Skip to main content

Episode 95

The National Gallery Podcast

A visit to the Gallery’s 'pocket collection' to see 400 years of art in a single space. Plus Raphael’s dreams and Caravaggio’s nightmares.

12 min 28 sec | September 2014

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

First, we’re off to the Mediterranean island of Malta with Research Fellow Jennifer Sliwka. She’s produced a 10-part series of short films for the National Gallery about the life and death of John the Baptist. St John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta is home to a particularly powerful depiction of the saint: a great altarpiece made by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio for The Oratory of the Order of the Knights Hospitallers.

The work shows John the Baptist’s beheading at the request of Herod’s step-daughter, Salome - and The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation kindly let Jennifer and Leah Kharibian take a look. Leah began by asking why Jennifer felt it was so important to include this particular painting in the series.  

JENNIFER SLIWKA: Well, this painting by Caravaggio is going to feature in our martyrdom episode and really that’s because Caravaggio painted one of the most iconic representations of the beheading of John and it’s extraordinary that we get to see it here, in situ.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: I see, I see. And the depiction of the beheading – it hasn’t quite happened yet, has it? John is on the ground, he’s been pinned down, but the executioner hasn’t quite finished, has he?

JENNIFER SLIWKA: No, it’s extraordinary because standing in front of this altarpiece we become witnesses to the Baptist’s death, to his martyrdom. So the executioner’s started the job, he’s already slashed at the Baptist’s neck with that sword, which is now laid to the ground and instead he’s now reaching for the dagger at his side to finish off the job. It’s a very grisly representation but you can see how Caravaggio’s actually thought through how this might happen and it would be very unlikely that you could decapitate someone in one fair swoop so it probably was a much more grisly job than a lot of other painters have represented.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And there’s this huge pool of blood at poor John’s head.

JENNIFER SLIWKA: It’s rather gruesome isn’t it? And it looks as if it’s almost coagulating before our very eyes. But rather extraordinarily, Caravaggio has signed his name in that blood, and this is the only signed work by Caravaggio. And further he’s signed not only his name, but an F. before his name for ‘Fra’, so identifying himself as a member of the Knights of Malta. 

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now you need to tell us, why is he now on Malta and why is he a member of the Knights?

JENNIFER SLIWKA: Well actually he fled Rome, rather famously, after killing a man, so he was no longer welcome in that city and he decided to flee to Malta and luckily obtained the protection of the Knights of Malta and actually became a member of their order and so was then commissioned to paint this altarpiece for their oratory. Rather unfortunately he then, once arrived in Malta, after the unveiling of this altarpiece on the feast day of the beheading of the Baptist, he then entered into another altercation with his fellow knights and was imprisoned here on the island.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: It’s extraordinary…

JENNIFER SLIWKA: And managed to flee, to the embarrassment of the Knights.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: But it’s quite amazing because we have prisoners looking out of the window on the right-hand side of the painting at this scene – it seems that art and life are mirroring each other.

JENNIFER SLIWKA: It’s true and many scholars have tried to read a biographical content into the painting. Of course, if you read the Biblical accounts this is perfectly well and in order, but the idea that Michelangelo signs it in blood, does suggest a certain affinity perhaps with the martyr.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And he loves this subject, he paints it again, doesn’t he?

JENNIFER SLIWKA: It’s a subject he comes back to and particularly after this period and he paints more specifically the next narrative moment, the moment that Salome’s receiving the head of John the Baptist and the National Gallery owns a rather beautiful  representation of that painting and rather extraordinarily Caravaggio may have painted it after fleeing Malta, after he left Naples and he may have well painted it for the Grand Master here in Malta, and then he sent it back, sort of as an expiation of his sins as a way of re-ingratiating himself with the order.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Did it work?

JENNIFER SLIWKA: Unfortunately not. He was de-frocked in absentia in this very room in front of his own altarpiece.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: But that National Gallery picture is just one depiction of St John the Baptist, but you’ve discovered that in fact St John the Baptist is to be found throughout the entire National Gallery collection.

JENNIFER SLIWKA: Yes, once you look for him, he’s everywhere and that’s something that we’ve tried to do with these episodes is really not only follow the life of St John the Baptist through many different guises and ages but also look at a variety of works from the very earliest works in the collection, all the way to the 19th century. 

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And you can see these online for free?

JENNIFER SLIWKA: Yes, and we hope you’ll enjoy them.


MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): With thanks to Jennifer Sliwka and The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation. If you can’t make it to Malta, the National Gallery’s Caravaggio – entitled 'Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist' - is on display in Room 32. And you can watch the entire John the Baptist film series by visiting the National Gallery website or the Gallery’s YouTube channel. 

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Now, to an early work by an Italian Renaissance master, a small picture you might not have noticed on your visits to the Gallery. Curator Carol Plazzotta reminds us of the joys of looking closely at paintings as she tells Cathy FitzGerald why she loves Raphael’s 'Allegory', an intensely coloured painting from the first years of the 16th century that depicts a young knight asleep, dreaming of two very different women…

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: For me, it has a fairy tale quality. Right at the heart of the picture is the young knight, who is asleep, dreaming, reclining against his red shield and he is posed very gracefully… perhaps not entirely un-self-consciously, and he’s got this wonderful outfit on with his shiny armour, brilliant blue tunic, orange tights, shiny greaves covering his shins. He really does look the picture of elegance and the height of fashion.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And tell me about his dream?

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: Yes, well, he’s visited by two female figures. On the left is Virtue and she holds out a sword standing for military valour if you like, and a book, standing for scholarly pursuits and so obviously she represents the virtuous interests that a good knight should aspire to. On the right-hand side, we have Love and she holds out a flower and she’s also got wound around her this lovely coral necklace and she also has a flower in her hair, and her drapery is a lot more seductively arranged with her blue dress hitched up at her hip.

Almost growing out from the knight’s heart is a bay tree. That stands for enduring fame and it acts as a kind of hinge between the two sides of the picture and it also divides the landscape background, so near to Virtue – and exactly above her book – is a craggy mountain which was the difficult route to virtue, which you have to pursue going uphill, but the reward is to get to that beautiful golden castle on the hilltop. Not so unlike in spirit the castle in Urbino where Raphael grew up and of course we mustn’t forget he was only 21 when he painted this, it’s very much a young man’s picture. And on the other side of the bay tree is this serene, beautiful valley, not arduous at all – and this is the way towards Love, Elysian Fields in the background.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And she’s actually curled in towards him – if we were body language experts looking at a photograph…

CAROL PLAZZOTTA: Yes, yes, she’s definitely more seductive although it has to be said that he is inclining towards the other. But I think the thing about this picture for me is the fact that he is not choosing; he is almost combining these aspects. This is the knight who has it all in many ways. And it’s of a size that you hold in your hand and I’m quite sure that it was not designed to be stuck on the wall as we have it today, but it was probably kept in a little velvet bag or somewhere very, very private like a study or something and it would have been taken out to be looked at and I think young men do dream of their future or things that they hope for and it is a picture that really does express that spirit and I feel that Raphael had the same spirit as he was painting it and his patron was probably a very young man on the verge of getting married, so it sort of combines everything.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Carol Plazzotta, talking about Raphael’s 'Allegory' in Room 60.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): After a two-year refurbishment, Room A - which houses the overspill of pictures from the permanent collection - has re-opened to the public. Hung in broadly chronological order, the elegant ground-floor display features more than 200 works and offers visitors the chance to experience four centuries of painting in a single space. Special Project Curator Colin Wiggins took Leah Kharibian on a tour of just a few of its delights.

COLIN WIGGINS: The lower gallery has been completely re-modelled to give you this sense of light, air, space that allows the pictures to be displayed in a way that really is more proper to an art gallery, where people can appreciate them and respond to them as works of art.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And what’s really beautiful about it is that it’s like the most beautiful pocket collection of the entire history of European art from the 13th to the 19th century and it allows things to be displayed it seems in ways that you can’t upstairs. Is that right?

COLIN WIGGINS: Yes, we can make connections here in a way that’s more difficult. Here, for example where we’re standing now, where we’ve taken images of the Virgin Mary, sacred pictures, by a whole range of different artists from different geographical locations and put them altogether, enabling visitors to have a look at the different ways that the Virgin is depicted, the different signs and symbols that are associated with her, and see an extraordinary display of obviously one of the key players in the National Gallery’s collection.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And yet when we turn round a corner we’re in a completely different world.

COLIN WIGGINS: Right, well, yes, we’ve walked for what, 10, 15 seconds and suddenly we’re in the 19th century. We’ve traversed centuries. And we can see at one end of the display, the beautiful Rosa Bonheur's 'Horse Fair' and this is actually a kind of two-thirds replica of the original picture that’s now in the Met in New York. It was made by Rosa Bonheur and her life-long companion, Nathalie Micas. Rosa Bonheur is a fascinating character. She smoked, she had her hair cropped short, she wore men’s clothes and she lived with her friend, Nathalie. She was an avid feminist as well, so here’s to Rosa Bonheur.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: I think that’s what’s so lovely about this re-hang of Room A; it’s these connections. It’s like somebody’s given me the chance to see new stories. Whichever glance I make, I’m taking in new pictures, new stories and it’s the most delightful hang.

COLIN WIGGINS: Well, new stories and old stories because alongside the Rosa Bonheur there are paintings by Monticelli. Now, Monticelli… who he? But Vincent van Gogh totally loved the work of Monticelli. It’s now extremely unfashionable. We’ve got a fair selection of his works but we don’t put them upstairs because the general critical opinion now is that they’re quite dreadful and we wondered what on earth Vincent was doing thinking these things were so wonderful. But, but, but another contemporary artist who really responds to Monticelli is David Hockney. So come and have a look – it gives viewers today an opportunity to make that judgment for themselves who’s right: contemporary critical opinion or Van Gogh and David Hockney.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Colin Wiggins. And if you’d like to take up his invitation, Room A is open to the public every Wednesday and on the first Sunday of every month.

That’s it for this episode. If you’re visiting don’t forget we’re open 10 'til 6 daily and 'til 9 on Fridays. Until next time, goodbye!