Seeing and Believing

Anne Gardom experiences the Audio-tour The Life of Christ at the National Gallery

There are seventeen pictures in this audio-tour at the National Gallery. The commentary that accompanies them is clear and straightforward, giving first a quick outline of the story, a reading from the Bible, and then some comments on the picture itself and possible ways of interpreting and understanding it.

When painting the Life of Christ, the artist has to show a man who is also God, and make clear that the incident he is portraying is not just of historical interest but also involves the viewer in their own time and space. As we go round we begin to appreciate how various artists handle these issues.

Christ’s birth

The first picture is the very large painting of the Annunciation by Crivelli, painted for a church in a prosperous Italian town. It was painted as an altarpiece and was therefore intended as a background to the celebration of Mass, an important thing to bear in mind when one sees it, hanging, beautifully restored and lit, on the walls of an art gallery. The local citizens would have identified with their patron saint, kneeling beside the Angel Gabriel, holding a little model of the town. The Feast of the Annunciation was the day on which the town received papal privileges (as demonstrated by two well-dressed men exchanging a document in the background), so the Annunciation is, in effect, a double celebration of good news.

Quite different is the small jewel of a painting of the Nativity by the Flemish artist Geertgen. This is a visual exposition of St John’s Gospel, showing Christ as the light of the world. The tiny naked Christ-child is the source of light for the whole picture, the faces of the Virgin and the awestruck rejoicing angels are illumined by the light shining from his body. If you look closely you can see that the artist has even painted the finest of gold lines radiating out from the little baby.

The Adoration of the Kings by Botticelli is an elegant circular painting, where Christ is shown as a king receiving the gifts of kings. The powerful Mercantile Guilds of Florence had an annual Twelfth Night procession, and the richly dressed crowds of merchants and passers-by portray just such people, united in the worship of Christ the King.

Piero della Francesca’s painting of the Baptism of Christ is one of the gallery’s most well-loved paintings. The Baptism is shown as a moment frozen in time, the turning-point when the Divinity of Christ was made visible and recognizable. Christ is immobile, standing in the very centre of the picture, deeply withdrawn and reflective, knowing and recognizing his Sonship and all that it will bring. The clarity and stillness of the picture draw us into a moment of eternal tension.

His ministry

The Raising of Lazarus by Sebastiano de Piombe is another large altarpiece, and here the figures and the gestures are so emphatic and grand that the picture is best viewed from the far end of the gallery! The struggle between life and death stands out broad and clear, and is painted for all believers to see and understand.

Titian painted The Tribute Money for the deeply religious Philip II of Spain. It is a picture of sharp contrasts. Christ is shown serene and calm, gazing sternly at the Pharisee who is threatening and provocative, holding the coin in a gnarled and knobbly hand. In the background is another Pharisee, bespectacled (a metaphor for spiritual blindness).

Artists found it much easier to depict Christ’s actions than his teaching, and the El Greco of Christ driving the Traders from the Temple demonstrates this clearly. A dramatic and energetic Christ flails at the confused melée of traders. The expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden echoes here.

The two pictures by Rembrandt are quite different from each other. One is the dark haunting painting of the Woman Taken in Adultery, set in a cavernous vaulted Temple, showing the figures of the Pharisees crowding round Jesus, while the sobbing woman, dressed in brilliant white, kneels at his feet. The other is a small monochrome painting, intended as a study for an etching, where Pontius Pilate is surrounded by the grotesque and hideous figures of the Pharisees, while Christ stands, remote and detached, in the background – the light shines brilliantly on the distorted shouting faces, rejecting, hating, the Light they will not recognize. The impassive statue of Caesar, laurel-crowned, is set against the figure of Christ, crowned with the crown of thorns.

The Passion

Honthorst painted Christ before the High Priest in 1617 and it was an immediate sensation. Again the play of the light illuminates both the picture and the incident – the candlelight flickers on the calm face of the bound Christ, the documents on the table, and the eager, aggressive, questioning face and dramatically upraised finger of the High Priest. It is a very large painting but it has an intimacy and impact that takes your breath away.

Bassano’s Way to Calvary is a twisting, turbulent painting. Christ is falling under the weight of the cross. Veronica has torn off her veil, revealing elaborately plaited hair, and offers it to comfort Christ. We are part of the crowd, the low viewpoint of the picture involves us in the action – or does it?

Christ Being Nailed to the Cross by the Flemish painter David is disturbing and challenging. It is a small painting but the taut white body of Christ stretches across it. The brutality of the soldiers as they force Christ’s feet down under the nails is a dreadful reminder of man’s cruelty to his fellow men. Christ’s eyes are fixed on us, the spectators, from his position of rigid agony. Are they pleading, accusing, demanding? We do not know how to respond.

In Raphael’s Crucifixion, triumph and redemption are portrayed rather than human pain and suffering. A huge and beautiful Christ hangs on the cross, and the four figures at the base include St Jerome. Angels with chalices poised on far-away clouds capture the sacred blood, a confusion of perspective that emphasizes the eternal and unearthly – the clear blue sky and dreamlike landscape set the cross and figures in heavenly surroundings.

Resurrection

Finally, Titian again. Noli Me Tangere – where Mary Magdalene recognizes Christ in the garden, one of the National Gallery’s most famous paintings – the kneeling Magdalene reaches forward to touch Christ, and he, in a gesture of simultaneous tenderness and withdrawal seems to move away and bless her at the same time. The ground on which she kneels is rocky and bare, but beneath the feet of the risen Christ spring green shoots of grass and behind him the landscape and sky are suffused with a golden light.

It takes about two hours to do this audio-tour justice. It is a valuable and illuminating way of looking at such paintings. It could be a group study, an artistic exercise, or an individual pilgrimage.

 

The National Gallery is free – but donations are welcome.

Anne Gardom is Art Critic of New Directions.

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