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ONE enters the National Gallery's latest exhibition, Seeing Salvation, with a sigh. There, dominant in the first room, is the most shunnable platitude in British religious art, although once so revered in its three versions that this one, from St Paul's Cathedral, was sent on a tour of the Empire in Edwardian times: William Holman Hunt's Light of the World. At one time adverse criticism of this image would have been thought almost as blasphemous as words spoken against its subject. Vulgar from the two-tone halo to the bare swollen toes protruding from the samite robe, from the heavily jewelled collar of the dalmatic to the lantern decorated with the starry firmament of George Herbert's hymn, the garish figure is surrounded with symbolism of near-medieval pedantry. Weeds, painted with Ruskinian carefulness, clamber up the closed door (of course, of the heart) to represent sloth, whilst a bat, signifying unenlightenment, loiters in the turquoise moonshine of the overgrown orchard littered with the apples, them selves fallen, of the Fall of Man.

Pictures are not pictograms or hierographs, yet in this exhibition they are treated as if they were all as readable as The Light of the World. They have been chosen for iconological rather than aesthetic reasons. Sometimes the doctrinal interpretations, given in the catalogue and the many informative placards which hang alongside the pictures, provoke thought this Lent and open the mind of the viewer. A dainty miniature from the School of Robert Campin in the National Gallery depicts the Madonna as she dries and caresses her newly bathed child. A comment on the picture explains that the reason why the infant Jesus is traditionally represented naked (something the viewer, and possibly the artist too, had never reflected upon) is that in His Incarnation God became entirely human in every detail, and therefore shared the needs and woes common to mankind. It is useful to be reminded of the Evangelist's words about 'the true light, which lighteth every man' while looking at Geertgen's enchanting Nativity (Nationa l Gallery), in which the glow diffused by the infant Jesus amazes even the Virgin, and the angels around the crib, and the ox and ass looming from the varnished dark. Geertgen has found a symbol for the moral and intellectual light which Jesus will spread. The commentator on Mabuse's Adoration of the Kings (National Gallery) shrewdly alerts one to the significance of the joint worship of the shepherds, who were Israelites, and the three kings, who were Gentiles.

The discussion of the monogram formed from IHS, and its accretions of meaning (first, the first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek, then In Hoc Signo, then Jesus Hominum Salvator) usefully explains its triple import in the sketch made by the learned Cretan, El Greco, in preparation for the large votive altarpiece in the Escorial to commemorate the victory of Christendom over the forces of Islam at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. In the sketch, The Adoration of the Name of Jesus (National Gallery), even the unfortunate denizens of Hell pour forth to join potentates and populace in worship of the divine monogram, elevated to a Heaven circled by stiff-robed angels in elongated flight.

Since Geertgen was a brother or an associate of the Order of St John, he would probably have been able to read the Latin of the Vulgate Bible, and it may be assumed from Mabuse's pictures from Ovid that he too was a Latinist; but what evidence is there, in the absence of vernacular Bibles, that other painters, mostly unschooled, could read the Scriptures before the time of the Reformation? It is more than likely that they drew upon a broad oral tradition.

At times the explanatory zeal of the commentators impels them into excess and absurdity. Even on the subject of the naked infant Jesus, many people would prefer the succinct definition of Bishop John Earle in his Microcosmographie, that 'a child is the best copy of Adam before he tasted of Eve or the apple'. That Geertgen presents Jesus as a bringer of light is indisputable, although the theology temporarily robs the picture of some of its magic. But the straw under the manger is for the animals. The 'sheaf of stems of corn', as the contributor to the catalogue calls the straw, is not there to show that Jesus is the bread of life.

In the Holy Family (National Gallery), a huge Murillo flooded by his characteristic luminous mist, it was necessary, for the sake of the composition, that Jesus should be raised nearer the Holy Ghost so that He could be part of the Divine Trinity as well as the earthly triad. For that reason He stands, supported by Mary and Joseph, on a broken pedestal in what appears to be a ruined garden. It is a pedestal and clearly not the corner-stone for a building, although the catalogue and the placard cite 'the corner-stone which the builders rejected', mentioned in the Gospel of St Matthew. It is also merely glib to say, in the same places, that the infant Jesus is asleep on His mother's lap in Giovanni Bellini's Madonna of the Meadow (National Gallery) as a pre-figurement of His death and her lamentation over His corpse. The catalogue and the placards are as rife with speciously or doubtfully interpreted biblical texts as a Puritan sermon.

The exhibition starts with examples of early Christian symbols on Roman coins and other antiquities. These artefacts are attractively and cleverly presented but have little aesthetic importance in themselves. The monograms they bear are irrelevant to the pictures in the exhibition. Equally purposeless are a Merovingian tombstone, a posied ring from the fifteenth century, a daubed papier-mache mask and a toy cradle once owned by a nun, also from the fifteenth century, and some antique prayer-sheets. These are what Addison called 'the trifling rarities of the virtuoso'. The most trifling exhibit, displayed alongside woodcuts by Duer and the harrowing beauty of a Man of Sorrows, possibly by an associate of Pisanello, is, in that context, not merely intrusive but tastelessly frivolous: a quasi-religious toy consisting of scenes, swinging on hinges, of the Passion; all thought up by a Netherlandish inventor-artist, of little accomplishment in either field, to sell to a Spanish grandee. A diagram of this souvenir- shop bauble is inserted in the catalogue. It is in a section called (in the same uneasy English as the title of the exhibition) Praying the Passion. There are many paintings of the Passion, ranging from Memlinc's continuous representation of it in a single retable in the Turin Pinacoteca to Rembrandt's incomparable series in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich. Was this kitsch from the Wernher Collection selected out of thrift or inertia or both? It is a pity that Gr[ddot{u}]newald's Crucifixion, on loan from Basel, had not arrived in time to be included in the exhibition.

The self-defeating aim of the section called The True Image is to show that there is no record of Christ's outward appearance. Thrilling though it would be to know what He looked like, His vera icon would have no religious importance. Paradoxically this is one of the most rewarding parts of the exhibition, since by chance doctrine is sidelined by the study of painting itself, quite properly in what is a picture gallery, not a seminary. From some of these fallacious likenesses Renaissance artists such as Raphael and D[ddot{u}]rer were able to find a form to fit their sense of Christ's personality. For that reason one is amused rather than taken aback by a Flemish diptych of the turn of the fifteenth century from the Catharijneconvent in Utrecht. On the left panel is a calligraphic transcription of a medieval forgery purporting to be a description of Christ's appearance by one of His contemporaries. On the right panel is a profile portrait of Christ which contradicts the description.

As in the recent exhibition of Florentine art (the catalogue to which included a lament about how troublesome it is to borrow pictures from abroad) no great enterprise has been expended, in spite of the thousands of European paintings of Christ, to obtain pictures from foreign collections. Of the paintings on display, twenty come from the National Gallery itself (among them several resoundingly well known old favourites, such as the Bellinis, the Titian and the Mabuse), eleven are from elsewhere in Great Britain, and five from abroad. Although it is pleasing to see two or three pictures from the gallery's reserve collection, which is not regularly accessible, there are far fewer unfamiliar images than in the accompanying video film and catalogue.

Some of the borrowed pictures were hardly worth the carriage. The repellent Murillo (from the Mappin Gallery, Sheffield) of The Infant Jesus asleep on a Skull and a Cross is an amalgam of the maudlin and the macabre, ill suited to his suave and often winning manner. Ribalta's St Francis embracing the crucified Christ (from the Museum of Valencia), though seemingly heartfelt, is crammed with a turgidity, in a dark landscape, of nearly life-sized main figures and five beefy, approving angels, one playing a viola da gamba propped on its own cloud, plus the trampled Seven Deadly Sins in the form of wild beasts in golden crowns. There is another Ribalta, in the Prado, with a similar theme, but better composed: Christ embracing St Bernard. Christ's intense tender regard is poignant as He stoops from the Cross to support the swooning St Bernard against his arm. Instead of the glimmering crowded murk of the Valencia picture, there is coherence and clarity. One has doubts about Dali's sensationally angled Christ of S t John of the Cross (from the St Mungo Museum in Glasgow), remotely derived from a drawing by the Spanish mystic, with its weird change of plane artfully disguised by mysterious clouds, and the Annigoni-like landscape below; also about Stanley Spencer's Christ carrying the Cross and Resurrection at Cookham (from the Tate Gallery), with their flippancy, weak drawing and dim coloration, lack of focus and distracting visual tricks.

The exhibition is well worth visiting for the pictures which enlarge one's vision because they are not already common sights to those who frequent the National Gallery. St Francis holding the Infant Jesus by Ludovico Carracci, elder cousin of Annibale, comes from the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. St Francis lifts up the plump and soft-skinned child in his gaunt hands. With a well-observed babyish gesture, Jesus traces with his forefinger the saint's face, gnarled but aglow with grandfather-like love. The Virgin stands aside, her apple-cheeks in contrast to the saint's pallid emaciation, her far-off gaze and patient air directly derived from the model, no doubt some village-girl whose innocent composure well becomes the Mother of God. Zurburan's Veil of St Veronica (from the Nationalmuseum, Stockholm), a trompe d'oeil of a pinned-up cloth, captures a wan image appropriate both to Christ's face, wet with tears and sweat, and to his exhaustion as He plied up the dreadful way to the Cross. The Bound Lamb from the Pr ado, also by Zurburan, is cognate with the Stockholm picture, both as a symbol and in its pathos. The sacrificial lamb is heart-breakingly helpless and friendless in its sad, matted wool, its budding ram's horns now useless.

Of the pictures which are not merely a re-arrangement of works already in the National Gallery, a tiny gem, The Man of Sorrows by Petrus Christus (from the Birmingham City Gallery), has an impact quite out of proportion to its size. Two angels draw back curtains to reveal the divine presence. One sword-bearing angel looks uncomprehending and appalled at what men have done to their God. The other angel, holding lilies, has a look of unconditional forgiveness. Christ shares both expressions in his face of suffering, whilst He opens the wound in his side to offer the redeeming blood. As he does so, the thorns in his crown break into flower.
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Author:Bruce, Donald
Publication:Contemporary Review
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Apr 1, 2000
Next Article:A Eutopia.

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