Heavenly treasures: Divine altarpieces

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

The National Gallery's exhibition of medieval and early Renaissance altarpieces is a divine alternative to the summer blockbuster, says Adrian Hamilton

There can't be many shows where the curator says that he can't wait for you to see the back of the works on display.

But that is what the National Gallery's new exhibition of Italian medieval and early Renaissance altarpieces does, the point being to demonstrate the way that these works were constructed.

It may seem nerdish but in fact it's enlightening and rather fun. Testing the wood, seeing the way its grain runs and where the dowels and joints were placed can help conservators tell where the bits and pieces of the great altarpieces, long since broken up for sale, were originally placed and how the whole structure once looked.

And there's an artistic point, too, in the way in which painting style changed as the construction moved from a piece made up of multi panels organised around vertical struts (polyptych) to one based around a single rectangular panel (pala), which allowed the artist to compose a picture across the whole surface.

Go to the front of the two altarpieces displayed with their backs on view and you can see the artistic development that took place. The polyptych, Giovanni dal Ponte's The Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist with Saints from the early 1420s, has Saint John in the middle flanked by two separate panels of figures on either side as in a triptych, a bottom sequence (the predella) of horizontal pictures of the saint's life below, as well as pictures of the crucifixion, annunciation and the Virgin above. From the life of the saint through the presence of Christ, or the Virgin Mary rising up, it's a gilded glorification of faith.

Look at the other work in the room, Francesco Botticini's San Gerolamo Altarpiece, painted some 70 years later, and you are in a different world of much freer painting. Although the central saint is again flanked by figures on either side, and is actually separated from them by a gilded frame, the colours and rhythm are as one, much closer in style to post-Renaissance religious paintings.

The National Gallery summer show, Devotion by Design: Italian altarpieces before 1500 is exactly what major museums should be doing. It is free. It uses the museum's own holdings, many of them from the basement reserve, to deepen understanding of the major works on display in the main galleries. It demonstrates what the curators and conservationists are up to at the "back of the shop" and there is a point to it other than just showing works of art.

In this case, the purpose is to provide the context in which the great altarpieces of the Italian Renaissance and pre-Renaissance were commissioned and placed. Upstairs, the masterpieces of Piero della Francesca, Mantegna and others are displayed as paintings, set against walls and framed like the artworks that succeeded them. Downstairs, the exhibition aims to show them as works with a purpose, set behind and above the altar to inspire priests as they raised the Host, which turned miraculously into the blood and body of Christ.

By accident or design, it could be regarded as a companion exhibition to the British Museum's current show of relics and reliquaries. The BM's works were objects to which pilgrims great and small would come to venerate and to absorb the holiness associated with a particular saint or relic. Altarpieces were also commissioned as an aid to spirituality but they were there to adorn and assist the regular liturgy of worship, not to become special objects of worship themselves.

How far the ordinary congregation saw more than a glimpse of the gilded frames and holy figures is another question. Divided from the chancel by the rood screen, they may have seen something of the gilded grandeur of these works at the high altar but not their detail. In this way, altarpieces were an elitist art, or rather art for the select, the clergy and dignatories allowed into the chancel to witness the miracle of transubstantiation or the side chapel to conduct a ceremony, and the monks and friars attending services in their religious houses.

It is no accident that most of these works come not from churches but from monasteries and abbeys, where the art was protected while the altarpieces from churches were disassembled, cut down and replaced as Protestantism forced the Roman Catholic Church to involve the laity more closely in services. It helps to explain, too, why the works included particular saints in received hierarchies with special emblems and attributes. Part of it, at a more mercenary level, was to keep the donors happy. There's a wonderful work in this show by Carlo Crivelli of La Madonna della Rondine, from the Ottoni Chapel in the church of San Francisco in Matelica in Marche. On the left is the figure of St Jerome with St Catherine below, as representatives of the Conventual Franciscans, joint patrons of the altarpiece. On the right is the figure of St Sebastian dressed as a soldier and below, St George representing the military attributes of the Ottoni family, the lay sponsors. Almost everything in the work had some resonance.

The effect of putting the pieces on show at the height and with the lighting in which they would have been seen is well illustrated by the staging, in the main room, of Luca Signorelli's The Circumcision from around 1490, several steps up, as it would have been at the high altar, and reaching towards the ceiling. It's not a great painting but the effect of looking up at it in full majesty is undoubtedly powerful. The symbolism is again important. The unusual choice of scene depicts the first blood spilt by Jesus and, by association the blood he was finally to spill on the cross as celebrated in "The Eucharist".

One of the pleasures of this exhibition is the number of pieces from the basement. Wisely, the curators have decided not base the show around any of the masterpieces from the upper galleries. Some two-thirds of the pieces on display are from the reserve collection, including Nicocolò di Pietro Gerini's splendidly restored Baptism Altarpiece from 1387, which served as a model for Piero della Francesco's The Baptism of Christ, two floors above.

And then there are all those little pictures from the predella giving the narratives of the holy lives and Christ's crucifixion. Precisely because they were so lively, they have been scattered around the museums and the private collections of the world as small pieces of art in their own right. They're not, of course. They were part of the whole, and a part that only the priest saw, reminding him of the saintly deeds of the martyr to which the altar was dedicated. They also clearly intrigue the conservators as they try and tell, from structure and style, just where they fitted into the sequence of the altarpieces.

In the end the exhibition is more fascinating for what it tells you about presentation than meaning. It is almost impossible now to know just what feelings they aroused at the time, certainly for today's secular visitor. But, as an insight into just how these works might have looked before they were broken up or reworked, this exhibition is a must – before or after you see the masterpieces in the main galleries.

Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces Before 1500, National Gallery, London (020 7747 2885; www.nationalgallery.org.uk) until 2 October

Arts and Entertainment
By Seuss! ‘What Pet Shall I Get?’ hits the bookshops this week
Books
Arts and Entertainment
The mushroom cloud over Hiroshima after Enola Gray and her crew dropped the bomb
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Elliott outside his stationery store that houses a Post Office
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

    Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

    I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
    Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

    Margaret Attwood on climate change

    The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years
    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered: What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week

    New Dr Seuss manuscript discovered

    What Pet Should I Get? goes on sale this week
    Oculus Rift and the lonely cartoon hedgehog who could become the first ever virtual reality movie star

    The cartoon hedgehog leading the way into a whole new reality

    Virtual reality is the 'next chapter' of entertainment. Tim Walker gives it a try
    Ants have unique ability to switch between individual and collective action, says study

    Secrets of ants' teamwork revealed

    The insects have an almost unique ability to switch between individual and collective action
    Donovan interview: The singer is releasing a greatest hits album to mark his 50th year in folk

    Donovan marks his 50th year in folk

    The singer tells Nick Duerden about receiving death threats, why the world is 'mentally ill', and how he can write a song about anything, from ecology to crumpets
    Let's Race simulator: Ultra-realistic technology recreates thrill of the Formula One circuit

    Simulator recreates thrill of F1 circuit

    Rory Buckeridge gets behind the wheel and explains how it works
    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation' over plans to overhaul reverse-chronological timeline

    Twitter accused of 'Facebookisation'

    Facebook exasperates its users by deciding which posts they can and can’t see. So why has Twitter announced plans to do the same?
    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag - but what else could the fashion house call it?

    Jane Birkin asks Hermès to rename bag

    The star was shocked by a Peta investigation into the exotic skins trade
    10 best waterproof mascaras

    Whatever the weather: 10 best waterproof mascaras

    We found lash-enhancing beauties that won’t budge no matter what you throw at them
    Diego Costa biography: Chelsea striker's route to the top - from those who shared his journey

    Diego Costa: I go to war. You come with me...

    Chelsea's rampaging striker had to fight his way from a poor city in Brazil to life at the top of the Premier League. A new book speaks to those who shared his journey
    Ashes 2015: England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    England show the mettle to strike back hard in third Test

    The biggest problem facing them in Birmingham was the recovery of the zeitgeist that drained so quickly under the weight of Australian runs at Lord's, says Kevin Garside
    Women's Open 2015: Charley Hull - 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    Charley Hull: 'I know I'm a good golfer but I'm also just a person'

    British teen keeps her feet on ground ahead of Women's Open
    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'