Get out at Embankment tube and walk over to the National Gallery where they’re checking bags today but I’m bagless so get waved through. Go downstairs to the toilets and, fortunately, there’s an empty cublicle as it’s not just Jeremy Paxman who’s having problems with his M&S underpants. The manufacturers in India seem to have had a problem with the sizing so when I put them on, instead of looking into the mirror and seeing an appropriately bulging David Beckham smiling back at me, I’m confronted with the baggy pants of a Stanley Matthews or Tom Finney. I’m sure that I double-checked the measurements before I bought them, but these drawers would fit a jumbo-oceros and I have to fold the waistband over a couple of times just to get them to stay up. Of course, when I do that the flyhole gets relocated which then makes finding the hose a bit of a problem. Hence, to avoid having my actions misconstrued, I prefer commencing the hunt in private, rather than offering a public reenactment of the overture to Leighton’s Athlete Wrestling a Python.
Anyway, once that all gets sorted out, I go to the café for some sustenance and pick the cheese and ham sandwich, which is about the only thing they’ve got on white bread. I suppose I could pretend that my new year’s resolution is to join everyone else and go gluten-free but, in fact, it’s just a class thing. At the risk of revealing my humble origins, I have to admit that I happen to prefer the white sliced stuff I used to get fed when I was growing up. Today I’m in for a nostalgic treat as the cheese filling is not at all like the expected crumbly farmhouse cheddar, wensleydale walnut and weasel or some other deliberately silly combination. No, it tastes just like those strange processed triangles that we used to have as treats when we were kids. After a few bites, I’m transported back to one of those long hot summer days when the family would drive the Morris Minor 1000 down to Worthing and we’d share a picnic in the municipal car park. Oh, happy days.
I’m tempted to continue to develop this Proustian moment but there’s work to be done so let’s finish eating these childish things and head up the stairs to get to the art. Having excoriated the National Gallery a couple of weeks ago for their appalling presentation of the Goya blockbuster show, I must now shower them in praise for the exemplary exhibition in front of me – Visions of Paradise: Botticini’s Palmieri’s Altarpiece.
If you’ve ever wandered around the Gallery’s Sainsbury Wing you’ll know that the National has a great stack of early religious art – the kind of stuff that was commissioned by the rich and pious to be displayed on the walls of their churches or private chapels. It all tends to be highly decorative and very colourful, full of gold leaf and bright blues and reds, with representation of the religious figures rendered in a slightly unrealistic, stylised form. These are fascinating paintings but so richly ornamented and so full of detail it’s hard to look at more than a couple without being overwhelmed and exhausted. It’s not the painters fault – these works simply weren’t designed to be seen by crowds casually passing through an art gallery, they were originally created to be seen in church, once (or more) a week over the course of a lifetime. The other problem that makes them difficult for a contemporary audience to fully appreciate is that they are filled with examples of a Christian iconography that may once have been common currency but now is the preserve of the expert. Trying to look at too many of these early works is like trying to eat your way through a couple of dozen Christmas puddings, it’s just too rich and too much like hard work.
Visions of Paradise provides the perfect solution by centring a whole exhibition on a single work of art, namely the altarpiece that the apothecary, historian, poet, political officer and all round Renaissance man Signor Palmieri paid the artist and craftsman Signor Botticini to paint for his funeral chapel in the Church of San Pier Maggiore in Florence in the late 1400s.
The exhibition starts with a short film that shows a bunch of boffins from the Gallery along with some of their pals from Cambridge University wandering among the streets of present day Florence looking for signs of San Pier Maggiore, where the painting originally hung. The church was demolished in the 18th century after it became unsafe but some of the original bits remain – a few of the gargoyles still look out into the street; a finely carved pilaster forms part of the wall in the toilet of a bar; and some of the spiral staircase of the original bell tower is now an impressive feature in a rather swish private apartment. Using some whizzo computer graphics, we get to see a vision of the old church reconstructed in pixels and superimposed over the streets of contemporary Florence, happily blocking out a less stylish selection of contemporary attractions – the Irish pub, the kebab house, the mobile phone shop and various flats and apartment buildings.
Back in the exhibition there are other representations of the church – in paintings showing a plan of the city of Florence in the 16th century; in prints from the 18th century; and, most notably, in the small scale model that Saint Peter holds, along with the keys to heaven, in Jacopo de Cione’s Coronation of the Virgin that also used to live in the church but has similarly relocated into the collection of the National Gallery.
As for the star of the show, Botticini’s altarpiece, this is a wonderful representation of the Assumption of the Virgin – the moment when the apostles gather together to chat and gossip around Mary’s coffin which has been resited to the outskirts of Florence. The lady has departed leaving bunches of flowers and is kneeling at the feet of Christ, who is surrounded by a ring of seraphims and cherubims. Dozens and dozens of other angels, bearded bishops and prophets fill the scene, suspended in that golden region of heaven that was once thought to float high above the earth but probably moved on when the space started filling up with sputniks and other satellites. For 16th century aristocrats and artisans alike, the painting must have provided a source of great comfort, inspiration and awe and even for we contemporary cynics and sinners it still retains a sort of glorious, compelling attraction.
The exhibition has a whole bunch of other fascinating related art and artefacts – 16th century apothecary jars, like the ones Palmieri would have used himself, the weathered portrait marble bust that would have sat above the entrance to his shop (he seems to have resembled a curly haired Michael Portillo) and original copies of some of the books he wrote. There’s also a small selection of contemporaneous paintings by Botticelli, Fra Angelico and others, and everything is beautifully assembled and displayed.
The show is free to visit, which makes it very good value and for those who fancy more artistic treats, next door is the Gallery’s famous collection of Velazquezs and a little further on, some marvelous Van Dycks and Rubens. On a slightly less spiritual note, those of a pratical, parsimonious nature may be interested to learn that the Gallery shop is currently selling its very attractive Christmas cards at half price, so why not stock up now?