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Episode 53

The National Gallery Podcast

In the Episode Fifty Three (March 2011) podcast, Google Art Project: new ways of looking at Old Masters. Plus Gossaert on money, and looking at books in art.

16 min 25 sec | March 2011

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley. In this month’s show:

Take a walk around the biggest galleries in the world – without leaving home.

And curl up with a good book – inside a Netherlandish work of art.


Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): But we begin with the Gallery’s major exhibition ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’. One of the highlights is a portrait of a young man looking up from his paperwork in an office, in which a pile of coins appear on his desk.  It’s a picture that says a lot about changing attitudes to business in the 16th century, as Leah Kharibian discovered when she met up with Angus Cameron – an expert in the histories and geographies of money. To start, they visited the permanent collection to look at a rather different depiction of the world of finance.

Leah Kharibian: Angus, we’re here in front of a work painted in about 1540 by the Netherlandish artist Marinus Van Reymerswaele which shows two truly grotesque tax gatherers. The one on the left is very elderly (with a downturned mouth and horrible sagging skin) and he’s poring over an account book, while his companion on the right – well, he almost defies description. I mean, he’s fixing us with this manic stare and pulling this horrible sneer, revealing very yellow teeth, and he has one claw-like hand advancing on a pile of gold and silver coins in the foreground. It’s really not a very positive image, is it?

Angus Cameron: No, it’s not. ‘Tax gatherers’ is one way you could describe them. Perhaps more accurately, they are tax farmers. Throughout the middle ages, the collection of taxes was licensed to tax farmers who would bid for a licence to collect taxes of a particular value. Once they had that licence, they had free reign to go out and collect as much money as they could. Any money they got over the agreed sum was pure profit, so they were notorious for being ruthless in collecting money and quite brutal in doing so.

With these two, the guy writing in the ledger is probably the tax farmer himself, and what he’s writing is a list of the various taxes that he has license to collect. I think his partner (the ugly one with the clawed, veined hand over the money) is almost certainly the collector – the enforcer if you like – who goes out and extracts the money from an unwilling public.

Leah Kharibian: And so these two, they’re extraordinarily dressed in these incredibly elaborate hats. Very richly dressed as well – they’ve both got fur round their collars. Is this a form of showing off? What is it?

Angus Cameron: I guess what the artist is trying to get across is the profligacy of these people. It’s a kind of medieval bling; it’s very bad taste, everything’s rather crude.If you look behind them you can see all their paperwork is strewn across the top of a cabinet. It’s all higgledy-piggledy, all over the place, and there’s a candle dripping wax everywhere.

Very prominent on the candle-stick are the scissors used to trim the wick, which they haven’t done – they’re just wasting the candle. It’s all about waste, and the excess and moral depravity around the collection of money.

Leah Kharibian: And what of this extraordinary pile of money that seems to be incredibly carefully painted in the bottom right-hand corner?

Angus Cameron: The coinage itself is interesting. The coinage here is in a number of ways ‘poor’ money. If you look at it closely, it’s cracked, it’s split, it’s cheap money. I suspect – although the money in the painting is quite clean – I suspect we’re supposed to take from this the fact that it’s debased coin, coin in which the silver has been diminished over time. This is cheap money.

It’s poor money in the other sense, in that this is the kind of money that your ordinary citizen might use, so therefore it is the money used by poorer people. Throughout the middle ages effectively you had a two-tier monetary system. The people at the top (the merchants, the bankers and so on) would use gold coinages in their transactions, whereas ordinary people (and particularly the poor) would have these very low grade coins worth virtually nothing, that would circulate widely for ordinary transactions. The message it’s sending out here is that these tax collectors are collecting money from the poor.

Leah Kharibian: Now while we’re actually recording the Gossaert exhibition is actually being hung, and among the star pictures is this stupendous image of a man – possibly a nobleman called Jan Snoek – who’s depicted in an office with paperwork and with money. But it’s nothing like these tax collectors, is it?

Angus Cameron: No, what’s striking about the comparison between these two pictures is that in both the Reymerswaele and the Gossaert, the money occupies exactly the same position in the painting, in the composition. But the money in the Gossaert is clean. It gleams: nice, big, shiny coins. These are high value coins. Also, whereas in the Reymerswaele the claw-like hand hovers over the money – the money is a very important part of the overall composition – for Gossaert, he’s coolly ignoring it. He’s looking at us. He’s saying – ‘I’m ok, I’ve got this money. It’s not a big deal for me.’ His paperwork is also very tidy.

Leah Kharibian: So is it possible to see the Gossaert portrait perhaps as a turning point in the depiction of money and business?

Angus Cameron: Well one of the differences, the clear differences, between the paintings is that the Reymerswaele is moralising. It’s very much decrying the love of money, the obsession with money, and in fact speaks to a very old debate about money going right back to Christ kicking the money-lenders out of the temple. And so the Reymerswaele is a very popular image. People hated tax farmers; they did not like tax men, much as we don’t like them now. Whereas the Gossaert is a very different image. Obviously it’s commissioned by its sitter, so he’s not going to present himself in these grotesque terms. But it’s also perhaps a sign of the growing acceptance of the bureaucratic state.

Particularly in the Low Countries money comes to be a source of great power. The mercantile empires – particularly built around Amsterdam; the empire of money I guess you could call it, around Bruges and the other big financial centres – depend on people accepting this as a legitimate part of developed society. Whereas in the past, money was deemed to be something satanic or devilish, and perhaps that’s what Reymerswaele is appealing to. For Gossaert, it’s a calmer, more neutral, flatter, cooler image, where money is part of the general paraphernalia of power, of bureaucracy, and of government.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Angus Cameron. ‘Jan Gossaert’s Renaissance’ is open throughout the month; tickets are available from the Gallery or online with a booking fee at

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Google’s Street View you can take a walk down any road in the UK without leaving your home. Now, the company’s used the same tool to create the Google Art Project. From the Hermitage in St Petersburg to Moma in New York, you can take a virtual tour of major museums across the world.

In addition, each institution has put forward one work to be scanned using super high-resolution technology. At the National Gallery, we picked Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’ for the honour – and every brushstroke’s been revealed. To find out more, I met up with curator Susan Foister and Google’s Amit Soud.

Amit Soud: The Google Art Project brings together 17 museums from nine countries, and what it does is it allows you to zoom like never before into the artworks that have been provided. But what’s really new is also the indoor Street View, which allows you to get an idea of the museum using Street View technology; and finally something that we’ve built called ‘My Collections’, which allows you to take your favourite bits of the site and share it with your friends.

Miranda Hinkley: Susan Foister, the work that has been selected from the National Gallery to be included at this really high resolution level is Holbein’s ‘Ambassadors’. And forget megapixel, this is gigapixel technology, so visitors are able to see things that the human eye couldn’t see. What do you hope that people will be able to get from this, that they perhaps wouldn’t have before?

Susan Foister: Well, there are just so many details in this painting – and it’s such an intriguing and a mysterious painting – so I think every time you come to it, you’re probably going to see something different. And if you want to try and work out what all these objects are doing here (and people have been trying to work that out for a long, long time) you really need to be able to look at each one of them closely. Whether it’s the globe, or the lute, or some of the books, or some of the details of what the two ambassadors are wearing – it’s all here.

Miranda Hinkley: Could you point out a couple of things that perhaps people will be able to see?

Susan Foister: Well one detail, I think, that works really well, and that you can’t really see easily when you’re standing in front of the painting, is that on the globe – if you zoom into where France is – you can see this little dot indicating Polisy. And that’s the chateau that Jean de Dinteville (the ambassador on the left) actually owned, and that’s where the painting hung when he took it back home with him. Now on an ordinary globe of this kind, you would never see such a tiny place, but he’s clearly asked Holbein proudly to mark it out so everybody can see.

Miranda Hinkley: The one thing that people often notice about this work is the distorted object running diagonally. What will this project be able to tell us about that?

Susan Foister: Well, I think one thing that I’ve never been able to see all that clearly before (because it’s quite high up in the picture) is the other skull in the picture. So you’ve got this one here, and in the Gallery you need to stand at right angles and then the perspective of the skull suddenly snaps into focus.

But if you’re looking at this on Google, you can zoom into the hat of Jean de Dinteville and you can see that he’s actually got a hat-badge of a skull – a tiny little detail that’s really difficult to see otherwise. And then you can start wondering – well, is it because of the hat-badge that the bigger skull is in the painting? Why is it there?

And then, if you move across just to the left you can see that semi-hidden silver crucifix, which is another great hidden feature of the painting.

Miranda Hinkley: Is one of the aims behind this project to encourage more people to enjoy the art and then get back into the museum?

Amit Soud: Yes. I think what projects like these do is that they get art back into the mainstream audience, and I think that’s really important. And apart from that you can have an emotional connection now, because when you come to a gallery and you see a painting you have to move ahead quite quickly. But here you can really enjoy ‘The Ambassadors’ at your home, and then come here and really see the thing in real life.

Susan Foister: Well, I think this is going to give the opportunity to lots of people, all over the world, to experience something of the National Gallery’s collection, and we hope that it’s really going to inspire them more to find out about painting. Also I think it shows that you can have different experiences of the paintings in the Gallery. There’s always going to be something very special about coming and seeing the real thing here. But there’s also something very extraordinary about being able to peer down at paintings in the amount of detail that we can see ‘The Ambassadors’ in, and that gives people another kind of experience.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Susan Foister and Amit Soud. If you’d like to take a look for yourself, visit

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): As you might know, it’s World Book Day on the third of this month. To celebrate we invited the manuscript historian Catherine Reynolds along to the Gallery, to talk about a late 15th century work by the Netherlandish master Hans Memling. It’s known as the Donne Triptych, after the British patrons who commissioned it – Sir John and Lady Donne. And like many Netherlandish works from this period it features figures holding books. Sir John and Lady Donne both appear, flanked by saints and kneeling in prayer before the Virgin and Child. Lady Donne holds one book, the Virgin another. And it's with this second book – probably a bible or devotional text – that Catherine Reynolds begins. 

Catherine Reynolds: It is clearly an expensive object. It’s got beautifully gilded edges – all the edges of the leaves are gilded and punched to make patterns – and you can see, hanging down across the Christ Child’s leg, one of its leather clasps. These are needed to keep the book shut because, unlike modern bindings, these books were designed to be opened. You can see how Lady Donne’s book falls naturally very easily open and flat for reading. Because they’re designed to open, they then need clasps to keep them shut.

Lady Donne’s book is a rather more simple object. It just has text in one column (not the two we can see in the Virgin’s book) and is probably her prayer book, or book of hours – the book of the prayers to be said at the different liturgical hours of the day. Women of course had far more time to spend at their devotions – that is, women of the upper class who were not engaged earning their livings.

It’s perhaps as a sign of this, their more passive role in society – those who can pray rather than the men, who in a literal sense can go and fight, can go and make their way in the world – that Sir John simply clasps his hands in prayer, whereas Lady Donne is occupied with her book. This was a suitable pastime for women, and women were very widely taught to read. In England it was perhaps more for the upper classes, but in the Netherlands literacy spread quite far down society, and many women engaged in business would have learnt to read and count and could then use those skills to pursue their spiritual enrichment.

This is obviously a very three-dimensional object, with its two wings that will fold over the centre panel. At this date, when rich textiles were the most prestigious way of covering the walls of a dwelling, paintings were not necessarily thought of as things to hang on walls. Some certainly did, but many others were positioned on dressers or were kept in bags to be brought out and looked at when wanted. In this way they can be paralleled with books.

Just as Lady Donne’s book I’m sure has pictures – I’m sure when she’s finished looking at it, she will fold it and put it away in a bag – similarly when people have finished their devotions in front of this triptych, it can be folded and closed and a smaller painting can be kept in a bag just as a book could. In this painting, the books appear subsidiary to the main theme of Sir John and Lady Donne’s devotion to the Virgin and Child. But in terms of artistic activity in the Netherlands in the 15th century, they were not a subsidiary art-form.

Hans Memling isn’t known to have painted in books, but some of the painters in the Netherlands did work as both panel painters and illuminators, and of course there was enormous cross-fertilisation between the two forms of painting. Illuminators painting within a book had the margins around their paintings, which they could use as well as the space actually defined by the frame of their miniature. I think this encouraged them to consider ways of linking the picture to the viewer.

This encouraged a very sophisticated attitude between viewer and image, something that of course that is also found in panel painting, where artists use fictive framing devices: parapets, archways, doorways, ways that would have related the painted image to the world in which the viewer stands to look at them. Manuscript illumination was vitally important and paintings on panel can only really be understood when considered alongside the paintings in manuscripts.

Miranda Hinkley (in the studio): Thanks to Catherine Reynolds. Donne’s ‘Triptych’ will be on display throughout the month. If you’re visiting, don’t forget we’re open 10 – 6 and 10 – 9 on Fridays. You can find details of all our exhibitions and events on the website –  That’s it for this episode; until next month, goodbye.