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Episode 36

The National Gallery Podcast

In the October 2009 podcast, Director Nicholas Penny shares some inside knowledge. Plus preview 'The Sacred Made Real', and find some sun at the Gallery.

17 min 4 sec | October 2009

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Hello. I’m Miranda Hinkley and this is the National Gallery Podcast. In this month’s episode: the Director of the Gallery, Nicolas Penny, explains why picture frames deserve more attention than they normally get. And, as the days grow shorter, we look to Turner for a little extra sun.

The Sacred Made Real

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we start with news of our autumn exhibition, The Sacred Made Real, which opens on the 21st of this month. The show brings together paintings and painted wooden sculptures by some of the greatest masters of 17th-century Spanish art. Few of these works have been seen outside Spain and, by way of a preview, Leah Kharibian visited the National Museum of Sculpture in northern Spain to find out about a sculpture that, when it arrives in London, looks set to be a star of the show.

Leah Kharibian: Here I am in the historic city of Valladolid in northern Spain to meet Xavier Bray, the National Gallery’s curator of ‘The Sacred Made Real’. He’s here filming one of the sculptures that will be coming to the show, which is housed in the really very beautiful surroundings of the old medieval college de San Gregorio, which is now the National Museum of Sculpture. And I’m just going to come through this magnificent carved gateway and through a courtyard and hopefully I’ll find Xavier inside.

Well, I’ve come up into the galleries and there are some film lights up ahead, so I’ve come to the right place. That’s the sculpture that Xavier is filming. Well, how to describe her... she’s full height – polychromed, obviously, so she’s painted to look incredibly lifelike. She has wrapped round her what seems to be this extraordinary piece of rush matting, that’s knotted to form a dress, knotted about her waist with a rope. And she’s got her hair loose over her shoulders, one hand pressed in distress almost against her chest, and in the other hand she’s holding a crucifix at which she’s staring. Let me see if I can find out more about her. Xavier, hello – thank you so much for seeing me. I wondered if you could start really by telling us who she is and who made her…

Xavier Bray: Well, it’s Mary Magdalene posing as a penitent and the person who made her is one of the greatest sculptors of 17th-century Spain, Pedro de Mena, who sadly is completely unknown outside Spain, but in his day was recognised as one of the greatest sculptors around. He mainly worked in Malaga in southern Spain. Basically he’s used different bits of wood that he would have carved separately, which he would then have united by sticking them with animal glue and nails. Then he would have covered her with white gesso and basically added colour to it, so for example, for the rush matting that makes up her…

Leah Kharibian: Is that carved wood?

Xavier Bray: That is carved wood, yes. It looks like gesso, but actually when you get close to it you can actually see the vein of the wood, so they’re very thin sheets of wood that he would have carved and then assembled together, and the rope… I mean, most people think it’s actually real rope, but when you get close it’s…

Leah Kharibian: It’s wood!

Xavier Bray: It’s wood, yes.

Leah Kharibian: Oh, that’s extraordinary.

Xavier Bray: And the knot is something out of this world. Then it’s the hair… that’s the other thing. The top part has been carved on her head but the actual long locks of hair are made out of wicker…

Leah Kharibian: So like wickerwork you get in baskets…

Xavier Bray: Exactly. And that would have been gessoed and painted and stuck on with nails to the main part of her… wig, let’s say.

Leah Kharibian: You make it all sound like woodwork or something with nails and glue and stuff, but she is completely beyond all that – she is real, she is lifelike, and she looks so modern – I mean she’s like a Ron Mueck or something…

Xavier Bray: Completely, and, I mean, what does it, I think, are the glass eyes, and as soon as the eyes have been inserted into her mask from behind – because that was carved separately and hollowed and then these glass eyes that were painted from within were inserted – that suddenly brings life to her face and her expression. But it’s also the polychromy which Pedro de Mena did himself. He applies these beautiful skin-tones across her face, but also across her arms and then for the lips he uses a very light pinkish red and then around her eyes, the fact that she’s been crying has made her eyes slightly reddish, the fact that the salt has affected the skin-tones… those details are amazing. And then the teeth are made out of ivory, so it really makes it just lifelike. Of course, this kind of sculpture would shock a lot of people, particularly in the 19th century when we admired Greek sculptors and sculpture without colour, but I think hopefully it is time now for people to reappreciate this type of sculpture which is coloured. 

Leah Kharibian: And she’s coming to London – you must be thrilled.

Xavier Bray: It’s a miracle in itself that she is coming to London. It’s been very difficult to persuade lenders and she particularly is very fragile. But it is amazing that such a masterpiece of sculpture should be coming to London to be appreciated by an audience who hopefully have never seen anything like her ever before.

Leah Kharibian: No, I think you can say that. I’ve never seen anything quite like this at all. Thank you so much.

Xavier Bray: Pleasure.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Xavier Bray. We’ll return to ‘The Sacred Made Real’ next month; until then, you can find out more and book tickets in advance on our website:


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Next: frames are a ubiquitous presence in galleries, but few of us know that they’ve often got an intriguing history in their own right. One man who does is Nicholas Penny, Director of the National Gallery (and the author of a pocket guide on the subject). Leah Kharibian went to find out more.

Leah Kharibian: Nick Penny and I are standing in Room 9, one of the most palatial rooms in the National Gallery, surrounded by some of the collection’s most grandiose works from 16th-century Italy. Now, Nick, few people here, it has to be said, are looking at the frames surrounding the pictures, and I know that you think they’re fascinating objects and you’d like us to take a closer look, but as beginners where should we start? 

Nicholas Penny: Well, I think people are looking at them even though they don’t know they’re looking at them, because frames affect the way you see a picture; they isolate the picture; they separate it from things around it, and so that even if you don’t know that you’re affected by a frame, you probably are. And one question that one should always ask is, what colour really is this frame? Most people will say – well, it’s gold, isn’t it – and you can actually then point out that there are different colours to the gold. I don’t just mean that the gold is often dirty, or often tarnished, or deliberately toned. I actually also mean the gold itself can be a different colour. And when one becomes alert to that, one also tends to become more alert to what gold does to the actual colours in the paintings themselves. It certainly and most obviously always makes blue more brilliant…

Leah Kharibian: Blue?

Nicholas Penny: Blue is a very important colour because it’s the sky – you know, you like to know when you’re in the sky – and blue is a very important colour because the Virgin Mary wears it and so on, but blues are always affected by gold and so of course in a different way – not by contrast, but by affinity – so are all the oranges and reds in a picture. They can seem more radiant, more jubilant as a result of the gold frame. 

Leah Kharibian: Now we’re actually standing in front of a really very beautiful frame that surrounds a portrait by Jacopo Bassano of 'The Good Samaritan’ (helping the wayfarer who’s been beset by thieves), and this is actually quite interestingly a very pale gold, isn’t it?

Nicholas Penny: Yes it is, it’s a very beautiful gold – it’s the original gilding and it’s a beautifully carved 17th-century frame. Now it’s not the type of frame that Bassano would have had around his pictures, but it is an old Italian frame of the kind a picture by an artist like Bassano would have acquired in the 17th century. So what we’ve got here is a great old painting and a great old frame and they look well together. It’s the type of frame which is fairly expensive now and we don’t have a special government grant for buying old frames, so we are dependent on private individuals who contribute to helping us buy frames. This was bought by Dr and Mrs Horren for us and they’ve bought other frames for us and we’re very grateful to them – it’s a very imaginative thing for a supporter of the Gallery to do.

It’s a very ornamental frame, every surface is carved, as you can see. Only after a while do you realise that it contradicts one of the really basic things about frames, which is a very important elementary structural purpose of enabling you to carry a picture around and protecting a picture, especially if the picture has glass in it or something like that. Now this frame is very very vulnerable because it’s got all these little points, like the ends of tongues or shields, and then the little ends of leaves…

Leah Kharibian: All round the edge…

Nicholas Penny: All round the edge and of course when we acquired the frame it was in very good condition, but many of these were broken; they had to be restored in our framing workshop – it took ages – but it just reminds you that this designer was much much more interested in the aesthetics of the frame, than in the practical uses of frame making.

Leah Kharibian: And are you hoping that in the future there will be more information available about frames in the Gallery?

Nicholas Penny: Well, both in the galleries, and of course on the website, where it’s perhaps easier to provide more information. I think it would be very good if we always told the public whether or not they’re looking at the original frame, and in exceptional cases it would be good if we’re telling them that we’re looking at a really important and beautiful frame.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Special thanks to Nicholas Penny. The National Gallery ‘Pocket Guide to Frames’ is available from Gallery shops and online at


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): If you’re missing the summer sun now winter’s on its way, our final interview is for you. We tend to take the sun for granted in paintings as we never do in life – skipping over it in the background to look at the scene it illuminates. But as Robert Mighall, author of the cultural history 'Sunshine', explains, there’s a fascinating story behind its representation in art.

Robert Mighall: I was writing a book about the sun and thought I’d investigate it in art. So I walked around the Gallery one day and it struck me that really you didn’t see the sun in the skies of art, not until the 17th century. You see things that kind of look like the sun, but they’re not actually the sun. They’re more sort of yellow, golden discs that serve another purpose, which is really there to enhance divinity. The most obvious example of this is the halo, which is really just a solar disc. It was used on pagan gods – the Roman god of the sun had this convention of when he was personified he had this disc around his head to show his golden rays and that was just quite literally… the assets of that were stripped and used in Christian iconography from then onwards. So that’s where we get the halo from.

But there are other examples as well, which is where the sun is quite literally the vehicle for divine presence, for divine manifestation in the terrestrial world. A good example of this is Treviso’s painting 'The Adoration of the Kings' from around 1524. It’s quite a chaotic painting; it’s got the holy family in the centre, but also a whole host… a great chaotic crowd of people that have come to, in a sense, observe what’s going on. The holy family are quite natural; they’ve only just got halos – it’s more like little golden smudges on top of their head – and they’re within this scene of everyday life. It could easily be by Brueghel but in an Italian setting. But then when you look above the horizon, there’s this rather bizarre manifestation which is something that looks like the sun – a great golden disc bursting through the skies – and a whole host, a whole heavenly host, look like they’ve hitched a ride on it, like some vast solar surfboard that they’ve ridden into town on. It could easily be something from Monty Python.

Miranda Hinkley: I mean it seems completely disconnected from what’s going on below. It does have a quite comedic aspect.

Robert Mighall: Well, it’s quite surreal. The world, the naturalistic world, is depicted with reasonable fidelity; I mean, it’s quite naturalistic, there’s the laws of perspective, there’s a lot of showing off of the new kind of tricks of art, if you will, so that’s all well and good – that’s all very natural. And then there’s this other world, the world above, which seems to… which doesn’t obey those rules. It obeys its own rules. I think that’s very typical of the depiction of the skies before the 17th century, before landscape painting, before people started painting landscape as a subject in its own right. The world was the world and the heavens were the heavens – they were the skies, but they were also the heavens, a space where anything could happen. And I think the idea is that the sun is part of the heavens, so it’s distant and remote and still very very god-like and awe-inspiring.

Miranda Hinkley: So what happens, Robert, as we move through the centuries – is that something that changes?

Robert Mighall: When you get… when landscape comes into its own as a subject of art, the skies and also the sun start to become more naturalistically represented, more recognisable as the sun, rather than this kind of vehicle for divine manifestation.

Miranda Hinkley: So we’re now in front of 'Ulysses deriding Polyphemus' and this was painted in 1829. Completely different depiction of the sun…

Robert Mighall: The thing about this painting is that the sun is the most important thing that’s going on there. What’s interesting is he… the title indicates that this is a history painting, which was considered at the time the most important genre and certainly the one you could charge the most money for. So he’s depicting a scene from Homer’s 'Odyssey', which tells how Ulysses has blinded Polyphemus, he’s tricked Polyphemus, and they’re riding away, and he’s now deriding him – he’s kind of taunting him – but really you’d be forgiven for not seeing that immediately and not being able to identify the principle actors in this drama. Polyphemus, the Cyclops, is this kind of lowering shape that’s blending into the mountains over on the left. And Ulysses is very nearly lost in the crowd on the ship – a ship hanging all over with people, crowded with people and you can just about make him out because he’s depicted in red.

But really the real star of the show and the thing that really interested Turner is this spectacular solar sunset over on the right-hand side just above the horizon, and it really dominates the picture. Everything about the composition draws your eye towards this sunset. You’ve got the rocks and the brow of another ship there, that really just frame it and draw your eye towards it. And really you can see that’s the thing that interested him most and that’s very typical of Turner, specially in the later paintings, and this is considered a turning point in that respect, where he went from… he became obsessed with this idea of depicting sunlight, making the intangible, tangible. So really he uses the pretext of a history painting to start exploring that, and we see that in later paintings where he really, in a sense, abandoned the pretext of a different kind of genre, and just started to study light, explore light, and try and make sunlight tangible.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Robert Mighall. If you’d like to see Turner’s 'Ulysses deriding Polyphemus' in person, come along to the Gallery. We’re open 10 till 6 daily, and 10 till 9 on Fridays, and you can visit the permanent collection free of charge. And don’t forget, if you can’t come in person, you can view all the paintings we’ve talked about online at

That’s it for this month; until next time, goodbye!