Devotion by Design, National Gallery, London

Early religious paintings from the National Gallery's own treasury speak to a modern audience – and to each other

Facing you, as you walk into the second room of the National Gallery's new show, Devotion by Design, is a pair of altarpieces.

Or rather, a not-pair, their differences being the point of showing them together.

To the left is the Ascension of Saint John the Evangelist by Giovanni dal Ponte, a Florentine artist whose nickname came from the bridge by his studio; the altarpiece was made for a nunnery in Pratovecchio, probably in the early 1420s. As was usual at the time, the story it tells – the Bible says nothing of John's death at Ephesus, so his ascension is apocryphal – is organised by divine rank.

In the all-important central panel is the evangelist himself, being hauled up to heaven by a wry-looking Christ. In panels to right and left are attendant saints – John the Baptist, Peter, Catherine of Alexandria et al – and below, in those cartoon-strip side-bars known as predellas, are small scenes from St John's life: his vision of the Revelation, his (failed) boiling in oil. Dotted about the Gothic frame that holds these narratives together are various sub-narratives, squeezed into roundels and spandrels.

The altarpiece to the right of the doorway, made 70 years later, is a quite different kettle of fish. If Giovanni's ambition was to tell many stories, Francesco Botticini's is to tell one. It is of Saint Jerome – thus the altarpiece's title, San Gerolamo – who appears in traditional penitent's garb in a central sub-panel set into the work's single, large panel. Again, there are secondary figures: Pope Damasus and Saint Eusebius to the left, Saints Paula and Eustochium to the right, and, in the foreground, a pair of kneeling donors. Now, though, all these occupy the same, unified space, and that space is believable.

Five years after Giovanni dal Ponte had packed his altarpiece off to the nuns, Masaccio painted his Trinity on the wall of Santa Maria Novella in Florence. Devotional art was never the same again. The Renaissance had begun, and the way Man thought about himself – and thus about God, in whose image he was made – changed for ever. What looks like a pizza on the floor where Botticini's figures stand tells us all we need to know. It is a disc of porphyry, comes from Ancient Rome and is shown in perspectival recession. Here are the long-lost classical virtues of rationalism and logic, harnessed for the worship of God. Cleverness, too, had been made by Him, and altarpieces could now be clever.

And Botticini's is. By giving his picture-within-a-picture of St Jerome its own gilt frame, the artist sets up a sequence of overlapping realities. The framed image exists as a separate artwork for us, the viewer, but also for the painted saints who seem to study it: even holy martyrs, it says, can be moved by the power of art. The donors, both temporally and spatially, are in another reality again. Tiny beside the Olympian sacred figures, they are shown in silhouetted full profile. This archaism harks back to the bad old pre-Renaissance days of Giovanni dal Ponte, and intentionally so. Humanity, for Botticini, is still part of the Gothic old dispensation. Art and rationalism are what will bring about the new heaven on earth.

You could spend a happy half-hour walking between these two altarpieces, so being able to walk behind them doubles your pleasure. No artwork is simply the product of itself; all are shaped by patronal demands, by the limits (or otherwise) of medium and technique. The unadorned flip-sides of these works show a more mundane world, but a no less revealing one.

Artists in Giovanni's day were in thrall to the carpenters who put their multi-part structures together. Once a Gothic altarpiece was assembled, nothing could be changed: stiffness begat stiffness, orthodoxy, Orthodoxy. By contrast, Botticini's altarpiece is a wonder of modern engineering as well as of modern painting. The single outer frame offers a new flexibility of construction, which in turn allows for artistic experiment. The swappable predella panels in particular become a place where artists, free from patronal interference, can really get down and playful. Some of the most important leaps forward in Renaissance painting take place in that strip below the main event.

I haven't left room for the other wonders in this wondrous show, although there are many. All but a handful of the works in Devotion by Design come from the NG's own collection, but this is not a hard-nosed exercise in money-saving. A national gallery has a duty to educate, and, using its own works, this show does. There are odd omissions – if viewers need to be told what a chalice is, chances are they'll need help with Saint Eustochium – but otherwise, this is an entirely admirable exhibition: clever without being threatening, accessible without talking down; entirely worthy of its subject.

To 2 Oct (020-7747 2885)

Next Week:

Charles Darwent finds Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera reunited once more at Pallant House

Art Choice

Catch The Cult of Beauty: The Aesthetic Movement 1860-1900 at the V&A in London, before it closes next Sunday. It brings together pre-Raphaelite painting, lavish interiors and beautiful books. At Tate Liverpool, a major exhibition of René Magritte entitled The Pleasure Principle pleasingly lives up to its name (until 16 Oct).

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
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.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones