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Episode 89

The National Gallery Podcast

The Veronese exhibitions launches. Plus cooking tips for Lent from Velázquez and when is an altarpiece like a jigsaw?

12 min 36 sec | March 2014

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): This is the National Gallery Podcast and I’m Miranda Hinkley.

First up, a much-anticipated exhibition opens this month as part of our ‘Renaissance Spring’ – ‘Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice’. This is the first time that the great 16th century Venetian master has had his own show in the UK - and with masterpieces coming from all around the world, it looks set to be dazzling… not least because Veronese’s paintings are immense; works on a grand scale that will take up the full height and length of the Gallery’s largest walls. One of the artist’s greatest admirers is National Gallery Director, Nicholas Penny. He told Leah Kharibian why when they met ahead of the exhibition opening, in front of Veronese’s ‘Family of Darius before Alexander’... a vast, brilliantly coloured painting that depicts the meeting between Alexander and the family of his defeated enemy, the Persian Emperor.

NICK PENNY: Veronese was a great decorator and I know that if you say that it sounds really disparaging, but why not? Why shouldn’t artists work together with great architects to create magnificent interiors?

Veronese was an artist who probably first made his reputation as a fresco painter, decorating the great new villas of the Veneto. Came from a building, architectural background – his friends were architects and he was very, very accomplished at painting architecture as you can see from this picture, and as a subject, this subject seems first to have been painted by Veronese himself earlier as a fresco decoration for a villa. The figures in the painting are very large and they make you as you look at them feel larger yourself, so it made you feel better and bigger as a human being and I think that’s probably the one element in the painting, which you know we’ve lost today, because although it looks splendid in the semi-palatial interiors of the National Gallery, it presumably was designed very, very carefully to fit the interior of a villa. But that’s an interesting point about it – it is actually one of the few paintings I think in the National Gallery which comes extremely close to Renaissance fresco decoration.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And just to give us a brief taste of what visitors can expect, I thought I’d ask you about one of the great loans to the exhibition, the Louvre’s 'Supper at Emmaus' of about 1555 and it’s an early work by Veronese but it’s already so wonderfully original and brilliant and so Veronese.

NICK PENNY: Yes, well Veronese liked painting slightly more people that was absolutely necessary in almost any composition. Faced with the subject of Christ and the Supper at Emmaus, you only need Christ, two disciples and a bewildered innkeeper – that’s it. And an artist like Poussin, I think probably would have been very distressed to have any more because it would have reduced the drama. But actually there was a convention in Venice, which was a relatively recent convention, I think, of showing the whole family witnessing a religious episode, or being presented to the Virgin or whatever. But what’s so comic about this is that the supper at Emmaus is going on and it’s not just the gentleman who commissioned the picture probably, and his wife, but all the uncles as well. Venetian families, you know, they were organized so they shared a palace – different floors and so on occupied by different parts of the family – and that’s what you see in this picture if you analyse it…

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And children too… and pets…

NICK PENNY: Children and pets, I mean this is of course, very, very nice and Veronese, you feel he’s a very good natured person, his idea of the human family always includes women of course and always includes children. He’s very, very happy if people have daughters, which of course they weren’t necessarily happy about themselves, and then dogs. But it’s a family picture, painted I think probably for those great long… a portico, the long central room in a Venetian palace which was used for dining, so that’s a nice thought too. You do feel that there’s something very agreeable about this idea. It’s a really quintessential and exceedingly original picture by Veronese. It does epitomize much of what was special about him as an artist and it is fantastically generous of the Louvre to lend it.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Nicholas Penny talking about Veronese’s 'Supper at Emmaus', which will be on display along with 'Family of Darius before Alexander' and a host of other masterpieces, from the 19th of March.

'Veronese: Magnificence in Renaissance Venice' is sponsored by Credit Suisse and will run through to June. You can buy tickets from the National Gallery or online with a booking fee at

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio):  Painted when he was only just 19, Velázquez’s 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' is a virtuoso still life set in a kitchen. The work takes its name from a strange scene in the top right-hand corner of the picture - variously interpreted as a view through a serving hatch or a painting within a painting - which depicts the New Testament story of Christ’s visit to the sisters Martha and Mary. But we're going to focus on the cook in the foreground of the picture, who we see hard at work beside a table spread with food. Art-historian Karly Allen explained to Cathy FitzGerald why the young girl and her ingredients may have particular relevance at this time of year.

KARLY ALLEN: Well, like a lot of people I have been looking at this painting for a long while and I thought I really knew it but fairly recently I came across this suggestion that the objects on the table relate specifically to Lent and what seems to be at first glance a selection of very ordinary items of food and vessels, actually would have added up for a lot of people at the time to a typical Lenten dish: fish simply presented with garlic mayonnaise, aioli. So no frills, nothing special and as a lot of families did, giving up meat during this period.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And it is a very tactile picture, isn’t it? We’re not allowed to reach in and touch it but you do want to rather.

KARLY ALLEN: I think the way that we respond to this picture is really through all the senses and while we’re looking we are thinking about how that would feel to touch. The fish are wonderfully slippery, they have really jellified eyes, they are arranged in this interlaced pattern and right next to the fish is a jug that is only half-glazed so if you imagine running your fingers over it, you have the smoothness of the glaze and then the rough quality of the unglazed earthenware. And even there we have the detail of the rings around the jug that reveal how the jug has been made with human hands so it does seem to be about touching.

There is at the front the most wonderful depiction of eggs, I think, in any painting in the Western European tradition. Two eggs that have been placed on this dark glazed plate. There is much debate about the quality of these eggs. Are they eggs in their shells and therefore quite expensive, white, shelled eggs… or have they been hard-boiled and peeled? And if you ask a group of people, it usually divides everybody. It seems that people are very…

CATHY FITZGERALD: … exercised by the eggs.

KARLY ALLEN: … very exercised – people believe very firmly one way or the other, which just shows that we are convinced by what Velázquez is trying to do, either way, he wants us to believe in those eggs.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And the garlic at the front, the very papery garlic…

KARLY ALLEN: Mmm… these smooth slippery surfaces are contrasted with the crackling skins of the garlic, there’s a quite dried up chili and then the shine on the metal pestle and mortar, so it does seem that he is presenting this range of textures for us and perhaps that makes us reconsider the meaning of the very suggestive expression on the younger woman’s face as she works on her Lenten meal. Some people read this as very solemn, almost tearful look – they believe they can just see tears brimming in her eyes… that’s it’s a very searching look, as she turns away from the ingredients and turns directly to us, as if she’s asking us, well, what action will you take, what will you do for Lent?

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Karly Allen, talking about 'Christ in the House of Martha and Mary' in Room 30. 

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now to another exhibition in our ‘Renaissance Spring’ season. Since it opened a few weeks ago, ‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’ has been giving visitors the chance to see some of the Gallery’s masterpieces in a whole new light.

One of the exhibition highlights involves eight 15th century panels by the Master of Liesborn. These are usually hung separately around the walls of Room 64. So, before the exhibition opened Deputy Director, Susan Foister, took Leah Kharibian to see them to explain the unique opportunity the exhibition offers to assemble these panels into something very impressive indeed. She began by describing a particularly beautiful panel by the Master of Liesborn.

SUSAN FOISTER: Well, it’s the story of the annunciation, so there’s an angel on the right-hand side wearing a flowing white robe and over that a very beautiful cloth of gold cloak and the angel’s come to announce to the Virgin Mary in blue on the left that she’s going to bear the infant Christ. And they’re together in a really beautiful room… it’s a depiction of an interior that may reflect what rooms of this type looked like towards the end of the 15th century – it’s a very comfortable room. There’s a bed and there’s a wooden bench with some really comfortable looking cushions on it.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Absolutely fantastic the cushions – they’re beautifully decorated as well.

SUSAN FOISTER: Yes, they are and the decorations are quite intriguing. One of them shows a stag in a landscape and it also reflects some of the decoration of the floor because there are some rather lovely colourful floor tiles which look rather Spanish style and there are also leaping stags there and one of the thoughts around these depictions have been as to whether the stag had particular significance, perhaps for somebody who’d been involved in commissioning the altarpiece, but we can’t be certain about that.

Now, you’re mentioning an altarpiece and I think when most people come to this room they might well just look at this and appreciate the work as a work on its own, but by the time people are actually listening to this podcast, they’ll be seeing this work in a slightly different context. Could you explain?

SUSAN FOISTER: Yes, this is just one piece of a very large altarpiece, the altarpiece that was commissioned for Liesborn Abbey in Westphalia in North West Germany in 1465 or soon after that and we in the National Gallery are lucky to have several pieces of this altarpiece. Some of the fragments are today in the museum in Munster in Westphalia, but sadly some of the other pieces of the altarpiece are lost forever,

So in the exhibition we have the chance to put our pieces together with photographic reproductions of the others that survive in order to show people the scale of this altarpiece – and this is something we can’t do in the Gallery, it was a very large altarpiece and as we see it currently in the Gallery I think you don’t really get a sense of that, but in the exhibition there’s a chance to show what it really looked like and the way in which it must have impressed the Benedictines for whom it was made in the Abbey of Liesborn.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): You can see the reconstruction of the Liesborn Altarpiece for yourself from now until May by visiting ‘Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance’. Tickets are available from the National Gallery or online with a booking fee at And there’s also a special combined offer with our other ‘Renaissance Spring’ exhibition. Present your 'Veronese' ticket at the ticket desk and see ‘Strange Beauty’ for only £5. Check the National Gallery website for terms and conditions.

That’s it for this month - if you’re visiting, we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays.

Until next time, goodbye!