Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond Belief

Magazine article The Spectator

Beyond Belief

Article excerpt

Treasures of Heaven

British Museum, until 9 October

Forests, Rocks, Torrents: Norwegian and Swiss Landscape Paintings

National Gallery, until 18 September

The subtitle of Treasures of Heaven is 'saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe'. The key words here are medieval and Europe.

There's not much from England because we suffered the autocratic cleansing of the Reformation in the 16th century, and much of our native tradition of what was then dubbed idolatry was destroyed or swept away. And because our Church was reformed in this way, those of a C of E persuasion tend to be suspicious of relics and devotional aids.

Our unadorned worship does not encourage the ritual veneration of bits of people, and our rational selves discredit the endless fragments of the True Cross (just how big was it? ) or the numberless thorns that supposedly came from Our Lord's crown. So it was in a spirit of healthy scepticism that I set foot inside the latest British Museum exhibition under Smirke's great Reading Room ceiling.

If it's possible to divorce religious belief from aesthetic appreciation - and that does not involve disparaging the strongly held convictions of the craftsmen who made these objects or the Church that commissioned them; it means keeping an open mind - then a great deal of pleasure can be obtained from the artistry on display. The exhibition opens with a copper-gilt reliquary bust of St Baudime, a missionary from Rome to France, his hand raised to bless the pilgrim. The precious stones that once adorned this magnificent sculpture have mostly been stripped off, but there is great and benign dignity still present.

There are cabinets of tokens and badges, a mosaic roundel from Dorset, sarcophagi, ivory and alabaster panels, shrines and great amounts of gold and gilt; even a panel painted by Gentile Bellini (1429-1507), more a Renaissance figure than a medieval one. The arm cases are some of the most bizarre relic-holders; the reliquary of the Holy Thorn, 14th-century French, is the most exquisitely decorated. Despite the dim light and reverential music, I couldn't forget the brisk and irreligious trade in relics, and the relic-hunters who would literally tear a body apart, nor the pilgrim industry which sometimes seems like an early form of tourism. Plenty of beauty, yes, but I personally didn't find it an aid to belief.

The latest free display in the Sunley Room of the National Gallery deals exclusively with Norwegian and Swedish landscape paintings from the collection of the American lawyer Asbjrn Lunde. The son of Norwegian emigres, Lunde began to collect Scandinavian paintings in 1968, and has amassed one of the world's greatest private collections of Norwegian and Swiss landscapes, mostly from the 19th century. In the process, Lunde has become something of an expert, as well as a connoisseur. Those who feared that connoisseurship had become a thing of the past may breathe more freely, and hasten to the NG. There, 51 of Lunde's paintings are now on view, most of them unknown in this country, offering a distinctive and unfamiliar kind of landscape painting closely linked with notions of national identity as well as with the sublime and the pastoral.

Norway was poor, isolated ('the crossroads to nowhere' as Christopher Riopelle neatly puts it in the useful catalogue, £9.99 in paperback) and dependent on its wealth of natural resources. By contrast, Switzerland was rich, independent and an early centre for business. …

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