Devotion by Design, National Gallery / Treasures of Heaven, British Museum, review

Two new shows at the National Gallery and British Museum highlight the importance of religious paintings and relics, says Richard Dorment . Rating: Devotion by Design: image

Selected entirely from pictures in the permanent collection, the National Gallery’s exhibition of Italian 14th- and 15th-century altarpieces is so beautiful that it would be easy to miss the breathtaking audacity of the installation. Even if you feel you know these images well, to see them dramatically lit against dark walls and at the height they would have been hung in their original architectural setting is to see them as though for the first time.

An altarpiece is a specific kind of religious image because it was made to hang in a church where it served to create or intensify spiritual experience. To transfer an altarpiece to an art gallery is to change its meaning by shifting the viewer’s attention to questions of authorship, date, school and stylistic development.

Devotion by Design reverses this process by asking why these works of art were made, why they took the form they did, how they functioned and what that meant theologically. The biggest gallery in the temporary exhibition spaces at the Sainsbury Wing has been hung in a way that subtly evokes the arrangement of an Italian Renaissance church – with the pictures displayed over altar-like plinths as though in side chapels on either side of the nave. On the far wall Signorelli’s Circumcision altarpiece hangs over a “high altar” complete with silver crucifix and candlesticks.

This installation reminds us that the pictures once hung above a place that for a Catholic could not be more sacred – the altar on which the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is made manifest through the actions of the priest during mass. For the first millennium after Christ the priest performed this sacred ritual facing the congregation, in keeping with the idea of the mass as a re-enactment of the Last Supper. Around the 11th century, however, it became more usual for him to turn his back to the faithful, who were unable to see what was happening on the altar until the moment just after the consecration when a bell rang and the host was elevated for all to see.

These liturgical rites normally took place in a dark church, with the priest standing away from his congregation speaking in a language most of them did not understand. There was no notion, as now, of the laity taking part in the proceedings. This explains why, at the beginning of the 14th century, large-scale painted and sculpted devotional images began to be placed on or above altars.

These took the form of polyptychs or multi-panelled architectural constructions in which Christ, the Virgin, angels, saints and donors are depicted separately and often against plain gold backgrounds. Like icons, polyptychs emphasised hieratical distinctions between divine and human. A believer could focus on the image of one saint and his or her story at a time. When the central panel contained an image of Christ, it was placed so that when the host was raised above the priest’s head at the Elevation, it intersected with the painted image, thereby giving visual expression to the Catholic belief that the bread and wine have just been changed into the body and blood of Christ.

Early in the 15th century, Florentine artists developed a new structural form, the pala or single field altarpiece. Both the polyptych and the pala could have a central narrative panel (i.e. the Nativity, the Crucifixion), and both usually had predella panels at their base illustrating narrative scenes from the life of Christ or the saints. In fact, the form of the altarpiece had no theological significance. It was a choice the artist made in consultation with his patron and the form varied according to local preference.

Though sublime pictures in the National Gallery including masterpieces by Carlo Crivelli, Andrea Mantegna and Benozzo Gozzoli are here, this is in essence a didactic show. What the curator, Scott Nethersloe, has done is teach us to look at this art with reverence and understanding. And without those qualities, you miss the point of nine tenths of the art made during the medieval and renaissance periods.

The innocuous Catholic practice of venerating the relics of saints is highlighted in a show about relics and reliquaries at the British Museum entitled Treasures from Heaven. The visual imagination plays an important role in the way Catholics express belief. Images encourage the faithful to prayer simply by helping them visualise the person they are praying to. The image is only a means to this end. It has no power. As an aid to concentrating the mind, therefore, a plastic saint on a dashboard is no different from Michelangelo’s Pieta in St Peter’s.

The veneration of relics is not part of Catholic liturgy, but a form of popular piety comparable with going on a pilgrimage, lighting a candle in church, or saying the rosary. The impulse behind it is the same as wishing to possess something that once belonged to a loved one or bringing flowers to a grave. Just as collectors today pay high prices to own the cigar of Winston Churchill or a dress worn by Marilyn Monroe, so in the middle ages fortunes were paid for the relics of famous saints, many of which were fake.

For the most part what is on view at the British Museum are not relics, exactly, but reliquaries, the elaborate jewel and enamel–encrusted receptacles made of silver and gold that became prize possessions of popes and princes. Inside (and therefore unseen) were the actual relics – pieces of bone or tooth or something the saint had touched. Though macabre to us, to those who believed that the person whose relics they venerated was actually with God in Heaven, they were priceless. To grasp what such tangible expressions of faith might once have meant, though, the modern viewer has first to make that leap of the imagination.

Of course, if you hold Christianity itself in contempt you can’t do that, so the show will be of interest mainly for the wonderful examples of medieval craftsmanship. But if you can, then you might have a very different criticism of Treasures from Heaven. With some exceptions, what is missing from the show is any sense of connection between the viewer and the objects on display. I can respond with interest to an enamelled plaque from a casket that once contained a relic of St Thomas a Becket, or a handkerchief dipped in the blood of Charles I, because I know how they died and why they are considered martyrs. But who was St Baudine or St Cesaire – and why should I care about their relics? Reliquaries are curiously intimate objects. For all its splendour, a blockbuster like this one doesn’t serve them well.

Gearbest TS - BT35A08 Bluetooth 3.0 Car Audio Music Receiver with Handsfree Function Mic
TS - BT35A08 Bluetooth 3.0 Car Audio Music Receiver with Handsfree Function Mic only $2.99