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
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

    Greece referendum

    Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
    Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

    7/7 bombings anniversary

    Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?
    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has created

    Versace haute couture review

    Beautiful evening dresses are some of the loveliest Donatella has ever created
    No hope and no jobs, so Gaza's young risk their lives, climb the fence and run for it

    No hope and no jobs in Gaza

    So the young risk their lives and run for it
    Fashion apps: Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers

    Fashion apps

    Retailers roll together shopping and social networking for mobile customers
    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate