Running until 8 May 2022 with free admissions, Christ and His Cousin: Renaissance Rediscoveries offers its viewers a unique “window into the past”, and is rife with symbolism recognisable to any Renaissance expert, or lover. The exhibition consists of eight oil paintings dating from the 16th century, all of which playfully depict scenes of the Virgin Mary alongside Jesus and St. John the Baptist as infants. I spoke to curator Dr. Aoife Brady from the National Gallery to gain an insight into the stories behind these paintings, the transformative conservation process that they underwent, and her own curator
Interestingly, Brady explained that these paintings are very diverse in their periods of acquisition, ranging from the early years of the gallery’s formation in the 1850s until around 1960. Despite some being acquired over a century ago, many of these pieces have never been seen by the public. Before being displayed they went through an extensive restoration process headed by the Gallery’s Head of Conservation Simone Mancini, spanning approximately 15 years. Brady described how the new clarity achieved through this process allowed their team to not only reassess the works’ authorship and date, but also provided them with a renewed appreciation for the compositions themselves. Brady stated that “as decades of dust and aged varnish were removed from the canvas and panels, hidden details began to emerge from the depths of this murkiness, revealing complex and fun compositions brimming with symbolism.”
“After the large restoration project, revealing the vivid masked imagery, Brady immersed herself in curatorial work in preparation for their exhibition in the Hugh Lane room.”
After the large restoration project, revealing the vivid masked imagery, Brady immersed herself in curatorial work in preparation for their exhibition in the Hugh Lane room. This involved realms of research to explore how best to interpret these works and tie them together with an overarching narrative theme. Brady reveals that one of her favourite parts of the curation was “the day you get to hang”. This is carefully planned in advance using a 3D modelling software which helps you to clearly visualise the paintings that will be hung in the exhibition space. Brady explained that “everything from the paintings’ security to their appearance has to be considered.”
When asked which is her favourite piece, Brady directed me towards a charming portrait by Florentine artist Fransesco Bacchiacca, aptly entitled The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist (1492-1544). She explained that this is one of the few works in the exhibition with a definite identifiable artist. Bacchiacca was one of the major exponents of Mannerism, an artistic style that emerged and dominated Italy between the Renaissance and Baroque periods. Brady explained the unique appeal of the painting’s composition which she felt “reads almost like a modern photograph.” She continued to describe the naturalistic sense that exudes from the painting as we witness the Christ child tugging his mother’s hair and an infant St. John grinning back at us. “John the Baptist is usually depicted wearing camel hair, but here he’s been given a very trendy looking leopard print robe,” Brady pointed out. This is a tradition that artists began to adopt in the latter half of the 16th century due to John’s association with Baccus, the Roman god of wine, producing a distinctive intermingling of pagan and Christian iconography. Both figures were known for their wildness and as disruptors of convention. The painting’s “wacky acidic palette” and dreamy character expressions are complemented by a bright green background, instantly grabbing the viewer’s attention.
More fascinating symbolism within the paintings provide clues which prophesy Christ’s later crucifixion. Dr. Brady turned to a piece attributed to an artist from the studio of Antonio del Ceraiolo as an example, demonstrating just some of the “visual puzzles that Renaissance viewers would have been able to interpret quite readily”. An infant Jesus is pictured holding a goldfinch, often seen as a prefiguration of his crucifixion. The delicate bird perched in his hands is said to have received the characteristic red plumage on its head when it plucked a thorn from the forehead of Christ during his crucifixion. Coral bracelets worn by Jesus and his cousin John also prophesy his later suffering — their bright red colour symbolises his blood shed during the Passion. Further details include lilies in the painting’s background, which relate to the innocence and purity of the two infant children, and the traditional Marian colours of red and blue, representing her divine love, purity and royalty.
“When asked why it is so important that the National Gallery shows this exhibition and works like those included in it to the public for free, Brady replies simply: “because they belong to you.”
When asked why it is so important that the National Gallery shows this exhibition and works like those included in it to the public for free, Brady replied simply: “because they belong to you”. She continued, stating “it is important that people have an opportunity to see things that are in storage that might not be accessible on a regular basis. This is a collection that belongs to everyone in the nation.”
“Certainly the captivating variety of artistic styles and compositions included in this exhibition centred on Christ and his cousin, combined with the wealth of symbolism deftly incorporated into each piece, reveals something of wonder for everyone.”
Closing our conversation, Brady encouraged everyone to come and take a look at the paintings on display which encapsulate “a wide array of approaches” in their treatment of Christ and his young relative, John the Baptist, ranging from “severe to naturalistic”, to “softly painted and sharply delineated”, to “bright to dark”. She concluded: “ I think it’s important from your readers perspective that they are not put off by the religious nature of this exhibition because it is a lot more about storytelling and legend and 16th century civic life, than it is about Christianity. In fact, these paintings were not all destined for ecclesiastical settings, many were hung up in people’s homes.” Certainly the captivating variety of artistic styles and compositions included in this exhibition centred on Christ and his cousin, combined with the wealth of symbolism deftly incorporated into each piece, reveals something of wonder for everyone.