Illuminated Gospels 'Seeing Salvation' at the National Gallery

Article excerpt

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'. …