A Shadow of the Divine Perfection

by Gurpreet Sihat

As a three-month lockdown turned into six months, then nine months, then a persistent issue moving through its second year, the ease with which I was manoeuvring through the global pandemic became increasingly difficult. There were multiple deaths, hospitalisations, and hospices; my stress and anxiety amplified; I lost almost all my clients; and inspiration and the will to write and create became non-existent. It would have likely stayed that way if it wasn’t for the National Gallery and the Medici.

Through their patronage of the arts and humanism, the Medici were one of the most significant influences on the growth of the Italian Renaissance. They helped turn it from artistic experimentation to a movement. They went from working in textiles to becoming bankers, from de-facto rulers of Florence to becoming Popes and Queens. Along the way, they patronised artists such as Donatello, Botticelli, da Vinci, and Michelangelo, architects like Brunelleschi and Michelozzo, and scientists like Galileo who went so far as to name Jupiter’s four largest moons – what he called the Medicea Sidera – after the four Medici brothers.

The Medici are the string that ties together everything I love about culture. During the first lockdown, I found a book about them sitting on my shelf. I devoured it and bought a fifty more. I dove deeper and deeper into the Renaissance, reading Machiavelli and Alberti, discovering the Borgia and Sforza families, following whatever path they led me down. But words didn’t feel like enough, I wanted to see it all. I wanted to stand in a room with all the greats I was reading about. Italy was out of the question, but the National Gallery was my answer. 

It began with a single online art history course offered online that covered the 1500s and took me from Florence to Rome and Venice. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more! I bought myself a membership, enrolled in course after course and filled my calendar with weekly talks. I discovered new things, fell in love with new people, and became intrigued by history in a more tangible way.

And then, finally, last Monday, the doors of the National Gallery opened once more. Ever since I was a child, the National Gallery has been a go to place on a day out. As soon as I was old enough to get the tube by myself, I was spending at least one day a year there or stopping by whenever I was in the area. But visiting when they reopened last week was a completely different experience. I stopped to look at work I would normally have walked past, I could identify artists by the style of the painting, I knew the stories behind the paintings I was looking at. 

For years I’ve been told I should be a tour guide. The past few months that became more specific: be an art guide! That’s how Words from the Art was born! What better way to introduce you to this new part of my blog than by this post: Eight paintings you NEED to see at the National Gallery, that last year I wouldn’t have recommended. A little bit of a mouthful, so why don’t we quote Michelangelo instead: The true work of art is but…A Shadow of the Divine Perfection

The Madonna of Humility by Lippo di Dalmasio [circa 1390] 

Before the pandemic, anything gilded would barely have received a passing glance. Not anymore! This Lippo di Dalmasio was one of my favourite new discoveries at the National Gallery. Dalmasio was a Bolognese painter during the overlap between the Gothic and Renaissance eras. The piece references the Book of Revelation which describes the Woman of the Apocalypse as “a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars.” The moon in the bottom right would have been silver leaf, though its colour is now faded, and the Virgin Mary’s cloak was a bright blue azurite which would have stood out against the sun and symbolises hope and the healing power of God. Images of the Virgin Mary sitting on the ground are known as ‘Madonna of Humility’, hence the name of this piece, but this is more than just a religious painting. It’s a tender moment between mother and child, and that’s what really stands out about this piece for me.  

The Battle of San Romano by Paolo Uccello [circa 1438-40]

Uccello painted three large scenes from the Battle of San Romano; the other two are currently in the Louvre, Paris, and the Uffizi in Florence. This particular piece shows the Florentine commander, Niccolò da Tolentino, leading the attack, though it glorifies Florence and their victory rather than showing you what really happened. The knights wear field armour instead of battle armour, the details are taken from parades and tournaments rather than war, and Niccolò, himself, is wearing a mazzachio instead of a helmet. In fact, he hasn’t even got a breastplate on over his mail! What’s important about this piece isn’t the battle between the Florence and Pisa, it’s the battle between the decoration and gilding of the Gothic Era, and the linear perspective of the Renaissance that was developed by Brunelleschi. While anything gilded seems to lack depth, you can see Brunelleschi’s ideas in the debris of the battle, the broken lances in a grid-like pattern. This experimentation is why I have a soft spot for this piece – that and the fact that it was part of Lorenzo de’ Medici’s collection, but that’s a drama for another day. 

The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele at Rome by Andrea Mantegna [1505-6]

Imitating sculpture with paint was a technique that Mantegna invented, and he was a true master at it. There are many of pieces of this style that I’m on the fence about, but I do love this one. It’s one of the artist’s final pieces and definitely one of his best. In the final years of the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage, a meteor shower struck Rome. The Romans consulted a book of prophecies, and in it read that the only way to win the war was to bring the Goddess Cybele (who fell to earth as a meteor) to Rome for worship. That’s exactly what Mantegna’s depicting here – a spherical stone and a bust of Cybele being carried to Rome for worship. Note the crown on the bust’s head resembling the fortified city walls. She’s accompanied by priests from Asia Minor, their exoticism displayed by their robes and turbans. While the marble-esque swirling orange and grey background feels out of place in some of Mantegna’s paintings, it really helps to capture the backstory of this piece for me – the meteor shower and the battle being fought.

The Adoration of the Name of Jesus by El Greco [late 1570s]

I’m on the fence with El Greco – not that I’m holding a grudge against the fact that he told everyone Michelangelo was a good man but didn’t know how to paint (though he got his comeuppance when Rome ousted him, and he was dubbed a foolish foreigner). He’s part of the Mannerism movement which exaggerates proportion and creates compositions which are asymmetrical, unnatural, and downright unnerving. There’s something about this piece, however, that makes me think twice. It’s meant to be a celebration of the Holy League’s victory against the Turks in the naval battle of Lepanto. The figures in the foreground are key figures in the battle: Doge Alvise I Moncenigo, the head of Venice, wears the gold robe with his back to us. On his right in the black with the white ruff is King Philip II of Spain, and beside him is Pope Pius V. The man with his arms outstretched is said to be Don Juan of Austria, the fleet commander. It seems more like a Last Judgement piece than a celebration of victory. In centre of the top quarter, the letters IHS radiate light. IHS is a shortened version of IHSOUS, the Greek spelling of Jesus. As those on the left-hand side (which would be the right of Christ) move through Purgatory where they’ll be cleansed of their sins and await their ascension to Heaven, those on the right-hand side (Christ’s left) go to be consumed by the hell-mouth, here depicted as Leviathan, a mythical sea monster from the Old Testament. 

The Finding of Moses by Orazio Gentileschi [early 1630s]

The National Gallery has been trying to buy their first Orazio Gentileschi painting since 1995, and it’s FINALLY happened. The Finding of Moses is one of their brand-new acquisitions. It was painted during the Tuscan artist’s twelve-year residence in London, commissioned for Queen Henrietta Maria to celebrate the birth of Charles II. For those of you who don’t know the Book of Exodus (or who only recall the plagues of Egypt and the Ten Commandments, which is fair enough), after having forced the Israelites into slavery, Pharoah decreed that all new-born sons should be killed. Jochebed saves her son by pushing him out on the River Nile in an ark of bulrushes. He’s then found by the Pharoah’s daughter who names him Moses (meaning ‘to draw out’). It’s easy enough to recognise the figure in gold as the Pharoah’s daughter, the kneeling child in green as Miriam (Moses’ sister) and the woman behind her as Jochebed, but it’s the pointing figures on the right-hand side who had me intrigued. It turns out Henrietta Maria had this painting hung in her private apartments on the west wall. The figures point towards a window, and through the window is the River Thames, likely joining up with the English countryside in the background (yeah, that’s definitely not Egypt!). That just goes to show that there’s always so much more to a painting than we first believe. 

Flowers in a Glass Vase with a Tulip by Rachel Ruysch [1716]

Rachel Ruysch was a Dutch still-life painter with a career spanning over six decades. While I’m not one for flower paintings, I’ve found I do love Ruysch’s collection. They usually show flowers at various stages of bloom in intricate arrangements that spill out of a vase against a dark background. There’s a realism to them, with thin petals and brittle leaves and reflections of the window on the surface of the vase. It may be a still-life, but it’s filled with movement – from the perfect droplets of water to the insects hidden among the foliage. But when I learned that the flowers don’t bloom at the same time, that realism became something else entirely. Could these paintings really be vanitas paintings? Closely related to the memento mori, vanitas paintings are designed to remind the viewer of their mortality and the worthlessness of material goods and worldly pleasures. All beautiful things fade. All living things die. Nothing lasts forever. Under that gaze, Flowers in a Glass Vase is far more than just a pretty bouquet.  

Whistlejacket by George Stubbs [circa 1762]

I always thought Whistlejacket would have some great feat linked to his name, like Secretariat or Seabiscuit or Red Rum. Turns out, he wasn’t the most successful of racehorses, but he was considered a prime specimen of pure-bred Arabian stock with his rich, coppery chestnut colour, auburn tale and mane, delicate ears, and large, wide nostrils. This painting was commissioned by Charles Watson-Wentworth, the second Marquess of Rockingham and one of the richest men in England. The artist, George Stubbs – who had spent eighteen months in Horkstow, dissecting and studying horses – had an unsurpassed knowledge of horse anatomy at the time. Some believe that this painting is unfinished, though there is no evidence to support such a claim. Not only is Whistlejacket’s back is too small for a rider, but there’s a similarity between the painting and equestrian sculptures who bear the same pose. Note the fact that his tail reaches the floor, a trick used in sculpture to balance the weight of the animal’s body. He may not have been the greatest of racehorses, but Whistlejacket is right up there with the best of them now.

The Horse Fair by Rosa Bonheur [1855]

I’m sticking with the theme of equestrian paintings for my final choice, though this time the focus is on the artist. Rosa Bonheur is a badass! During Bonheur’s lifetime, it was forbidden for women in France to ‘dress like men’. She was one of a dozen women who received a legal permit to wear trousers, allowing her to enter places restricted to men only, including stables, horse fairs and slaughterhouses. Because of this, she was one of only a few women who were able to gain financial independence and become a professional artist rather than be limited to pursue it only as a hobby. The National Gallery’s version of The Horse Fair is four times smaller than the original (currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York) and it captures the sights, smells, and noises of the fairs which were held twice a week. Here, she shows handlers demonstrating the strength and mobility of Percherons – a breed of draft horse known for their muscular builds and intelligence. The painting is crowded with men, but do you see that figure a little off centre, astride a chestnut mount, staring out at us? That’s Rosa! Immortalised as she was in life – a woman every bit as powerful as the men who dominated her world and who wasn’t afraid to prove it. 

I know I’ve hit my eight, but I just had to shine a little light on this NEW LOAN: 

Polyptych: The Crucifixion and Saints by Bernardo Daddi [1348]

Bernardo Daddi was an early Italian Renaissance painter. It’s believed he was a pupil of Giotto, and his early works show a close link to the Florentine master’s. He spent his life working on religious works and altarpieces. This polyptych, The Crucifixion and Saints is the last documented work of Daddi, signed and dated the year he died. It was made for the Church of San Giorgio a Ruballa, just outside of Florence. The crucifixion takes up the middle panel, with the Virgin Mary fainting on the left, Mary Magdalene kneeling at the foot of the cross, and indifferent soldiers gambling to the right. In the other four panels, Daddi includes eight saints. I’m not entirely sure how long it will be at the National Gallery, but it’s definitely one to check out if you’re able to.

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