Philobiblon: At the National Gallery: Reunions - Bringing Early Italian Paintings Back Together

Sunday, November 13, 2005

At the National Gallery: Reunions - Bringing Early Italian Paintings Back Together

Amidst a cornucopia of great art, how do you choose what to look at, what to focus on? You often see visitors to the National Gallery wandering along in a daze, so overwhelmed they're obviously not really taking anything in. What you need is some guideposts, some suggestions to point you in a direction for this visit.

One way the gallery does this is with the small, regularly changing exhibitions in Room 1. Just up is a little gem: Reunions, Bringing Early Italian Paintings Back Together."

What the three works in the exhibition have in common - in addition to their time and place of origin - is that they are consist of parts only recently reunited.

The intimate little 13th-century diptych is perhaps the most amazing - now so obviously complete when it has been, perhaps for centuries, split asunder. The left-side Mother and Child was only found in 1999, when it was rejoined with its Man of Sorrows (the dead Christ on the cross). As the mini-catalogue says: "the Virgin's direct gaze and melancholy expression betray her knowledge of her son's future sacrifice". Now we can gaze on it today as did its commissioner, perhaps a wandering Franciscan friar.

Half of the second work - in chronological terms - is also an astonishingly recent discovery, a Virgin and the Child with Two Angels, found at a country house in Suffolk in 2000. It is the second (known) part of a Cimabue. The other part here is The Flagellation of Christ. The bodies and setting are stylised, almost sketched, but unlike the first work here (with its distinctly Byzantine, otherworldly character), these are real, individual, human faces.

The third work is definitely the most artistically gripping. Bernardo Daddi's The Coronation of the Virgin, here reunited with the panel that would have sat beneath it when it was painted about 1340. It starts to look like the "Renaissance" art we know and love. There's an ornate gold background, but both main figures are real people. The Virgin's face is particularly stunning. She's a beautiful matron, with maturity and pride, bearing the look of a mother who's seen her son achieve beyond her wildest dreams.

Here are just three paintings, paintings that you'd probably pass by in the flood of images in one of the main galleries. Yet here, in an open space of their own, there is so much to get from them: the question about "what is still out there, unfound?"; the musing on how while we think of this as a time of "Dark Age" stagnation the nature and understanding of art was changing remarkably fast; and, that you'd really love to have the time to spend so much time on more and more of the gallery's collection in this way.

The exhibition continues until January 29. Other paintings from the same era can be found in Gallery 52.


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