Skip to main content

Episode 100

The National Gallery Podcast

In our final episode, we visit a grand altarpiece, a glittering cross, and a gritty view of working-class life in 20th-century Manhattan.

Please note that since the recording of this episode, one of the paintings featured, The Madonna and Child with Saints, has been taken off display

11 min 19 sec | February 2015

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): We start with the news that this is our one-hundredth – and our final – episode. The National Gallery Podcast began back in 2007 and over the years we’ve loved having the opportunity to spend time with the paintings and with people who are passionate about them. We hope you’ve enjoyed listening – and that you’ll stick around for our three final conversations.

First, to a work by George Bellows, one of the most original American painters of the early 20th century. Bellows arrived in New York in 1904 at the age of 22 and was almost immediately marked out as an innovator thanks to his audacious sense of colour and his fascination with distinctively American themes. He wanted to capture the rapidly expanding metropolis in all its gritty energy, and in Men of the Docks – a large-scale, vigorously painted depiction of workers gathered on the New York waterfront on an icy winter day – he succeeded. Art-historian James Heard took Cathy FitzGerald to see the picture.

JAMES HEARD: So what we’re actually looking at here is a painting of, I think, immigrants. I mean here they are, they look absolutely disconsolate. They’re waiting for the foreman to give them the eye so that they might work on this day. And these are men… who are they… Italians, perhaps, they’re from Eastern Europe originally, they’ve come from Antwerp on the Red Star line, and here they are trying to actually make a living in the city of steel. I mean, I think this is an extraordinary painting because they have a glimpse of lower Manhattan, but on one side we have this steel wall of this luxury liner and then on the other side of the painting, this gloomy warehouse. They are trapped and that’s what’s so moving about this. But everything you look at seems to be iron and steel.

CATHY FITZGERALD: It’s very blunt, isn’t it? It’s very blunt, it’s very angular, quite thick paint.

JAMES HEARD: Absolutely, it’s very kind of oily paint and it’s almost as if the paint jumps out at you. You don’t feel the old tradition of looking through a window…

CATHY FITZGERALD: Ah… it’s more as if we’re being pulled in. We’re standing among the day-labourers and that would explain the feeling of cold.

JAMES HEARD: And it is… he painted it in February in 1912. There’s snow on the ground, in some places it’s melted and there’s this awful kind of mud ,and you feel the damp getting into their shoes and even the East River is partly iced up. Some of them are hunched. They’re together and yet not talking. And the kind of heaviness of the trousers, clotted with mud and dirt. And there’s a really forlorn figure on the left, hunched up in the cold. Is he one of the group that is going to get work or perhaps he’s decided he ain’t going to get work? There’s no sentimentality about this – this is as it was. And it summarises for me the kind of last century. These are the people who are actually creating a modern world. It’s a depressing world, but it’s an exciting world at the same time.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Well, and it’s our world as well, isn’t it?

JAMES HEARD: It is absolutely our world, I can relate to all of these people. I mean it tugs at my heartstrings, it’s so powerful.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): James Heard talking about Men of the Docks by George Bellows, on display in Room 45.  

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to the warmer climes of Rome, and an astounding altarpiece from the first half of the 16th century in which the Virgin and Child appear in a blaze of light. Created by the artist Parmigianino, the work is enormous … over three and a half metres in height. But made for a tricky space in a chapel it’s narrow too, just a metre and a half wide. Parmigianino used this vertical format to maximum advantage to produce a masterpiece of powerful, visionary art. National Gallery curator Matthias Wivel is a fan and when he met up with Leah Kharibian, he began by describing what The Madonna and Child with Saints contains.

MATTHIAS WIVEL: It shows the Virgin and Child, sat upon a crescent moon in the clouds with heavenly light emerging behind them. In front, we have Saint John the Baptist pointing towards them and looking at us and between him and the Virgin and Child, we have Saint Jerome asleep on a bed of grass. You’re looking up his nostrils basically, and there’s no better way of showing somebody asleep: the mouth a little open, and eyes closed and nostrils visible. It shows somebody who’s really asleep.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Is this meant to be his dream?

MATTHIAS WIVEL: It’s uncertain exactly what the significance is. The putative title of the painting is the 'Vision of St Jerome', but that is something that came in the 19th century. We do not know why Parmigianino chose this, but it clearly is a deliberate choice. It’s an extremely dramatic, intense picture, and I think that is something that can be generally said for all of Parmigianino. He is somebody who paints visions, he does not paint reality, he paints imagined scenes of visionary quality. And in order to convey the power of a vision, he layers on the effects. And what he does, he gives us something that is impossible.

We have this figure of St John, torqued, in an impossible posture at the bottom, like a spring wound up to fling our gaze toward the Virgin and Child at the top. The Christ Child… the very long, very mature Christ Child is projecting towards us. He’s sitting between Mary’s legs, but he’s moving out and sticking out his foot at us, almost as if he’s coming out of the painting. And I think that’s really an important part of visionary depictions of the Virgin and Child, that they seem to project towards the viewer, out of the picture.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: The way he really seems to be literally stepping out of the canvas and also the way that John the Baptist, I suppose, really skewers us with that gaze – there’s an extraordinary story told about the effects that this had on viewers in the 16th century…

MATTHIAS WIVEL: Indeed, the story is that during the sack of Rome, the traumatic destruction of the city by the German troops in 1527, Parmigianino was painting this and some soldiers burst into his studio while he was painting it and saw it, and were so impressed by it that they decided to leave him be and let him get on with his work. We don’t know whether the story is true, but it is certainly a very good story and one that rings true when one looks at the painting, which is so impressive it really would stop one in one’s tracks.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Matthias Wivel. And you can find The Madonna and Child with Saints on display in Room 8*

*Please note that since the recording of this episode, The Madonna and Child with Saints, has been taken off display.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Now, to one of the earliest works in the National Gallery’s collection: a jewel-coloured crucifix created by the Master of Saint Francis, an artist active in Umbria in the mid-13th century. Art-historian Laura Jacobus of Birkbeck College, London, believes it could have been commissioned by church authorities in response to what was happening at the time: a mass movement of extreme religious fervour, which saw groups of men and women wander the country whipping themselves; their aim to identify with Jesus as he carried the cross. Laura met up with Cathy FitzGerald to explain, and began by describing Christ’s body on the crucifix.

LAURA JACOBUS: Everything about the figure is drooping. His head is drooping, his loin-cloth hangs in drooping folds and his whole body is limp. It’s drawn in this swooping, curved line that actually gives you the impression that it’s falling slightly outwards from the cross and downwards. And then to either side of him, on a smaller scale, there are little figures and they show the figures at the Crucifixion. Mary, the Virgin Mary, is collapsing and Mary Magdalene is catching her and holding her, scooping her up in her arms, but together they form this mass of curved lines that’s just tumbling to the floor and it’s beautifully done.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And we stand and look at it in a gallery, but back in the 13th-century when it was made, it would have been experienced in a very different way, wouldn’t it?

LAURA JACOBUS: Absolutely, it looks pretty certain that this was once a double-sided cross, so it had another scene of the Crucifixion on the other side of it. It’s been sawn in half at one point. And the reason we think it was double-sided, is that it was made to be carried in processions. But around the time that this was made – and it’s made probably shortly after 1260 – people began processing through their towns, flagellating themselves, that is whipping themselves…

CATHY FITZGERALD: … that doesn’t sound like a fun day out…

LAURA JACOBUS: … it was not a fun day out, it wasn’t meant to be a fun day out. The idea was that they were trying to share Christ’s pain and there are instances as well, where the crowd would attack people who didn’t want to flagellate and they would say that they were possessed by the devil, so there was obviously a sense of this being out of control, that this potentially good thing was really overwhelming established religion and threatening the social order.

CATHY FITZGERALD: So how does this Crucifix fit into that story?

LAURA JACOBUS: Ah, well the cross comes into it because the church, as well as being worried by this, also wants to harness it. It wants to take what’s good from this feeling and bring this feeling back into the church where it’s under control, but also beneficial. So they make these kinds of processions their own. And something like this cross could be used in processions, but with a kind of church sanction to it, so now the procession wouldn’t wander all over the place, it would tend to go from one church maybe to the cathedral. And, with an object as beautiful as this, the streets were lined with people, they could all see it, they could all feel what they were meant to feel, this compassion, this sense of penitence, but the church is stepping in, taking control of this movement and funnelling it in socially acceptable ways.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And so the idea being that instead of literally re-experiencing Christ’s suffering, we re-experience it through the image.

LAURA JACOBUS: Yes, so instead of doing all these wild and extravagant demonstrations of your faith, you can meditate instead, and the image is doing it for you. But what a beautiful way to do it.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Laura Jacobus. The Crucifix by the Master of Saint Francis is on display in Room 51.

If you’re visiting we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays. That’s it from us. Thanks for listening over the years, wherever you are in the world, Goodbye!