Renaissance Gothic at the National Gallery

By Bruce, Donald | Contemporary Review, December 2001 | Go to article overview

Renaissance Gothic at the National Gallery


Bruce, Donald, Contemporary Review


READERS who missed the National Gallery's exhibition of the reassembled Pisa altarpiece by Masaccio, which ended on 11 November, need not be downhearted. The central panel of The Virgin and Child - appropriate at this time of year - is still there in the gallery's permanent collection, and a larger exhibition of works by his contemporary, Pisanello, will remain open until 13 January.

The beguiling old gossip Giorgio Vasari relates, in his biography of Masaccio, how Pisanello met Masaccio in Rome and admired his work in 1427, the last year of Masaccio's short life. One wishes Vasari's story was trustworthy, although probably it is not. A conversation between the two painters would have been as interesting as that which seemingly takes place between St George's dragon and St Anthony's pig in Pisanello's depiction of the two saints at the National Gallery. Pisanello was a spruce, versatile artist, cherished by such feudal seigneurs as the Gonzagas of Mantua, the Sforzas of Milan and the Estes of Ferrara, and by the Pope himself. Tommaso Cassai was single-minded, so careless of practical concerns and (which shocked Vasari most of all) so neglectful of his dress that his fellow apprentices renamed him Masaccio, which means Tom-fool; intent on his one art of tempera-painting; dependent on the fees carefully counted out to him by merchants, lawyers and parish priests.

Pisanello came from ancient Verona, where he learned Latin and studied book-illumination and the casting of medals. Masaccio, largely self-taught, was the stepson of an apothecary in parvenu Florence, where at that time painters had yet to match the accomplishments of their Sienese rivals. Pisanello drew incomparably deft sketches of wild life, which he transposed hardly less brilliantly into the backgrounds of his paintings. Masaccio was interested only in humanity and painted large vignettes, avoiding detail as far as he could, since he was anxious to preserve the unity of each picture.

Aware of Masaccio's love of concord, the curators of the National Gallery celebrated the anniversary of his birth in 1401 by bringing together the supposed surviving panels from his polyptych painted for the Carmelite Church in Pisa. At least four panels and two small decorations are missing, presumably destroyed. Four substantial panels (two of doubtful origin) and the predella, or figured plinth, remain. The laughable hypothetical reconstruction by the National Gallery placed the putative remnants too widely apart, or indeed misplaced and muddled them altogether, so that the drift of colour from one panel to another, as well as the continuity of line and scale, was lost. The polyptych was not a pin-board. Fortunately the reconstruction was not put into effect. The panels were hung in a row across one wall, enabling one to track the wonder of Masaccio's yellows and gold from panel to panel.

The panel of The Virgin and Child is in the Gallery's permanent collection. The Virgin's daffodil-blonde skin and hair are tinged with peach and blush-pink, and her child is the colour of the unguent egg-yolk Masaccio would have used to fix his pigments, as if in celebration of his medium. The child Jesus has just eaten a grape plucked from the bunch in His mother's hand and, with a well-observed baby's gesture, puts His fingers in His mouth to explore the unfamiliar taste. Two angels play their lutes at the greystone foot of the Virgin's throne.

Mother and child have changed except in their innocence in the panel of The Crucifixion above (Museo di Capodimonte, Naples). Distressing though the event was in itself, Masaccio regarded it as the prelude to the triumph of the Resurrection which would assuage the grief of the Virgin, whose mouth opens in an animal howl of grief, like Eve's in his fresco of the expulsion from Eden in the corresponding Carmelite Church in florence. Since the Crucifixion was to Masaccio an incipient victory, he does not shun the use of the same delectable colours as in the panel of The Virgin and Child, although his Mater Dolorosa huddles herself in a blue robe no longer braided with gold. …

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