National Gallery, 3 Paintings that Made an Impact

A visit to the National Gallery was on my plans ever since I visited London for the first time. The visitors are a mix of art enthusiasts, of bored tourists, and of artists. Outside, Trafalgar Square is a mix of street artists and unoriginal buskers - how many fake levitators do we have to see before we decide it's too much?

A visit to the National Gallery was on my plans ever since I visited London for the first time. The visitors are a mix of art enthusiasts, of bored tourists, and of artists. Outside, Trafalgar Square is a mix of street artists and unoriginal buskers – how many fake levitators do we have to see before we decide it’s too much?

Inside the National Gallery in London

When I was studying literature, studying art was crucial to understanding that particular moment in time. For sure photography, once it was available, was quicker and maybe less staged, but it never tells the story in the way a painting can.

I don’t think I have a favorite period; some works pull me and some don’t.

It’s not the technique, nor the author or theme that pull me in; it’s the idea of the story behind it.

I like to “watch” the evolution of the art subjects and how the artists began to experiment with capturing movement, details, emotion, what they chose to focus on as representation of a daily routine. The thought that I can witness their trials is what has me hooked.

The idea of having free access to these glimpses of History was more than appealing, and I knew I’d have the patience to deal with the tourist crowds.

Yes, there are tourist crowds at the National Gallery, but I can’t say that all of them are there for the love of art.

Some of them occupied the central benches to rest and stare at their smartphones (free WiFi is available…) instead of taking the time to look at the painting in front of them.

Judging by the crowd surrounding Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait,” the rooms with the 20th Century paintings would be equally crowded, so I decided to skip them and come back later.

As a fan of architecture, especially the neo-classical style, Dhanish was more focused on the structure of the building than in the collection itself.

Coming from a European capital where museums and galleries were seldom built from scratch before the 20th Century, I kept wondering what this building had been before being transformed into the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. A quick browse through their website after returning home, and I found out that this was built on purpose for the art collection.

We spent most of our time at the Sainsbury Wing with the paintings from 1250 to 1500, taking a very brief look at the 1500 to 1600 period.

I never found it easy to block out any outside distractions (my mind is always at work), and when I was about to start yet another rant about people taking up space in the gallery to scroll down their Facebook feeds on their smartphones, I knew it was time to go and come back some other time.

Of all the paintings, three pulled me in. They all attracted me with the same energy but for different reasons.

Incidentally, they are all from Italian artists from more or less the same period, but I believe that was merely a coincidence.

"Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius", Sandro Botticelli, about 1500

“Four Scenes from the Early Life of Saint Zenobius,” Sandro Botticelli, about 1500 (Room 58)

According to the National Gallery’s description: “(…) Saint Zenobius renounces his intended bride; he is baptized by Saint Theodosius, Bishop of Florence; his mother is baptized; he is consecrated Bishop of Florence by the Pope.”

Do you know what pulled me to this painting? The detail of the right foot (on the left, or beginning, of the painting) that is ready to walk away.

That was what made me take a second look. I wanted to know what that movement symbolized and what was the rest of the story.

By looking at it as a whole, I could see all the technical details like perspective, shape, volume. You can look at the details in the fabric, and the shift of light as the scenes go from the outside to the inside.

But that little movement of the foot, that was telling me that something was about to happen or to change, and that was what made me stop, look closely and read the caption.

The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome

“The Introduction of the Cult of Cybele to Rome,” Andrea Mantegna, about 1505-6 (Room 61)

I was perplexed by this painting.

I had been looking at bright, deep colors, and there was this painting in its grayish glory, with the fiery orange and red backdrop.

Quite unusual, don’t you think?

I thought it was a beautiful contrast with all the other paintings in that room.

“In 204 BC the Romans brought the cult of Cybele, the eastern goddess of victory, from Pessina, Asia Minor, to Rome. Mantegna has combined the accounts of Ovid, Livy, and Appian. Cybele is represented by her sacred stone – ‘she fell to earth as a meteor’ – and as a bust with a mural crown (associating her with a city state). According to Juvenal, Cornelius Scipio (probably in profile gesturing with his right hand) was the most worthy Roman citizen to receive Cybele.”

The grayish tone of the painting is intentional, done this way to imitate sculpture. I have to say I was slightly disappointed by this caption; I thought Mantegna had another intention beyond playing with a new technique. But it still stands out in the “crowd.”

"Portrait of a Lady (La Dama in Rosso)", Giovanni Battista Moroni, about 1556-60

“Portrait of a Lady (La Dama in Rosso)”, Giovanni Battista Moroni, about 1556-60 (Room 12)

This “lady in red” intrigued me in such a way that she almost made it to my Instagram feed.

The dress stands out, of course, above anything else.

The scenario is bare and the chair she sits on seems like part of a mismatched collection, dropped there just to sit. And then I was drawn to the expression on her face, that fastidious “get-it-over-with” look that made me laugh.

It is ridiculous, I thought, to believe she wanted the painter to be done with it when it’s not as simple as snapping a shot…

Assuming Moroni captured her look perfectly, she looked as if she was staring right through me, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

The writer in me couldn’t help to start imagining all sorts of stories about her.

Before your visit to the National Gallery make sure you take some time to listen to their monthly podcasts, make a note of the works you want to see up close and arrange to take your own independent tour with their printed trails by theme.

The easiest way to reach the National Gallery is by taking the tube (Bakerloo Line or Northern Line) and getting off at Charing Cross; exits are well-marked and easy to follow. The entrance to the Gallery is done through the Sainsbury Wing (to your left). Admission is free (except for temporary exhibitions). Floorplans in different languages are available and cost £1.00 each. Audioguides cost £4.00. Photos are allowed (no flash).

Are you an art enthusiast and have you been to the National Gallery? What paintings impressed you the most?


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