Anyone who had the pleasure of being in London today will know the weather was monsoon- monstrous. The diagonal downpour rendered my umbrella useless. The roads were flooding. Thinking that my knee wasn’t strong enough to tackle slippery streets in stilettos, I made the foolish mistake of changing into a pair of ballerinas that I keep, in my bag for emergencies. Oh what a fool I was, ‘what an addlepated fool’. Within seconds, my pumps confirmed my earlier idea that I should have worn wellies. I slowly squelched my way to the National Gallery. The lady in front of me actually lost a shoe as hers were so wet so I suppose I should count myself lucky but really there is nothing worse than wet feet!
Now that hand driers are so high tech even my cunning plan of drying my feet in the loos was a failure. I was destined to remain uncomfortable so I headed to the exhibition leaving a trail of wet footprints behind me. Unusually, for downstairs at the National Gallery, Devotion by Design is free of charge. Although the works are drawn mostly from the Gallery’s own collection, this does not dilute the exhibition especially as some are not normally on public view.
Niccolò di Pietro Gerini, Baptism altarpiece, 1387. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
The exhibition considers altarpieces in context, examining their structure and relationship to the surrounding architecture, following the formal, stylistic and typological developments across the period of concern. It also looks at how they have been dismembered and displayed independently and out of context. Until now, the Rogier van der Weyden work upstairs (from a 15th century Netherlandish altarpiece) was the best example of fragmentation of which I was aware. We are fairly certain that this fragment, known as The Magdalen Reading, has come from the lower right-hand corner of an elaborate painting showing the Virgin and Child with Saints. Scholars have ascertained that the Magdalen was cut down to its present shape before 1811 and then, between approximately 1845-1860, moved to its new mahogany support. When the picture was cleaned in 1955, an area of brown overpaint, that covered the red drapery on the left-hand side, was removed and this revealed two feet that protrude from the drapery. Two other fragments from the larger altarpiece survive and using this, and a 15th century drawing of the Virgin and Child, it is possible to show how the fragments would interlink. In the National Gallery exhibition of 1999, the three fragments were brought together in an attempt to make modern reconstructions more easily understood.
Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading, before 1438. Image via www.nationalgallery.org.uk.
One of the fascinating things about altarpieces is the sheer variety of works that come under this category. An altarpiece is an image-bearing structure placed upon or behind an altar in a Christian church. Usually painted, it often forms the focus of devotion. The size, construction, complexity and decoration will vary depending on the location and original commission. Although this exhibition focuses solely on Italian altarpieces from the 13th-15th centuries the range is still immense.
The exhibition opens with a glossary of Christian worship and a plan of an Italian Church; I was impressed by the wall labels and this continued throughout. The paintings in the first room show altarpieces in context, for example van der Weyden’s The Exhumation of Saint Hubert where the altar is decorated with an altarpiece, a reliquary set and a tabernacle.
Rogier van der Weyden and workshop, The Exhumation of Saint Hunbert, late 1430s. Image via http://en.wikipedia.org.
Perhaps the rain seemed to have encouraged more art ‘experts’ than usual and I could have been entertained for hours, listening to people’s comments in the gallery. As I stood quietly taking notes, the guard came up and said to me ‘I am so pleased to have you in my room, it’s a great pleasure’. Sadly, I kid you not!
I had thought I’d pop in and out of the National today but this exhibition and these works demand respect, they were after all destined as objects of religious prayer. In the second room, two altarpieces, constructed 70 years apart, are displayed together intentionally to be contrasted. The works are free-standing so we can see both sides. The backs of the objects tell a story as well and the glossary that continues on the walls helps to explain these objects. Through these two altarpieces, we are able to examine the formal changes undergone in the 15th century when a multi-panelled polyptych in a Gothic frame developed into a unified rectangular pala. By being able to circumnavigate the structures, it’s possible to understand the different constructions.
Room two in Devotion by Design. Image via www.independent.co.uk.
Crivelli’s La Madonna della Rondine, which remains in its original frame, from a side altar at San Francesco dei Zoccolanti in Matelica, looks exquisite in these dimly lit rooms. This work was jointly commissioned and the interests of both patrons are represented with the left-hand side showing clerical interests and the right-hand side lay interests.
Carlo Crivelli, La Madonna della Rondine, after 1490. Image via www.guardian.co.uk.
Interestingly, in the same room, the National Gallery have been able to include a reproduction of the contract for the Gozzoli altarpiece, designed for San Marco, a Dominican convent in Florence. It is amazing to see the detail and how every element has been considered and discussed. It not only names each Saint for inclusion but also stipulates their positions. The network of relationships involved in commissions, whether they were private or through a religious confraternity, is fascinating. Altarpieces represent the will of patron rather than artist in many cases.
Room Four has been turned into a chapel, evoking the interior of a Tuscan church, c. 1500. The positioning of the benches, the music and the dim lighting create a mystical atmosphere. The high altar has two candlesticks and an altar cross for celebration of mass while, around the edges of room, different styles of altarpieces show how the progression of design has changed over time. As the 15th century moved on, so did artists’ practices and ideas as perspective was introduced and new styles of altarpieces evolved.
Luca Signorelli, The Circumcision, c. 1490-91. Image via www.intofineart.com.
As the exhibition progresses, it focuses more on dislocations. This affords us the opportunity to study why these were they taken apart. Historians and scientists are working to reconstruct these fragmentary pieces using incredible modern technology such as x-radiographs, infrared photographs, diagrams and virtual reconstructions. As the final room shows, sometimes it is very hard to know if these fragments or large-scale paintings were, or were from, altarpieces at all. Without specific evidence of the original context we can only ever guess. Altarpieces were commissions to express and aid Christian devotion and were not intended to be viewed individually. Art historians will always be stuck in debate and will always have different opinions.
Fra Angelico, Blessing Redeemer, c. 1423. Image via http://en.wikipedia.org.
There is no denying that it is wonderful to be able to see an altarpiece in the location in which it was intended but the fragments shown throughout this exhibition illustrate that this is not always possible. It is sometimes hard to imagine the magnificence and intricacy, the subtleties and complexities of the original altarpieces but the encounter created here by the National Gallery is the perfect substitute.
This exhibition is informative, educational and fascinating. It considers these objects in their original context, as well as their new homes in galleries, following their lives and histories. This exhibition makes use of the National Gallery’s permanent collection, showing the strength of research they have carried out.
I thought I knew these images well but they have been rediscovered and presented in a new light. I hope this exhibition encourages people to look more closely at the altarpieces in the gallery upstairs as well. Devotion by Design deserves more time than I had today and it is certainly an exhibition I will revisit. I’d even forgotten my wet feet until I left and the spell of devotion was broken.
Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500 is at the National Gallery until 2nd October 2011, www.nationalgallery.org.uk.