastes. In the background there's a rainish castle on an outcrop of rock, whilst behind the apple tree, a reference no doubt to sinful eve, is a dark German pine forest.

Paintings decoded
Hear the story of 'Bacchus and Ariadne'

About the video:


Discover how paintings tell stories. Look at the different events potrayed side-by-side in Titian's 'Bacchus and Ariadne' – with Richard Stemp, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Themes and Variations: Time'


Find out more about Titian, Bacchus and Ariadne, 1520-3


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Alexander Sturgis: But painters, like film makers and authors, have often been called upon to tell stories.  Here’s a story, and here’s another film of a painting.

Richard Stemp: Ariadne, Princess of Crete, helped rescue Theseus from the Minotaur. He promised to take her back to his home and marry her. On the way they stopped at the Island of Naxos to rest overnight. When she woke, she found Theseus had sailed way, leaving her alone. She wanders disconsolately on the shore, when suddenly, with a clash of cymbals, everything is set right: Bacchus, the god of wine, appears with his rowdy and drunken retinue and with one great leap, declares his love. Ariadne turns, hesitates and with her look, accepts his love. In the long run she is granted immortality in the form of a constellation, a crown of stars in the sky.

Alexander Sturgis: Presented in this way, the painting can mirror the progression of the tale it illustrates.  But you’ve been looking at a sequence of images, not a single one. Ariadne abandoned, the Island of Naxos, Theseus’s boat, the clash of cymbals, Bacchus, his retinue, Ariadne again, the look of love, and the crown of stars in the sky.

Paintings decoded
Artist John Lessore and Restorer Jill Dunkerton: 'The Death of Actaeon'

About the video:


Finished or unfinished? National Gallery Restorer Jill Dunkerton studies the X-rays of Titian's 'The Death of Actaeon' to reveal the artist's indecision in painting this masterpiece, while the artist John Lessore explores the theme of his favourite painting in the collection. With actress Lizzy McInnerny performing a dramatic narration of an extract from Ovid's poem 'Metamorphosis'.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Titian'


Find out more about Titian, The Death of Actaeon, about 1559-75


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

John Lessore: In the whole history of art, Titian is my favourite painter and in the National Gallery, this Titian of Diana and Actaeon is my favourite painting. It used to be the Bacchus and Ariadne, but this one has supplanted it. Actaeon quite unwittingly stumbled across Diana bathing in the nude and saw her.

Lizzy McInnerny: Diana dashed some water into the face of the intruder, saying, now go and tell, if you can, that you have seen Diana naked. The hero fled. He could not but admire his own speed, but when he saw his horns in the water, he groaned and tears flowed down the face which had taken the place of his own. When he hesitated, the dogs saw him. He fled and they followed. He longed to cry out, but the words didn’t come. Presently, one fastened on his back. Another seized his shoulder. They were all around him, rending and tearing. It was not until they had torn his life out that the anger of Diana was satisfied.

John Lessore: In this painting, you see he has just started, he’s still a man except for his head, but that’s enough for the dogs. They’re already beginning to tear him to bits. He is no longer their master. He is now their victim.

Jill Dunkerton: The X-ray of 'The Death of Actaeon' shows the most extraordinary number of changes. Sometimes you can make out one of the hounds that we still see in the final painting, for example, that head there, but if you look, there are many more hounds in the X-ray than there are in the painting itself.

There’s a lot of discussion and disagreement about whether a painting like 'The Death of Actaeon' is actually finished. I personally think that at this late stage of his career, Titian himself didn’t necessarily know when pictures were finished. It isn’t lacking any of the final glazes, any of the systematic build-up of colour that you get with earlier pictures and, indeed, with Titian’s earlier pictures, because that was no longer part of his painting process. He is now ranging over the whole surface of the picture. One moment, he is using a glaze; the next moment, he is using an opaque colour. In a sense, it’s unfinished because Titian probably never lived to decide the point at which it was going to be finished, but it’s not unfinished to me in a technical sense. It’s not an incomplete picture and to me it works completely as an image.

John Lessore: Nobody had ever painted in such an abstract, plastic way in which the emotion he is conveying is not conveyed by narrative so much as by shape and movement and colour. What he was doing was incredibly deliberate and refined. It’s just that the handling is so powerful that one gets the impression that the paint is slapped on any old how, which it’s not. It’s certainly not. This is a very late Titian. He must have started it when he was about 70, but gone on with it when he was in his middle 80s. The 10 or 15 years between starting it and finishing it... “finishing” in inverted commas because theoretically it is not finished, but I’m not quite sure that that’s really what Titian felt about it. I think that if he’d wanted to do any more, he would have.

Quick insight
Explore the abstraction of 'Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses)'

About the video:


'Bathers' by Cézanne is one of three compositions on this subject. Among the painter's final works, the 'Bathers' series influenced the next generation of artists, including Picasso and Matisse.


From the National Gallery DVD, Impressionist Painting: 1850-1900


Find out more about Paul Cézanne, Bathers (Les Grandes Baigneuses, about 1894-1905

Louise Govier: Like so many artists working at this time Cezanne too explored the theme of 'Bathers [(Les Grande Baigneuses)]' on numerous occasions. The National Gallery's huge canvas was one of three large scale compositions of 'Bathers' that occupied Cezanne’s final years. He seems to have begun this one around 1900 and was still working on it when he died in 1906.

Kathleen Adler: For Cezanne modernity means something completely different from what it means for Monet or for Seurat because it doesn’t mean a contemporary place at all. His 'Bathers' are neither specifically of a moment in terms of their appearance, nor are they specifically in a place. You cannot actually identify that place, you know it is in Provence, you know it is in Aix but where it is a mystery.

For Cezanne then modernity means extrapolating from the specific to something that is more wide ranging; exactly the opposite of what it meant for somebody like Monet.

Louise Govier: This is a painting of 'Bathers' that resists the viewer’s attempts to give it a narrative. If these figures are not individuals, if there is no story, if this isn’t a convincing illusion of a three dimensional space then we can only consider what we are looking at in purely formal terms, thinking about shapes, colours, textures, light and dark. It is not entirely abstract but it’s moving in that direction.

Cezanne’s 'Bathers' certainly anticipated and inspired important future developments. It was exhibited in 1907, the year after his death and both Matisse and Picasso saw it. Picasso was interested in the way that Cezanne reduced his subjects to geometric forms. He may also have noticed that some of Cezanne’s 'Bathers' are shown from slightly different viewpoints. He’s used multiple lines around the edge of this figure’s body and has shown more of her back and bottom than you could have seen from one viewing position.

Quick insight
Historian Anne Hollander on 'Saint George and the Dragon'

About the video:


Look at the impact of the expressive drapery in Tintoretto's painting of 'Saint George and the Dragon' with art and costume historian Anne Hollander.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Fabric of Vision: Dress and Drapery in Painting'


Find out more about Jacopo Tintoretto, Saint George and the Dragon, about 1555

Anne Hollander: The princess is not even watching and she is wearing her princess costume, such as she might wear in a pageant, with a little scarf such as a Venetian princess might wear, all around her neck and behind her, however, she is wearing what seems to be her cloak. 

But this object is not a cloak; it is a piece of expressive drapery rather like an expressive phrase of music wrapped around her in various ways to raise the emotional temperature of the picture. It whips out to sea instead of being whipped by the sea breeze, it wraps her around her hips, it slides over one of her arms and it whips out behind her in a way that no real cloak could do. And it is there simply to raise the temperature, to indicate the kind of turbulence of her feeling and her combination of hope and fear about the dragon.

Paintings decoded
Explore creation myths in 'The Origin of the Milky Way'

About the podcast clip:


Unlock the creation myths packed into this painting by Tintoretto – find out how Jupiter's ambitions for his son Hercules inadvertently forced the goddess Juno to create the Milky Way. With Karly Allen, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Twenty Eight (February 2009)


Find out more about Jacopo Tintoretto, The Origin of the Milky Way, about 1575

Voiceover: The National Gallery Podcast.

Miranda Hinkley(in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast.

In some ways, paintings are snapshots of other times. They tell us how people lived, dressed, and relaxed, and bring us face to face with ghosts: farmhands at work in a picture by Constable; a Parisian waitress captured by Manet. Beyond this material detail, paintings are also a visual record of the stories used by past generations to make sense of the world. Many of our best-loved pictures are based on such myths, including a work by a Venetian artist that explains how one of the most distinctive features in our night sky came into being. Karly Allen of the education team told me more about Tintoretto’s ‘Origin of the Milky Way’.

Karly Allen: In the painting, set against a brilliant blue background, Jupiter, god of the skies, is sweeping in from above, his red robe billowing in the wind and his eagle at his side, clutching thunderbolts. Jupiter is supporting his infant son, Hercules, born out of an illicit liaison with a mere mortal woman from Earth. So, Jupiter is really very keen that he is able to give the gift of immortality to his new child and he knows that the only way to do that is if the baby Hercules can drink the milk of a goddess. Rather conveniently, as we see here, the closest goddess to Jupiter is his wife, Juno. Tintoretto shows us Juno as this voluptuous nude, reclining on a bed of silks and pearls, high up in the clouds. We’re told in the story that Juno was sleeping and Jupiter hoped to creep up on her and allow the baby Hercules to suckle her unnoticed. Of course, not surprisingly, what we see here in the painting is Juno, startled by this unexpected child at her breast, and she jolts awake, and as she draws back the milk sprays up into the night sky and forms the stars of the Milky Way.

Miranda Hinkley: If you look closely at the canvas, you can see the faint white lines of the milk going up into the sky, but there is some more milk from the other breast sort of going downwards, and it almost looks like it’s going down towards the figures at the bottom.

Karly Allen: That’s right. Well, what’s interesting about this painting is that it doesn’t just tell one creation myth. It makes reference to others. So in fact, the real subject of the picture is not just the origin of the Milky Way. The title is only really known from the 19th century, but if we were able to see the picture when it was new, it was much larger. At the bottom of the painting, there was another reclining figure down on Earth. The milk from Juno’s other breast is coming straight down, crashing down to Earth, and where it lands, a new flower springs up. That’s the explanation for the first milk-white lily.

Miranda Hinkley: Aha and if you actually look at the bottom right-hand part of the picture, you can sort of still see perhaps a little bit of that original background. There are some sort of plants at the bottom.

Karly Allen: You can just make out a few green leaves which look a little bit incongruous, given that we believe ourselves to be up in the sky, but if we could see the rest of the picture, we’d understand that this is just a last remnant of those plants that Tintoretto originally painted in. Much of that detail has now been overpainted by clouds.

Miranda Hinkley: So, this painting is actually sort of packed with origin myths.

Karly Allen: It’s incredibly dramatic and inventive, which makes it such a great subject for Tintoretto, his mastery of movement and colour and drama. But it’s also a reminder of how the Milky Way itself has served as a powerful source of inspiration for creation myths worldwide. It’s really interesting to look at some of these other legends from other cultures. Many of them use very poetic language and pick up on this idea of the Milky Way as being a pathway, a route across the sky. In many East Asian countries including China and Japan, the Milky Way is described as a river, as the silver river of heaven. In one related story, we’re told that it divided two lovers, that they were only able to meet up once a year when a flock of birds would come together to create a bridge over the celestial waters across the sky. I think my favourite account comes from Menelaus, the ancient Roman author who compiled various explanations for the appearance of the Milky Way. He writes that the Milky Way is in fact a seam running across the sky. It’s the point at which the two halves of heaven are stitched together, and what we’re looking at is a bright light just visible through that seam.

Miranda Hinkley: Of course, this is a fantastic kind of record of ancient mythology.

Karly Allen: Well, in just one painting we’ve got a reference not only to the Western European tradition, but I think it does remind us of this great heritage, this shared enthusiasm across cultures for myth-making and great storytelling. Tintoretto is such a good storyteller. So the painting really celebrates, through colour and movement and beautiful human form that sort of innate curiosity and is really a lasting record of a lost belief system.

Miranda Hinkley: If you are in London this month, why not pop in? If you can’t make it here in person, don’t forget you can still enjoy the paintings online at

Early Titian and Landscapes
Antonio Mazzotta

About the video:

Join curator Antonio Mazzotta as he introduces Titian's influential early-career landscape painting 'Noli me Tangere'.


More about the exhibition Titian's First Masterpiece: The Flight into Egypt, 4 April – 19 August 2012.


Explore the life and work of Titian through film, in-depth research and more

Antonio Mazzotta: At this stage we’re talking about Titian being 22–23 years old. This is the Magdalen meeting Christ after the Resurrection. What is unique is the very ambitious attempt to fuse human figures and landscape, and to create a landscape that looks natural and real. For example, the line of the back of the Magdalen is almost continued in this wonderfully shaped tree, and the line of the body of Christ is continued on the hill. So we have a sort of large X – the arms of this X are natural elements, and the legs of this X are human elements.

But also he’s able to infuse his taste for the life that exists in things. All the early descriptions until the late 18th century emphasise the fact that one could almost step into Titian’s landscapes. They felt real like never before. We can feel that the sun is rising, even though we cannot see it, through the first ray of sunlight that is catching the building on the top of the hill. It’s a dynamic nature that goes far beyond what we see, for example, the breeze that one can feel in the foreground, the grass that is almost moving, and also the white drapery of the Magdalen.

The extraordinary thing about Titian is that even if he had died at the age of 24 he would have been a highly influential artist for the following generations. The fact is that he went on painting for about 65 more years after this work. So it was an incredibly long career – and every stage of his career was influential for a different artist.

Paintings decoded
Explore the bustling market of 'The Four Elements'

About the video:


Beuckelaer's world of plenty: an array of food that would be the envy of today's celebrity chefs. Decode this feast for the eyes, and take a trip to a modern market.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'The Stuff of Life'


Find out more about Joachim Beuckelaer, The Four Elements, 1569-70

Female Narrator: This head cook and her assistant discuss the merits of their shopping spree. They buy goods from this abundant fruit and vegetable market. The store is crammed full of fruit from every season of the year, highly unlikely in an age without fridges and freezers. This painting is one of a series of four by the Flemish artist Joachim Beuckelaer. It shows a world of plenty. In the other paintings we see the same servants visiting a fish market and a poultry market before coming home to cook the goods in a well equipped kitchen.

Today’s celebrity chefs would be delighted with the choice and quality of the produce. The servants choose from different varieties of fruit and vegetables on display. Behind them the shopkeeper draws water from a well, perhaps to wash the produce to make it look appealing to her customers. See how the costumes of these two women are similar. Both wear aprons and have rolled their sleeves up, indicating they work. And yet the lady with the detachable yellow sleeves and lace cap wears a grander costume, suggesting she’s the head cook from one of the grand Antwerp houses.

In this kitchen scene we see the same women preparing the good bought at market. The sheer variety of produce and materials is a feast for the eyes. Contemporary market vendors still use visual tricks to make produce appealing. Placing complementary colours side by side, just as Beuckelaer did. Beuckelaer’s contrived market scenes actually contain discreet meanings. The ancient elements of earth, water, air and fire are ingeniously represented by the objects within the paintings, and in the moralising climate of 16th century Antwerp a religious story is hidden within the jostling world of each painting.

Here the story of the prodigal son may warn viewers against the pleasures of the flesh. Beuckelaer’s paintings are among the first to lavish this level of attention on the stuff of everyday life.

Hieronymus Bosch: 'Christ Mocked' | Paintings | The National Gallery, London

Bosch's image represents the suffering Christ - how does the painting relate to us? Read about the painting, learn the key facts and zoom in to discover more on the National Gallery website:

Paintings decoded
Explore the symbolism of 'The Four Elements'

About the video:


Decode these unusual paintings by Beuckelaer, looking beyond the abundant food to the religious messages behind these works – with James Heard, National Gallery Education.


From The National Gallery Visitor's Guide DVD


Find out more about Joachim Beuckelaer, The Four Elements, 1569-70

James Heard: The Antwerp painter Joachim Beuckelaer added another complication to his Mannerist works. We have seen that pictures usually fall into distinct categories, altarpieces, mythological subjects or portraits for example. This painting, one of a series of four made in 1570 combine still life, a genre scene and in the background the New Testament story of Martha and Mary. Martha complains to Christ that she has to work in the kitchen, whilst Mary is listening to him. The lesson she learns about accepting whatever work one is called to do is contrasted with the bustle of the contemporary kitchen in the foreground.

These unusual and complex paintings operate on several levels. The settings used for the four paintings, the kitchen, the fish market, a vegetable stall and a poultry market symbolise the four elements of fire, water, earth and air, all of the physical material which makes up our world. We are shown an abundance of food and warmth, perhaps also warned not to indulge in the good things of life to the extent that we forget the teachings of Christ.

Quick insight
Introducing 'Christ Mocked'

About the video:


Bosch's image represents the suffering Christ – how does the painting relate to us?


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Seeing Salvation'


Find out more about Hieronymus Bosch, Christ Mocked (The Crowning with Thorns), about 1490-1500

Male Narrator: The representations of the suffering Christ were designed not only to illustrate the various episodes of the Passion but by showing the depth and extent of Christ’s pain and humiliation to evoke in the viewer feelings of compassion towards him.

In Bosch’s '[The] Crowning with Thorns', Christ’s gaze is aimed directly at us. His tormentors are the 15th century contemporaries of the painter. But we too are implicated in the drama of innocence brutalised.

Quick insight
Al Johnson explores 'The Four Elements: Earth'

About the video:


Enjoy Beuckelaer's bustling market stall, which is overflowing with fruit and vegetables to represent the element 'earth' – with Al Johnson.


From the National Gallery Audio Tours: The Grand Tour


Find out more about Joachim Beuckelaer, The Four Elements: Earth, 1569

Voiceover: Al Johnson, lecturer from the National Gallery.

Al Johnson: This painting is the 'Earth' painting from a series of four paintings: 'The Four Elements: Earth, Wind, Water and Fire'. And this is 'Earth' because there is a whole array of fruits and vegetables; it is a market outside of a farm. Beuckelaer has such a skill with making the individual elements of the painting, they are glistening, you could pluck something from the image, the grapes in particular look luscious. So we do get a sense of wanting to enter into the painting and take something to eat from it.

One of the clever ways he’s done this, actually, it’s called a tilted perspective. Instead of laying all these things flat on a table, as they would be, what he has done is to sort of tip them forward. It wouldn’t work in real life, of course because they would all fall out the painting, but, in a way that’s what he wants. He wants us to look at this and to feel that all these beautiful objects are going to tumble into our lap. I feel like I want to pluck a mulberry from the bowl in the centre or to pull the outside leaves off that red lettuce, crunch through one of the carrots. So this 'Earth' painting is a very difficult one to look at when you are hungry.

Quick insight
Colin Wiggins explores 'Saint Luke Painting the Virgin and Child'

About the video:


The patron saint of artists: find out how this painting of Saint Luke reveals the artistic practices of the 16th century – with Colin Wiggins, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Themes and Variations: Saints'


Find out more about Follower of Quinten Massys, Saint Luke painting the Virgin and Child, about 1520?

Colin Wiggins: The Virgin and Child appear again here, on an easel, in another 16th century painting from the studio of the Flemish painter, Quentin Massys.

Saint Luke, according to legend, painted the portrait of the Virgin Mary, which explains why he was the patron saint of so many of the painters’ guilds. This painting was probably part of an altarpiece, and would have originally been attached to a painting of the Virgin herself, which is now, unfortunately, lost. The Saint is shown sitting at an easel, holding a palette, maulstick and brushes, very much like modern ones, looking very intensely towards where the Virgin would have been sitting.

It provides us with a fascinating glimpse into a 16th century artist’s workshop, as the painter of this picture has imagined Saint Luke as working in an environment exactly similar to his own except, of course for the ox, which is Saint Luke’s personal emblem.

Quick insight
Presenting 'Christina of Denmark'

About the video:


Find out how this full-length portrait was used to introduce King Henry VIII to a potential bride.


From the National Gallery DVD, 'Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian'


Find out more about the 2008/2009 exhibition Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian


More about Hans Holbein the Younger, Christina of Denmark, Duchess of Milan, 1538

Unidentified Female Speaker: Painted likenesses played a vital part in the negotiation of high level marriages. Henry VIII sent Holbein to Brussels in March 1538 to make this full length portrait of 'Christina of Denmark', a young widow he was considering as his fourth wife. The king would have expected that she be shown full face, so that no imperfections could be hidden. He was pleased with the portrait and kept it, even though, perhaps mercifully for Christina, the negotiations eventually came to nothing.

Paintings decoded
Portraying 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'

About the podcast clip:


Personification or portrait? Jacqui Ansell, National Gallery Education, examines Reynolds's impressive Lady Cockburn


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty One (May 2009)


Find out more about Sir Joshua Reynolds, Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons, 1773

Miranda Hinkley: So, here we are in Room 34 and this is Reynolds’s portrait of 'Lady Cockburn and her Three Eldest Sons'.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, she’s a rather hardworking lady because she married aged 20 and became the second wife of a chap who already had three daughters. So here she is, stepmother, new mother to three little boys – she subsequently goes on to produce even more children – so she’s got her heir and a spare and one left over as well. And she’s looking far from harassed by the three children that swarm around her…

Miranda Hinkley: She’s looking very sort of calm indeed, and in fact looking away from the viewer, out towards the corner of the canvas.

Jacqui Ansell: Yes, in fact she almost looks as though she’s looking very contemplative and there is rather a stark contrast in her gaze compared to the gaze of the painting that inspired this. Reynolds was an artist who was very, very interested in the Old Masters – it’s not just Picasso who goes around challenging the past – and what he did was he went on an extended Grand Tour and he filled his sketch books with information and well as Italian Old Masters, he also saw Flemish Old Masters like Van Dyck. And we’ve got a painting in our collection which is 'Charity' – a personification of charity by Van Dyck, where the woman is absolutely surrounded by these three little chubby children. She looks up to heaven and to me she looks as if she’s saying ‘God ‘elp me’, but she really is saying ‘God help me’, and she’s a personification of the Christian virtue of charity. So of course as soon as you know that and as soon as you look at this painting you see not just a portrait of Lady Cockburn and three little children, you see her almost as a personification of charity.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean, he’s basing his composition on a Van Dyck and the interesting thing there is of course that Van Dyck was an artist, originally a history painter, who became a portraitist when he arrived in Britain, who also had very great aspirations, and he wanted to be seen as an equal and did manage to gain quite significant status for an artist of his day. So perhaps Reynolds is choosing to hark back to Van Dyck for that reason. But of course at the same time this is a portrait of a society lady, isn’t it?

Jacqui Ansell: Reynolds strongly believed that you had to give a female sitter something of the modern for the sake of likeness and the general air of the antique for the sake of dignity. Now when this was on display at the Royal Academy – and it was actually greeted by a round of applause when it appeared – the erudite public would recognise this not just as Lady Cockburn, but they’d also see in it charity, this Christian virtue, but they’d also see in it something we don’t see today, and that is her as Cornelia. Cornelia was the Roman matron who was the mother of the Gracchi, these three fine soldiers, and when a companion of hers was showing off her jewellery, Cornelia allegedly brought forth her three sons and said ‘these are my jewels – my children are my jewels’. And this for me is one of the jewels of the collection if you like…

Miranda Hinkley: Well, they certainly look like lovely children in this painting at least. Jacqui, thank you very much.

Jacqui Ansell: Thank you.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Jacqui Ansell on Joshua Reynolds.

Curator's insight
Dawson Carr on 'Christ driving the Traders from the Temple'

About the podcast clip:


A walk around the Gallery reveals an abundance of scenes from the life of Christ – curator Dawson Carr looks at one of the most exceptional


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Seventeen (March 2008)


More about El Greco, Christ driving the Traders from the Temple, about 1600


Find out more about The Life of Christ audio tour

Miranda Hinkley : 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.

In conversation
Costumier Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson on 'Portrait of a Lady'

About the podcast clip:


Moroni's 'Portrait of a Lady' still turns heads over four centuries later. What is it that makes this lady in red so special? Find out more with costumier Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson, National Gallery Education.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Eighteen (April 2008)


Find out more about Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a Lady ('La Dama in Rosso'), about 1556-60

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): A woman poses for her portrait. She has jewels in her hair and an exquisite satin dress, the striking colour of which will ensure she’s still turning heads over four centuries later. We asked costumier Eileen Sheikh and artist Al Johnson to tell us just what’s so special about Moroni’s Lady in Red.

Eileen Sheikh: My name’s Eileen Sheikh and I’m a costumier.

Al Johnson: My name’s Al Johnson and I’m a sculptor and a lecturer at the National Gallery.

Eileen Sheikh: The Moroni portrait of a woman, or ‘A Lady in Red’ as she’s known, is quite extraordinary because it’s an extremely high fashion that she’s wearing. And you can really see that from the actual colour that she’s wearing which is a deep rose-pink with an underlay skirt of yellow-gold and a red colour shot through that gold and it’s probably a woven textile. So it’s highly likely to be real gold thread within the underskirt and also the bodice which is just revealed at her neckline.

The colour of the fabric is a pink-rose with a gold coming through it – it’s the most extraordinary orangy, pinky silk. The colour is probably cochineal because this was a new dye at the time made out of the bodies of cochineal insects and was imported from the New World, so from South America. And that was only discovered in the 1540s, so you would have been a very high-standing person to actually wear these kinds of pinks and reds. 

Al Johnson: The material is extremely sumptuous. It’s intended to be warm as well as beautiful. The sleeves have got tiny tufts of white silk pulled through – this was an effort to show, I think, that this lady had at least three layers of cloth, all different kinds of cloth to show her extreme wealth.

Eileen Sheikh: In the Renaissance period you would have been able to obtain a vast range of fabrics dyed in various shades of red. Different reds produced by the kermes insect – you get anything from a very vivid dark red, a scarlet or a cardinal red, right the way through to something that’s called maiden’s blush, which would have been a very pale pink. In between, different names that appear in literature of the period describing reds: catherine’s pear, carnation, incarnate, sanguine, stammel, flame (an obvious one), gingerleen, murray and peach. But other colours are also described in the same way, so a very vivid one is goose-turd green, which I think we can all imagine what that might look like.

Al Johnson: Red is such a heavily symbolic colour. I think that’s partly why it interests me. References of course to blood and it’s a visceral colour, it’s the colour of the internal form of the body. It has references to war and destruction – it’s a masculine colour and in Christian iconography it’s the colour of the crucifixion, the colour of the martyrs. So there are all these kind of very male, very dominant references to red. But what interests me, I suppose, is its paradoxical nature – that it’s also the colour of sexuality – the colour of lipstick and lingerie – so it’s also a female colour.

Eileen Sheikh: Dying fabric using the kermes insect or the cochineal insect can be done in various different ways, and actually to produce the different hues that you require – so either the very deep blueish, purply pinks, or the really deep reds, or the very pale pinks – you might well have started by crushing the insects themselves and crushing the bodies to actually produce a dye in a little bag that you would then put into a dye bath.

And dyeing thick satin needed great care and attention to make sure that none of the fabric was exposed to light while it’s in the dye bath. The fabric has to be completely submerged all the time to get an even tone. The dye must be perfectly suffused all the way through the liquid to make sure that there are no patches of darkness or almost a sort of tie-die effect that can happen if you’ve got a large amount of fabric in one dye bath. And so these dyers were incredibly experienced, incredibly scientific in the way that they produced their fabrics, and those would have all been in Venice where still the best silks come out of that area.

Al Johnson: I work with paradox in the sculpture I make because I make work that’s very often about ideas that are quite big or quite difficult to encompass. And red I’ve used extensively because it has this paradoxical nature and so I feel it reflects the kind of paradox that I’m trying to uncover or explore in a piece of work. I’ve been working on a series of sculptures about women and the military. The paradox seems to me that we don’t regard women as being aggressive or militaristic, so I wanted to try and explore that so I used red because it has these masculine qualities, but at the same time, these feminine sexual qualities.

The series of works started by making a series of weapons. I made wooden dummies based on First and Second World War guns and contemporary military issue and then they were covered initially in red satin, and I felt that the sumptuousness and the sexiness, the sensuality of the satin, undermined the objects, so that you had something that appeared to be a weapon and yet it was undermined by the material from which it was made.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Eileen Sheikh and Al Johnson talking about a much-loved treasure of the Gallery’s permanent collection, Moroni’s ‘Portrait of a Lady’, or ‘Lady in Red’.

In conversation
Professor Philip Steadman and Louise Govier explore the peepshow

About the podcast clip:


Explore the visual trickery of a Dutch peepshow, with National Gallery Education's Louise Govier and Philip Steadman, Professor of Urban and Built Form Studies at University College London and an expert on perspective.


From the National Gallery Podcast: Episode Thirty Three (July 2009)


Find out more about Samuel van Hoogstraten, A Peepshow with Views of the Interior of a Dutch House, about 1655-60

Miranda Hinkley: Well, here we are in the Dutch room, just across the way from Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’, and we’re at Hoogstraten’s Peepshow, which is a box mounted on a stand which has painted scenes round the outside, but there’s a little hole in one of the sides, and if you look through it in fact shows the interior of a house. Louise have a look through there and tell me a bit about what you can see.

Louise Govier: Oh, I love this. It’s absolutely fantastic. What always happens when I look into this is that I end up banging my head, because I’m so busy trying to crane round and see all of the different rooms and spaces. Basically you look in and you’re drawn into this interior world. I can see a dog, I can see a chair, and the thing is it’s done in such a clever way that some of these things really do look three-dimensional and you can see doorways in that open out into other worlds, and little glimpses of people – it’s absolutely fantastic.

Miranda Hinkley: Philip, I mean, if we come round the back of the box – the way it’s exhibited now, there’s in fact a glass plate so that we can see exactly how Hoogstraten’s achieved this effect, and I mean this whole thing works on perspective, doesn’t it?

Philip Steadman: It does, yes. Part of it is quite conventional perspective. What Hoogstraten has done is that… it’s like Doctor Who’s tardis, it’s much bigger on the inside than it is on the outside. You’ve got these images of a great many rooms that you can see – there are long perspectives through doorways to other rooms beyond. And those are painted in, as I say, conventional perspective, but there are some details which overlap the surfaces of the box, and in particular there’s a little dog, who springs up when you look through one of the peepholes, but when you come round here, as we’re looking now, you can see that he’s painted half on the wall in ordinary perspective, and then half of him, his legs, are painted on the floor, and they are stretched out, and that part of the dog is an anamorphic perspective.

It’s painted on this very steeply angled surface as you’re looking at it from the peephole. It’s all correct, and when your eye is confined to the peephole it all comes out right. And there’s also some very strange red rectangles on the floor, one with a little white rectangle. Now that looks like a carpet or something. But when you look from one of the peepholes, it pops up as a table – it’s the top of a table, and the rectangle is a letter addressed to van Hoogstraten, so perhaps this was his house.

Miranda Hinkley: How do artists go about creating this technique? Do they have to get right down with their sort of eye close to the surface that they’re drawing on, or do they have to stand at a funny angle to the canvas? I mean, how do they do it?

Philip Steadman: Well, I think that’s an open question. I mean there could be a lot of debate about how it’s done. There are discussions in the literature about different methods. Sometimes done with strings, so you would put a frontal view of the object and then draw, stretch strings from the eye-point, through the picture to an oblique plane, and then you would mark out the respective points on that oblique plane. That’s one way of doing it. The way I think van Hoogstraten might have worked here, which would have been equivalent geometrically, is he might have had a bright light, had little models of the chair, and projected shadows. And the shadows would be the same as the anamorphic views, so he might have had a little chair about here, projected a bright light from the peephole and it would have cast the shadows as they are on the three sides of the box, on which the chair is painted.

Louise Govier: It is meant to be a real artistic tour de force, and van Hoogstraten has written himself into the interior of this perspective box in all sorts of ways. So he’s included his own coat of arms and his wife’s family coat of arms, and this is really a lot about him showing off his superb skill, but also what he thinks that can bring for artists, because it connects with what’s on the outside of the box, which is beautifully decorated too, and there are all sorts of little allegorical scenes about what motivates the artist. A desire for money, certainly, is one of the things, but also for fame and glory, and you know, this really is the most extraordinary surviving example of a perspective box, far more complicated than anything else, specially with the two peepholes, that’s very unusual to have two different views…

Philip Steadman: There are half a dozen boxes, but this is the only one with two peepholes…

Louise Govier: And ultimately, it seems to have been something to get the viewer curious about different effects, but also just to show off van Hoogstraten’s supreme mastery of this art.

Miranda Hinkley [in the studio]: Louise Govier and Philip Steadman

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