Caravaggio, Doubting Thomas, 1601. Potsdam Bildergalerie
This is the most disconcertingly carnal take on the encounter in the Gospel of John between Christ and St Thomas, who had declared that unless he had seen the marks in Christ’s side and hands, he would not believe he had risen. Here, with Caravaggio’s characteristic theatricality, Christ’s hand guides Thomas’s to put his finger inside the fleshy wound. Not so much Seeing is Believing as Feeling is Believing.
Justus Sustermans, Galileo, 1635. Uffizi, Florence
A fabulous portrait of Galileo at the age of 70, when he was in exile in the Florentine countryside. He gazes upwards – towards the heavens? – and gives the impression of slightly distracted intelligence. In the old “Science vs Religion” scheme of things, Galileo represents Science; yet he was a good Catholic, a friend of the pope.
As Guy Consolmagno, the papal astronomer, observed: “There’s no doubt the Vatican screwed up over Galileo and every-one remembers a good screw-up. But the dispute only lasted for a couple of years. Up till 1631, Galileo’s work was praised by the Church, and then he was suddenly put on trial. Reading through the court transcripts provides no real insight into what problems the Church had with Galileo or why he was found guilty. But, in any case, he was back in favour by 1663.”
The Uffizi has almost all its prodigious collection online.
Artemisia Gentileschi, Self Portrait as St Catherine, 1616. National Gallery, London
This self-portrait of the artist as St Catherine of Alexandria – the virgin martyr who took on the philosophers – was a robust act of self- assertion by the most remarkable woman painter of the 17th century. She was, notoriously, raped by the man her father employed to teach her perspective, and the episode gave a fierce spirit to her subsequent works.
This portrait manifests a magnificent sense of self-worth; holding a martyr’s palm and the wheel associated with Catherine’s martyrdom, she gazes boldly at the viewer, inhabiting the saint’s persona and dignified by it.
David Jones, Vexilla Regis, 1948. Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge
This seems to be a simple depiction of trees in a forest, but little in David Jones’s art is straightforward. Consider the title, The Standard of the King, from an 8th century hymn; see the tree flanked by two other trees, and think of the Lignum Vitae, the wood of life.
Jones himself wrote: “The main jumping off ground was, I think, a Latin hymn we sing as part of the Good Friday Liturgy in the Roman rite. Two hymns in fact, one starting Vexilla Regis prodeunt “Forth come the standards of the King”, a very ancient processional hymn, in which are many allusions to the tree and the Cross, and to the Cross as a tree etc; and the other starting: Crux fidelis inter omnes arbor una nobis. This is a rather long hymn and the various of its verses deal with the Cross as a Tree in concise and very noble, and moving language – really very grand … The general idea of the picture was associated, in my mind, with the collapse of the Roman world. The three trees as it were left standing on Calvary …”
Jones, a Catholic convert, is, to my mind, bafflingly underrated.
Master MS, The Visitation, 1506. Hungarian National Gallery, Budapest
This charming representation of the Visitation is perhaps the most famous panel painting in Hungarian medieval art. The artist is not identified for certain. The painting is taken from the church of St Catherine in Selmecbanja, present-day Slovakia, one of several remarkable pieces there.
The initial impression of the picture is sweetly pretty, what with the Virgin’s rose dress, delicate features and flowing hair, but that’s before you note the harsh background – the hill country of Judea – and that the flowers are symbols of the Passion. Then there’s Elizabeth’s blood-red cloak.
This treatment could, later, have tipped into something saccharine, but it is grounded by the robustly populist piety of the age.
The medieval part of the Hungarian National Gallery is wonderful.
Albrecht Aldorfer, The Birth of Christ, 1520/25. Kunsthistorische Museum, Vienna
An enchanting take on the Nativity by Altdorfer, an artist of the Danube school. There is the tender interchange of gaze between baby Jesus and his mother, and next to the infant, two tiny, smiling angels. A huge rock and a great building tower above the scene; almost hidden at the back, an angel directs the shepherds.
This is an extraordinarily atmospheric picture with vivid light, emanating from the angels as well as the snow. Above, the heavens have opened. The museum’s masterpieces are all available online.
Francisco de Zurbarán, Agnus Dei, 1635-40. Prado, Madrid.
Poor lamb. This could easily pass muster for a poignant study of an animal bound for slaughter, resigned, tired, awaiting death. But we know who the Agnus Dei is. Which makes this one of the most reticent and effective works of religious symbolism.
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