The National Gallery Podcast: Episode Ninety Seven

November 2014

Episode Ninety Seven
Listen now - 12 mins 24 secs

Share a tender moment with Rembrandt. Plus, the fine art of Christmas cards and a touching tale about Titian.

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

First, to our major exhibition, 'Rembrandt: The Late Works' . Among the many masterpieces on display is Rembrandt’s celebrated 'Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca', known as 'The Jewish Bride'' from about 1665, in which a man tenderly embraces a woman. It might depict the famously devoted married couple of the Hebrew Bible, Isaac and Rebecca – but then again it might not. To throw some light on this enigmatic picture from a Jewish perspective, we invited Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger to the Gallery to give her reading of the picture. Leah Kharibian began by asking about Rembrandt’s relationship to the Jewish community in 17th-century Amsterdam.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: Now Julia, we don’t know who the two people in this portrait are but do you think it’s conceivable they were real individuals that Rembrandt might have seen or known in Amsterdam?

RABBI BARONESS NEUBERGER: I think it’s highly likely that Rembrandt would have known some of the Jewish community in Amsterdam. The Jewish community in Amsterdam were basically people who had originally fled from Spain and Portugal with the start of the Inquisition and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1498. A lot of them went to Amsterdam, they did very well, you can see the synagogues that they built in Amsterdam to this very day. He would very likely have known the Jewish community.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And these people aren’t known – they’re not identified – but he does seem to have dressed them not in contemporary dress. They seem to be wearing an exotic mixture of both contemporary and historical dress and this has led some people to suggest that perhaps he’s imagining them as the two figures from the Hebrew Bible, Isaac and Rebecca. Does that ring true for you?

RABBI BARONESS NEUBERGER: I think it’s quite likely that he was in some way encapsulating the story of Isaac and Rebecca and there’s this wonderful moment in the Hebrew Bible when Rebecca first sees Isaac and she falls off her camel. And Isaac had the reputation of being very gorgeous, very beautiful, a real hunk, and what we have here is apparently a couple dressed in this mixture of contemporary dress and slightly antiquated, which does suggest he’s trying to say something.

Now it could be that he’s saying that the Jewish community of the period were not wearing absolute contemporary dress and if you look at ultra-orthodox people in London today you will see them wearing 18th-century court dress as opposed to contemporary clothes, you don’t see them in jeans. So it could be that that’s the same thing. My guess is he’s trying to say this is a Biblical couple, but he’s not even dressing them in what he might have imagined Biblical clothes to have been.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: This is also commonly known however as the Jewish Bride. But do you think this represents some aspect of a Jewish marriage ceremony?

RABBI BARONESS NEUBERGER: It certainly doesn’t represent anything to do with a Jewish marriage ceremony. In a Jewish marriage ceremony the couple would not be touching, in a Jewish marriage ceremony she probably wouldn’t have been wearing red and he would have almost certainly been wearing a prayer shawl, a tallit, and not dressed as he is. It is quite possible that it is a young married couple and she’s the 'Jewish Bride' because she’s just got married, that’s entirely possible that she’s wearing a very gorgeous dress which presumably was part of her trousseau, but one of the things that it’s important to note is that in no way publically would you have seen Jews touching each other at all, let alone as intimately as that, at that period.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: So it’s really a very private moment that Rembrandt has captured here.

RABBI BARONESS NEUBERGER: I completely agree. I think it’s a very tender and wonderful portrait and I do think it is likely – who knows – that it’s a portrait of a Jewish woman that he knew who had just got married, because there’s something about the way, particularly she is portrayed, that is very loving and touching. More I think than what we get from him. And one of the reasons I love it so much is you do get this sense of looking into an intimate moment and I think that’s very beautiful.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Thanks to Rabbi Julia Neuberger. 'Rembrandt: The Late Works' is sponsored by Shell and will run through to the 18th of January. Tickets are available from the National Gallery or online without a booking fee at nationalgallery.org.uk. And the work that Julia and Leah were discussing - 'Portrait of a Couple as Isaac and Rebecca, known as 'The Jewish Bride''- features on the Gallery’s greetings cards this year…

Which takes us neatly into our next interview…

... a conversation between Cathy FitzGerald and the National Gallery’s Buying & Merchandise Director, Judith Mather – the woman responsible for choosing the designs on the Gallery’s Christmas cards. Judith took Cathy to see Pisanello’s 'The Vision of Saint Eustace', a 15th century work that depicts Eustace out hunting. He’s shown transfixed by a vision – a stag with a Crucifix between its antlers – which will subsequently lead him to convert to Christianity.

But it’s not Saint Eustace that fascinates Judith, or even the miraculous stag. It’s a detail in the bottom right-hand corner of the woodland scene: a tiny hare leaping out of the frame. Cathy began their conversation with a confession:

CATHY FITZGERALD: It’s actually I think one of my favourite corners of any painting in the Gallery. It’s just very, very magical, and the way it’s sort of bounding off into the woods. It’s got somewhere to go.

JUDITH MATHER: It has, it looks like it’s on a mission. And it has these gorgeous fleckles of paint all around it that almost look star-like.

CATHY FITZGERALD: It’s a little shimmer, isn’t it?

JUDITH MATHER: It is like a little shimmer of light. And also the way it’s painted: underneath the bottom of the hare you can see the light rising as well, and it just looks fully in movement which I think is really amazing.

CATHY FITZGERALD: How did you actually spot him?

JUDITH MATHER: It’s just going round the Gallery looking at details and it’s just trying to have an eye for something slightly different that people might not notice.

CATHY FITZGERALD: So do you spend much time doing that? Do you sneak in quietly some mornings and think ‘I’ll just have 10 minutes…’

JUDITH MATHER: I do, I do. I try to come in very early, I try to come in at eight, nine ‘o’ clock in the morning when nobody is here and there’s something very beautiful about doing that and very privileged.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And what kind of details are you looking for? What makes a good Christmas card?

JUDITH MATHER: We do really well with animals on Christmas cards, so doves, hares, peacocks and Impressionist winter paintings, but also, we have a very large religious audience, so we do very well, obviously, with Madonna and Child cards.

CATHY FITZGERALD: If people are wandering around looking at paintings trying to spot the next National Gallery Christmas card, what should they look for?

JUDITH MATHER: I think they need to look at details. I also think they need to look at the clarity of the painting because sometimes things may be beautiful but actually they don’t translate that well to printed product, so it’s about the balance between the two. Also, if you’re looking at detail, you have to look if it would crop well into squares, rectangles, because obviously sometimes there’s gorgeous details but they just don’t work.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Do you think there are more details to find, or do you think you’ve now scoured every corner of every painting in the Gallery?

JUDITH MATHER: I think there are definitely probably more details to find and it’s really lovely when we have new members of the team. So one of the tasks I always give them is to go around the Gallery and see what they can find because a fresh pair of eyes is always a really good one.

CATHY FITZGERALD: And what time of year do you have to get absorbed in snow and decide what cards are going to be for Christmas?

JUDITH MATHER: Christmas finishes and then we look at Christmas in January.

CATHY FITZGERALD: Really? You’re straight into picking the next card?

JUDITH MATHER: Absolutely. For all our Christmas lines we go to a trade show in January to look at Christmas decorations and then Christmas cards are the same time. So we always launch them in August, ready for the Bank Holiday and the peak tourist season.

CATHY FITZGERALD: So really you kind of wander around early in the morning falling in love with tiny bits of paintings – you have the best job in the Gallery!

JUDITH MATHER: Yes, I do and I’m very, very proud of it as well. It’s just lovely, as I say, getting that relationship with these beautiful art-works.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Judith Mather. The hare in question appears in Pisanello’s 'The Vision of Saint Eustace'  in Room 55 and you can also find him among the Gallery’s selection of Christmas cards, available to buy now on site or online.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): And now, ahead of Remembrance Sunday, we’re turning our thoughts to the importance of art in times of conflict.

At the beginning of the Second World War, cultural institutions in London – galleries, theatres, concert halls, museums – were closed. The entire National Gallery Collection was removed to the safety of a disused slate mine in Manod, in Wales, leaving the Gallery’s walls bare. The cultural blackout left Londoners with nowhere to go for entertainment, or solace. And so, realising how desperate people were to see great art, the then Director, Kenneth Clark, decided to bring back a single masterpiece at a time from the mines as a ‘Picture of the Month’. The first work chosen was Titian’s 1514 'Noli me Tangere' - a Latin title meaning ‘Do not touch me’.  Leah met up with the Gallery’s Curator of 16th-century Italian Paintings, Matthias Wivel who began by describing the work.

MATTHIAS WIVEL: We are looking at a picture of Christ and the Magdalene on Easter morning, painted by Titian. It shows the episode where the Magdalene recognises the risen Christ. First, she thinks he’s a gardener, random person that she sees, and then she realises it’s him. She had thought he was dead, but there he is. And he turns away from her and tells her not to touch him. So that’s what we’re seeing, and Titian sets this in a beautiful morning landscape where the rising sun emphasises this moment of resurrection and of hope.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: And I think from what you’re saying, you almost answered what I was going to ask next, which is why do you think the Director of the National Gallery, at the time, during the war, chose this work to be the first one to come out of the slate mines at Manod where the collection was housed?

MATTHIAS WIVEL: Well, I don’t know what the reasoning was but I assume that it has a lot to do with the subject matter and the way it's presented. This very hopeful, bright picture that makes you optimistic about life and about life after death too. And at a time when the country was under threat and everybody was naturally fearful of what was going to happen that would be a wonderful pause to your day. To go and look at a picture like that which is so encouraging and so life-affirming to use a cliché.

LEAH KHARIBIAN: That’s really interesting, because of course the 'Picture of the Month', which has continued right the way through to this day is an invitation to the public to come and just look at one work, to think about one work and maybe learn more about it and, interestingly, this picture was shown with contextual information and an x-ray, which is amazing to think of that all going on during the war-time. But it is an invitation to just come and look at one work and that really is important, isn’t it? Just engaging with one thing sometimes.

MATTHIAS WIVEL: Oh absolutely, and I think it’s embedded in the philosophy, the public service philosophy of the gallery, where it’s free, so you can always go, on your lunch hour or whatever you’re doing, you’re passing by, you can go in to the Gallery and look at just one picture and I think that’s one of the ideal ways of using a museum. Not feeling that you have to get your money’s worth and chase around and see all the masterpieces and take pictures of them, but to sit down in front of something you find interesting and just engage with that work of art. And at that time, obviously, having only one picture on display, that kind of engagement was emphasised and I think it’s a great way to present a work of art. You appreciate it in a different way when you are not distracted by – in this case, often other masterpieces around it.

MIRANDA HINKLEY (in the studio): Matthias Wivel, talking about November’s ‘Picture of the Month’, Titian’s 'Noli me Tangere' in Room 2. And if you’d like to learn more about The National Gallery in Wartime, there’s a Gallery book and DVD of the same title, as well as a series of events being held throughout November called ‘The National Gallery Remembers’. You can find out more on our website.

That’s it for this month. Until next time, goodbye!