National Gallery Visit
I didn’t have many preconceptions when visiting the National Gallery in London as it was my first visit. I imagined that it would be big with a lot of rooms crammed full of paintings. Arriving in Trafalgar Square there was a sense of chaos with tourists milling around dodging taxis coming down Charing Cross Road, pigeons fighting for scraps of food and people hurrying past with their heads down trying to get to work on time. Stepping inside the museum then came as a breath of calm. The noise of traffic stopped and walking up the steps felt a little bit like stepping into another world. There were more temporary exhibitions than I expected, focusing on a whole range of artists from Jan Gossaert, a Renaissance painter, to Bridget Riley who became famous in the 1960s for her abstract paintings like giant optical illusions. I decided to focus on exploring the permanent collection for now and set out to find three works to compare.
The permanent collection in the National Gallery is organised mainly by period so it’s easy to go into a room and see a lot of work from the same time. I decided for writing a comparison it would be interesting to see how three different artists had represented the same theme. I wandered into the Sainsbury Wing which focuses on work from 1250 to 1500. As a lot of the paintings dealt with religious themes I decided to compare three Virgin and Child images. The first one that caught my eye was The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Two Angels by Cimabue, painted between 1240-1302. It is egg tempura on wood and 25.7 x 20.5cm in size. Cimabue was a painter from Florence and his work could be described as part of the early Italian Renaissance. The painting looks tiny on the wall so you have to go very close to study it. It turned out that it is a small-scale version of a giant fresco in Florence. I was drawn to the flatness of the painting, which seemed very different from contemporary realistic drawing or painting. The throne in the centre of the painting half seems to extend back into the distance but half not creating an uncanny effect. I imagine it was painted before Renaissance painters created conventions of perspective for capturing the depth of human vision, although it does suggest that the painter is thinking along these lines. While it seems that he was more interested in a symbolic than realistic depiction there are also little realistic details like the baby clutching its mother’s hand. The composition of the image seems very formal with the eyes drawn to the Virgin’s head, highlighted by her halo and flanked either side by angels. The bright red of her throne stands out against the faded and cracked yellow background.
Next, I continued through the rooms back into the main building and was drawn to the work The Virgin adoring the Child with Saint Joseph by Fra Bartolommeo, dated as from shortly before 1511. The painting is 137.8cm x 104.8cm, oil on wood. It would be classified as part of the Italian Renaissance. This is very different from the Cimabue painting, both in scale and in style. The depth of the painting and the more realistic figures mean you can tell that it must come from later, when artists were using techniques of perspective more fully. The Virgin is dressed in bright red, continuing the imagery from Cimabue but rather than detached from context she is situated in a landscape with men working in the background. On closer inspection it looks like they are painting a fresco on a church wall, which seems like an interesting detail and self-aware comment on the painting process and context.
Finally, I focused on a different treatment of the same theme, The Virgin and Child Enthroned, with Saints by Jan de Beer and his workshop from around 1515-20. This was also painted in oil in wood. It stands at 142.8 x 111cm and is described by the museum as part of the ‘Antwerp Mannerist’ school, a group who challenged traditions of early 16th Century Dutch painting by using expressive figures and elaborate settings. Looking at the painting this is certainly true and seems a bit of an understatement! Against the simplicity of the two earlier images, the frame is completely filled with action and detail. The Virgin is surrounded by books and mainly female figures who are animated and expressive in their faces. Her throne is an elaborate architectural construction, covered in sculpture and what look like more Gothic style details. The colours are darker and richer than the other work and the scene overflows with a combination of realistic vitality and expression and religious symbolism such as the angels withdrawing the Virgin’s veil.
Overall then, it was interesting to take this theme and see how it had been dealt with differently over a period of time and in different locations. There are formal continuities between all three images. The essential composition of the Jan de Beer work and the Cimabue work are very similar with the Virgin seated in the middle of the frame and the eye drawn to her head in the vertical centre and slightly above the horizontal centre. It is also interesting to consider how she is represented differently in the works. Cimabue’s painting has the effect of flatness, and is detached from any background context, while Fra Bartolommeo’s work has far more depth and extends back into a realistic landscape filled with surprising small details. Jan de Beer uses more expressive postures and faces as well as an elaborate architectural framework in which to situate the Virgin. I would like to return to the museum and carry on through the galleries, as well as exploring the temporary exhibitions, which look like a good chance to focus on the work of individual artists in more depth. For now though, I will have to go back down the steps and join the noise and chaos of Trafalgar Square.