A Visit to the Temple of Art

A few weeks ago we left our safe haven at the seaside in St Leonards-on-sea for one of our increasingly rare forays up to London. We had an urge to view some of our favourite artists and paintings in the National Gallery; it had been many years since we visited there and we were anxious to use our time to the best advantage for the few hours that we would be visiting. But how? The National is a forbidding place and a person can be totally overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of art and all enjoyment can be lost.

So we decided on a more structured approach and to concentrate on a number of iconic pictures, in the region of about 25 to 30 in chronological order, ignoring other paintings as we moved round the galleries. A tall order, but were we successful? Well up to a point; we saw about 20 on the list, but added some more on the way. Believe it or not, we were distracted by some of the other great art in the galleries.

This is the story about a few of the highlights and, inevitably, the disappointments of our day, where we attempted to cover 600 years of Western Art history in a few hours. I will concentrate on describing some of our favourite paintings up to the end of the 17th century from the visit. The later centuries will be the subject of a subsequent article.

We started in the medieval era, surrounded by hundreds of altar pieces and other religious icons, but we had only one picture on our radar and that was the famous ‘Wilton Diptych’, from the end of the 14th century, and we were not disappointed by this exquisite work of art, which looks as fresh today, as it did when it was made over 600 years ago. This brightness was obtained by the use of tempera, where egg yolk is mixed with pigment, and gold leaf, giving a brilliant and long lasting permanent finish. The right hand panel is suffused in ultramarine on the angel’s dresses, the pigment made by crushing the semi precious stone, lapis lazuli, an incredibly expensive technique, but resulting in the most ravishing blue you’ll ever see.

The two panels show King Richard II kneeling in supplication, surrounded by three saints, before the Virgin and Baby Jesus. The detailing is magnificent from the intricate robes through to the detailing of the faces and jewellery, a true medieval masterpiece.

Wilton Diptych c1395 artist unknown

Next on our list was the enigmatic ‘Arnolfini Portrait’ or ‘Arnolfini Wedding’ by Jan Van Eyck from 1434, probably one of the most famous pictures in the world and rightly so. Who are these two rather formal figures? If it’s a wedding, why does the bride look pregnant? Whose is the reflection shown in the mirror? Finally, and, perhaps, more frighteningly, why does the man bear an uncanny resemblance to Vladimir Putin?

The picture depicts the house of a wealthy merchant and his wife, and although the Arnolfini Wedding is an alternative title of the painting, most experts believe that the couple would have been married for a number of years. As to the lady’s condition, it was the fashion at the time to look fecund, even if you weren’t expecting a child, so the ladies pulled up their dresses and looked coy. It is believed that the reflection in the mirror could well be of the artist Van Eyck, as artists of this period often liked to sneak themselves into the picture.

The technique is superb and the photograph does not do the painting justice; to see it in real life, close up, shows the wonderful mastery of Van Eyck in creating an image that almost has a physical presence in the room. Gaze and marvel at the detailing in the every aspect of the painting.

Unfortunately, the Putin resemblance, once seen can never be unseen, and I will never be able to view this painting in the same light again.

The Arnolfini Wedding – Jan Van Eyck 1434

Following on from the Van Eyck, we took in the ‘The Baptism of Christ’ by Piero Della Francensca from the 1450s and then onto an old favourite of mine ‘Venus and Mars’ by Botticelli from the early Renaissance, which portrays an idealised version of human beauty and was a big influence on the 19th century Pre-Raphaelites, who also happen to be one of my guilty pleasures.

Venus and Mars – Sandro Botticelli c1485

However there was no time to waste, because next on the agenda was our date with the greatest genius of the Renaissance and arguably of all time, Leonardo da Vinci. As I entered the Da Vinci gallery, I felt a frisson and goosebumps on the arm. But why? it made no sense. Was I suffering from Stendal’s Syndrome? Apparently, according to Wikipedia, “Stendal or Florence syndrome is a psychosomatic condition involving rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion and even hallucinations, allegedly occurring when individuals become exposed to objects, artworks, or phenomena of great beauty and antiquity.”

My symptoms, luckily, did not seem so extreme, but something was definitely was happening. It’s cause was an unfinished sketch in charcoal and chalk, displayed in low lighting, because of its age and poor condition. It shows the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus together with the figures of John the Baptist and St. Anne, who has a finger pointing up to heaven. Somehow, this modest picture, with the figures balanced in perfect harmony, evoked some sort of psychological reaction, for which there is no rational explanation. Leonardo the magician.

Virgin and Child with St. Anne (Burlington House Cartoon) – Leonardo Da Vinci 1499-1500

From the sublime beauty of the da Vinci, we braced ourselves for the one of the most horrific paintings in the National, by Caravaggio, the Quentin Tarantino of the Renaissance. Caravaggio was a master of the technique of Chiaroscuro, the using the contrast between dark and light, to create dramatic effect.

Painted near the time of his untimely death at the age of 38, possibly following a brawl that resulted in sepsis, he had been on the run following his sentencing to death for murder in another fight. Here was clearly a man with a few anger issues.

This painting captures perfectly the uniqueness of Caravaggio, where he frequently used the people, from the streets of Naples and elsewhere, as models for his paintings. The executioner, holding John’s head, looks like a ruffian from a street gang, whilst Salome looks away from the head, possibly in disgust or maybe regret, at what she has requested . As the saying goes “Be careful what you wish for.”

Salome Receives the head of John the Baptist – Caravaggio c1610

Another painting, another betrayal. This time, its Samson and Delilah by Peter Paul Rubens. Having exhausted Samson with her vigorous lovemaking, Delilah orders a servant to cut off Samson’s hair, thus destroying his strength. In the painting, she looks on tenderly at her lover, as she contemplates her treachery with perhaps a hint of regret, while an old crone lights up the scene holding a candle. But its all too late, as the Philistines are already in the doorway, waiting for the hair to be shorn, so that he can be captured into enslavement and have his eyes gouged out. For all those who know their Bible stories, Samson gets his revenge, as later when his hair has grown again, he pulls down the temple on top of himself and all the Philistines.

This is a wonderful example of how the great masters could tell a complex story with a few images and perfect composition.

Samson and Delilah – Peter Paul Rubens c1610

I realised with regret, as we wandered round, that there had been no woman artists on our list, so this needed to be remedied. Luckily, we spied this wonderful painting next to the Caravaggio, by Artemisia Gentileschi ‘ Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria’, which was purchased by the National Gallery in 2018 and has been extensively restored.

There’s more to this self portrait than appears at first sight, Saint Catherine was a Christian Martyr who died after being tortured on a wheel with iron spikes and on the left of the painting you can see St. Catherine chained to the wheel. Artemisia was raped by her art tutor at the age of 17 and she had the bravery to take him to court. What did she get for her bravery? The court tortured her to check whether she was telling the truth, but she would not be cowed and her fortitude won through, resulting in her attacker being jailed.

We now view this painting in a totally different light, Artemisia stares out through the centuries, a defiant and strong woman, who refused to be held back by the male dominated society that she lived in and who went on to become a great artist on a par with the likes of Caravaggio.

Self Portrait as Saint Catherine of Alexandria – Artemisia Gentileschi c 1615-1617

The next painting on our list was ‘The Rokeby Venus’ by Velasquez, which we found rather disappointing. It felt too voyeuristic and in bad taste, especially straight after the magnificent Artemisia portrait. Viewing a painting is a very personal affair and we have no control over our reactions and the subjective feelings that are aroused. Perhaps, we were already thinking about our next assignation with that master of miniature stories, Vermeer.

The Toilet of Venus (The Rokeby Venus) – Diego Velázquez 1647-1651

There are only two Vermeers in the National and one was on loan when we visited, so we ended up seeing ‘Young Woman seated at a Virginal’. Like all Vermeer pictures, you feel as though you are intruding on something intensely personal, a secret that one can only guess at. The girl, as she plays her instrument, looks out at us with a frank gaze, as though to say, why don’t you join me. There is a Viola propped up against the Virginal, waiting to be played; is she expecting a friend or a lover? With Vermeer there is always ambiguity, but there are hints here; in the background is a copy of a famous painting of the time, set in a bordello. The implication is therefore clear, but as a viewer, we are also a participant in the scene and the story is ours to finish.

Lady Seated at a Virginal – Johannes Vermeer c1670

You cannot visit the National Gallery without seeing the greatest Dutch artist of the 17th century, Rembrandt. With over 23 wonderful paintings to choose from, it was difficult to pick just one, but in the end we went for one of his self portraits at the age of 63. It is a selfie like no other, an unflinching glimpse into the artists own soul, warts and all, a tired old man painted not long before his death. It was an uncomfortable painting to view for too long, we were tired and felt intimidated by his accusatory stare.

Self Portrait at the Age of 63 – Rembrandt 1669

So we left Rembrandt and moved on to the next few centuries to finish our visit, but my impressions on the 18th and 19th centuries are for another day. Suffice to say, we were tired and slightly overwhelmed, despite limiting ourselves to a chosen number of masterpieces.

We returned home to the seaside, rather weary but happy, having reacquainted ourselves with some of the greatest art that the world has known.

Published by John Bostock

Retired and living in St. Leonards on Sea, but still learning about life. All views are my own.

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