Away in a manger

IMAGINING the Divine: The Holy Family in Art is an exhibition, centred around The Nativity, currently running in the National Gallery of Ireland.

Anne Hodge, curator of prints and drawings, chose the works in the show. “I thought it would be nice, for Christmas, to have some of the really beautiful religious pictures on show for the public,” she says. “The National Gallery of Ireland, like many museums founded in the 19th century, has a large proportion of religious work in its collection.

“My idea was to choose some of the really beautiful work, paintings, drawings and even sculpture that showed the early life of Christ, the nativity, and the various events around Christ’s early life, and put them on display.”

The Ulster Museum kindly loaned JMW Turner’s The Dawn of Christianity, 1841, for the show. This oil painting, a reddish landscape featuring Mary and the baby Jesus, is one of Turner’s occasional religious works. The other 12 in the exhibition came from the NGI’s collection of 14,500 works, which date back to the early Renaissance.

Because of ongoing refurbishment of two wings of the NGI, many works had to be stored elsewhere. This gave the curators an opportunity to cast an eye over the collection.

“We really want to bring out work that hasn’t been seen for some time,” says Hodge. “We’re limited in terms of the amount of space we have, so ‘room one’ is a space we use for changing exhibitions, like Imagining the Divine, and it’s a real opportunity to do thematic exhibitions on a small scale, using our collection, and putting them together, juxtaposing them in a way that people haven’t seen before.

“Usually, you would be looking at paintings by school, so you would look at all the Dutch paintings together, and you would look at all the Irish paintings together. That’s just the way they tend to be arranged in the rooms. But this allows a curator, like myself, to look at the collection as a whole — across media, across periods, and across schools. When you see works put together in a different way, it makes you look at them differently.

“They look more exciting, somehow, and they just allow people to think about them a bit differently than they would have done before. Some of these works would be familiar to people, they would have been on show in the past because they are very beautiful works, very high quality works, but, in this case, you’re seeing them in a slightly different way.”

One of the most impressive pieces in the exhibition is a painted relief of the virgin and child, from the workshop of Florentine sculptor, Lorenzo di Ghiberti, dating to the early Renaissance. There are no contemporary works in this exhibition. The Le Nain Brothers, Fra Bartolommeo and Murelloi are some other of the painters featured. Murillo’s The Infant of St John Playing with a Lamb was purchased by second NGI director Henry Doyle, in 1869. It resembles a painting he admired in his childhood in the National Gallery of London. Jacob Jordaens’ drawing The Adoration of the Magi captures the excitement in the stable as the miracle of the birth of Christ unfolded.

Some of the drawings give an insight into the technical process used by the artists. An early Lorenzo di Credi is rendered in silver-point, which was a precursor to pencil that required high accuracy skills to accomplish.

“The drawings show us how the artists worked through their ideas, they’re very practical,” says Hodge. “For instance, one of the drawings has these pouncing marks right around the edge. That shows how the artist did this initial cartoon and then it was transferred onto canvas, or onto the wall for fresco. It’s quite fascinating to see how they work by pricking these holes all around the edges, and then dusting it with charcoal dust so they would, basically, get a tracing of the drawing on a large scale. Then, they would be able to work up the fresco or the painting.

“The drawings are lovely, because they help us appreciate the practical problems that artists faced when they were trying to draw Christ or the holy family. Obviously, they had to imagine what they would look like, nobody knew what Christ looked like. You see the way the Madonna and the baby Jesus are depicted changes over the years, through the centuries — that, in itself, I find fascinating.

“It’s this idea of imagining the divine, because nobody knows, yet there are so many of these paintings done for churches right throughout Europe and beyond.”

Runs in The National Gallery of Ireland until Apr 1, 2013.


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