The works in this room, some of the earliest in the National Gallery’s collection, accompanied Christian worship. Some were intended as handheld objects for personal devotion. Others functioned as altarpieces and survive either complete or as fragments.
They adorned altars in churches, private chapels and convents, providing a backdrop for the Mass, which celebrates Christ’s sacrifice. Large altarpieces were among the most ambitious works of art made in Italy during this period. They were often later dismembered, and the individual panels sold as separate paintings. As a result, today, many are scattered in museums and collections around the world.
The earliest paintings shown here reveal how the gilded backgrounds and rich colours of Byzantine icons inspired Italian painters. At the turn of the 14th century, artists across Italy increasingly introduced a new naturalism into their approach. The interest in portraying physical space, human emotions and the natural world reached even greater heights in the following century, the period known today as the Early Renaissance.