One of the main delights and privileges of the Art and Theology course held at Ripon College was the opportunity to have a private tour around the wonderfully intimate picture gallery at Christ Church College with the curator Jacqueline Thalmann.
Christ Church is unique among the Oxbridge colleges in possessing a small but impressive collection of Old Master paintings and drawings. The collection includes works by Lippi, Carracci, Tintoretto, Leonardo, Michelangelo, Dürer, Raphael and Rubens and more. All of which are housed in a 1960s purpose-built gallery which is tucked right at the back of Christ Church College.
In fact, this small gallery is far too easy to miss but is definitely worth exploring, not just for the paintings and drawings (there is currently a temporary exhibition of Lippi’s drawings on, Filippino Lippi and drawing in Florence around 1500) but for the light and space the new architecture provides the displays. For reasons of conservation the complete drawings collection cannot be permanently on show, however these small scale temporary exhibitions are rotated approximately every three months enabling access to a surprisingly high quality of works that other galleries often do not have the capacity to display in such a manner.
In 1765, Christ Church became custodian of a former student’s collection. General John Guise had bequeathed over two hundred paintings and approximately two thousand drawings and thus began the gallery. This bequest was particularly of note at that time because many students would have had to undertake the Grand Tour or have friends in stately homes in order to access the names within Guise’s collection. The Bodleian ‘Picture Gallery’ housed mainly portraits and the Ashmolean Museum, the oldest museum in Britain, included very few paintings at that time. Significant bequests continued throughout the nineteenth century and even as late as 1897 a further twenty six paintings were bequeathed by the family of the poet Walter Savage Landor.
Whilst the collection is strongest in Italian art, from the 14th to the 18th century, the collection continues to grow today and includes some important Russian icons of the 17th and 18th century. Some of the collection is anonymous but these religious panels can easily be recognised as part of the changing European style, in the same way that the collection helps clarify and differentiate between the styles pertinent to Northern and Southern Europe (e.g. compare Veronese to Frans Hals).
The interior of the gallery is a wide open space and its current arrangement masquerades as a rather religious space, in particular because of the display cabinet toward the rear of the building. This appears in size, proportion and perhaps even design as an altar. One approaches the cabinet with reverence to greet the sacred items encased within the work. In order to approach the ‘altar’ one has to walk past a series of religious images, and even further behind one, in an ante-room, is a grouping of Byzantine and early Renaissance works, often anonymous and sometimes incomplete but highly decorative with rich opulent colours and luminous gold leaf.
I will make reference to two paintings: the first is Annibale Carracci’s The Butcher’s Shop (1583–1585, Christ Church Picture Gallery) and the second is Bernardo Daddi’s (1340 – 1345) Four Musical Angels (Christ Church Picture Gallery).
Carracci’s The Butcher’s Shop is the most spectacular in the collection at Christ Church. Not only is the work extremely large in scale it is significant because it was the first time an artist treated a modest genre-subject on such a scale (such proportions usually be reserved for religious altarpieces and the like).
However, when reading this work we must consider the influence of religious narratives if we are to find meaning above and beyond the merely quotidian. Thalmann herself said there are many yet unsolved riddles and although she seemed a little reluctant to indulge some of the suggestions, she also seemed to find them strangely fitting. As do I.
Carracci and his equally artistic brother and cousin were reformers of Italian art at the end of the sixteenth century. They advocated a return to classicism but rejected the still prevalent Mannerist style. The style of The Butcher’s Shop recalls works by Beuckelaer, e.g. his The Four Elements: Fire (1570, National Gallery) in part because of the almost Northern earthy quality but also because of the subtly embedded religious symbolism (which as I said, is still argued over).
If we accept Carracci’s work as nothing more than a rendering of a butcher’s shop then our work is done. However, it is possible that the work is allegorical. As the Christ Church website itself suggests the work could be an allegory of the aims of classicism ‘which involved drawing from the live model, or viva carne, which means both “living flesh” and “red meat” in Italian’.
Beuckelaer’s work is allegorical, it is certainly more than just an interior scene with women working and its various vanishing points are also more than just demonstration of technical ability. Look in the background, there beyond the kitchen, you will find Christ seated with Martha and Mary. This theme was depicted in a similar fashion in Velázquez’s later Christ in the House of Martha and Mary (1618, National Gallery).
So, there is proven merit to this technique of multi-layered narratives within paintings, of allegorical constructions within seemingly innocuous themes. If we approach The Butcher’s Shop with this in mind we are more open to the religious implications within the scene. We certainly don’t wish to consider Velázquez spoon-fed his viewers the ‘answers’ so we should not assume Carracci would. Perhaps our desire to bestow Velázquez with some ingenuity says more about us than it does him. Carracci was certainly a capable and subtle artist, and the religious implications are themselves subtle and ambiguous, but that doesn’t necessarily lessen their validity.
Beuckelaer and Velázquez refer to Christ and position him as a focus of the narrative albeit Christ is not central to the design of the canvas. Carracci’s work on the other hand could be seen as a forerunner of this later ambiguity by Velázquez but is itself later than Beuckelaer’s (albeit by only a few years). Carracci places Christ centrally, we are looking upon the symbol for Christ: the lamb. The figures of Carracci’s painting are those witnessing the crucifixion, or those standing at the Last Judgement watching the slaughter of the lamb (the Lamb of God). The figure of most interest to myself is that of the Butcher. The namesake of the painting is surely a key figure. He owns the work, he owns the scene within the work, he is the key figure, the central figure, overseeing all that happens before him. The Butcher stands observing but not interfering. He sees and notes, but his role is not one that requires intervention. He is angelic in is behaviour, and I mean that he represents an observer, a follower, a mediator, a messenger, a representative of God. The Butcher metes out God’s message and never queries or challenges. He, like Christ, is a servant. His role in this image is that of the archangel St. Michael who weighs the souls in depictions of the Last Judgement. Viewed in this way, this quotidian genre picture of a butcher’s shop suddenly seems more meaningful, more monumental in narrative and more justifiable in terms of its large-scale proportions. This angelic figure reminds us that judgement has yet to come upon us but we should remember it is inevitable.
The other picture I wish to discuss is Bernardo Daddi’s (active from 1312 – died in 1348) Four Musical Angels (1340 – 1345, Christ Church Picture Gallery).
This angelic panel was original part of a large altarpiece, The Coronation of the Virgin (1340 – 1345, National Gallery). The Four Musical Angels was the lower half of the work and it must have been cut from the altarpiece prior to 1828 which is the date the painting entered the Christ Church collection. The National Gallery says ‘It is likely that this was originally a single independent panel and may have been made for private devotion, or for hanging on the pillar of a church at the request of a private patron. Aside from the four angels, there are two partially visible figures on either side of the work: John the Baptist on the left, wearing a rich lilac cloak over his camel-hair tunic, and a deacon saint carrying a banner on the right, who is almost certainly identifiable as St Stephen’. The two most commonly depicted saints are Stephen and Lawrence but when compared with other works by Daddi the likelihood, from observing the iconography, is that this was St. Stephen (most commonly depicted with rocks on his head, the symbol of his martyrdom). The below reconstruction suggests the fragmentary figures of the saints were once full size. This suggestion was arrived from a detailed survey undertaken after the reunion of the Coronation of the Virgin with the Four Musical Angels in a small exhibition put on at the National Gallery in 2005. The Coronation had only been in the collection since the previous year, so the collaboration between the two galleries was a significant opportunity to explore this hypothesis and to undertake infrared reflectograms to learn about Daddi’s use of pigments and composition. The published National Gallery article goes into more detail about this than I will but is worth reading and can be found here. I will make reference to the sections which are of interest to myself, in particular those relating to the Four Musical Angels.
There were two main discoveries: one being a third halo in the Coronation panel and the second being two pentimenti in the Angels. as well as the analysis of the pigments used both in the original composition and in the extension at the bottom of the ‘Coronation of the Virgin’.
As already mentioned the Angels were cut down in size, and in the 1944 Christie’s Sale they were considered not to be by Daddi (an extremely gifted and prolific artist of the fourteenth century) but by his workshop. In comparison to the Coronation, the Angels is narrowed in size. Art Historian Klara Steinweg made the connection between the two panels, and the survey undertaken by the National Gallery seems fairly conclusive. One of the identifying or corroborating pieces of evidence is the punch mark in two angels’ haloes. This dragon creature is in keeping with those found in Daddi’s Assumption of the Virgin (1337, Met).
One of the reasons for accepting the two panels as being a whole, is what Offner describes as being a trend for affording ‘room for kneeling angels’ through comparison to other Daddi (and Daddi workshop examples) e.g. The Coronation of the Virgin (1340 – 1345, Galleria dell’Accademia). Accepting the Coronation as part of a larger panel then permitted consideration of a lower section, which most likely would have included kneeling angels – step in Steinweg.
Angels without instruments are not always hierarchically identifiable but Daddi’s Four Musical Angels are all playing instruments. There is a viol da gamba player, two portable organ players, and a tambourine player. The angel with the tambourine was originally painted holding it from below with the figure’s left hand – this only being identified from the survey work. Interestingly the National Gallery’s article describes the angels using the feminine pronoun which defies general angelic conventions and frameworks for examining their roles in art and literature. Angels are masculine (if indeed they have a gender) albeit art seldom treats them as being so. It always feels more comfortable adopting the feminine pronoun when describing angels particularly when they look so feminine, but we should acknowledge this is an aesthetic and visual response of ours and not a theologically or biblically accurate categorisation.
Daddi’s choice of colour is vibrant, even the organ pipes used silver leaf to create a luminous quality. The severing of the angels, and the cutting away of the saints was presumably done because the image of the angels was in itself a marketable piece (after all both panels are in good condition); after all the nineteenth century had a particular fondness for angels and in the earliest decades this work would have seemed particularly exotic with the green and yellow cangiante draperies of the angels. There are actually some nineteenth century alterations to the green in the Coronation panel, the pigment of which was not available until at least 1818 (this demonstrates the nineteenth century interest in green, which Morris and Rossetti incorporated into much of their work and even into their businesses).
The vermillion robes are reported to show a minor darkening but are still vivid to the naked eye. The opposing contrasting colours chosen are very aesthetically pleasing and eye catching. Daddi replicated the vermillion by using an orange hue in the tiles, likewise with the green tiles. The mordant gilding on robes also reflects the linear design in the floor tiles, and the overall scene is quite geometric with the positioning of the organs (the opposing sides of each is displayed) as well as the tambourine and the viola da gamba. The two organs create a direct line which draws your eye back as per linear perspective (note the pale cooler hue of the gold in the background) and the position of the angels’ hands also draws your eye back into the horizon channel. The angel on the far left looks up and if we imagine the panel in its entirety, we would then be joining the angel in his praise of the Virgin.
If one does not look too hard and notice the fragmentary saints on either edge, these angels are a calm and restful ministration. But once you start to see the saints and become aware of the history and brutality the work has been subjected to, it is hard not to feel fragmentation and disembodiment. The peace and tranquillity (for despite the presence of instruments, there is really barely an audible sound in the work) begins to unravel a little. It is a shame the exhibition of 2006 was only a temporary one, for the panel really should be reunited. It is only then that the divine music would become audible once more.