An unusual exhibition of religious art at the National Gallery

Christ and His Cousin: Renaissance Rediscoveries, curated by Dr. Aoife Brady

(Until May 8, 2022; Hugh Lane Hall; free admission – no reservation required)

Currently, the National Gallery is holding a small but very interesting exhibition in one of its smaller exhibition spaces, focusing on images of the infant Jesus and his cousin St. John the Baptist.

These took about 15 years for the gallery’s curator, Simone Mancini, to preserve. Over the decades, some of them have hardly been seen; but changing interests in art history have now greatly increased their interest, and the opportunity to view the paintings should be taken.

They and their scholarly presentation will be of great interest to those interested in the expression of faith in the Renaissance and the Counter-Reformation.

There are eight images in all, of which the most beautiful is, by general opinion, that of Giovanni Antonio Sogliani, The Virgin and Child with Saint John the Baptist. Here a pensive Madonna watches the interaction of the two children, Jesus with a hand raised in blessing, the child John grasping a reed (symbolic of his future staff from the banks of the Jordan}, alluded to at the top left of In the background, on the right, we can see in the distance two figures in white supposed to represent adult Jesus and John walking together.

This painting focuses on two things: the prophetic soul of the Virgin Mary contemplating the distant pain that awaits the three of them, and how the present joys of childhood will give way to the harsher demands that will come upon them later.

This theme can be seen in the other painting shown here, thought to be by Jacopino del Conte, although less well expressed. But all give glimpses of family life in Renaissance Florence, then the center of Italian culture, that are very charming and delightful in themselves.

All these images are the work of Florentine painters. Devotion to Saint John the Baptist, considered the precursor of the Messiah to come, was then very important in the city. John the Baptist was the patron saint of the city, the original patron of the city being Saint Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin. There was therefore a widespread devotion in Florence to these figures, and the feast of his nativity on June 24, placed in balance with the nativity of Jesus, was the occasion for elaborate summer festivities throughout the city.

Bourgeoisie

The paintings on display were probably not, due to their size, intended for large churches, religious houses or wealthy convents, but for the residences of the moderately prosperous Florentine bourgeoisie. The gallery is rich in images from these other institutions; these come from the private domestic scene, they represent the family piety of ordinary people. Hence the warm and playful family life they depict.

The traditional echoes in these images (and indeed in much religious art down to modern times) come not so much from the New Testament gospel accounts with echoes of Old Testament prophecy, as from the rich apocalyptic tradition, so prominent in Catholic folklore.

According to Dr. Aoife Brady, Christ and His Cousin: Renaissance Rediscoveries “will explore the symbolism and traditions that underlie these playful and lively compositions, and encourage visitors to reconsider what are often dismissed as conventional, familiar imagery”.

The traditions behind these images do not come from the Gospels themselves, but from beliefs generated from passages by Old Testament prophets and early Christians recorded in early non-canonical apocrypha, such as the Gospel of James. Some of these books survive in the Catholic Bible, but are excluded from those of the Reformed traditions.

Much of this and more was given shape by Jacobus de Voraigne (1230-1298), Archbishop of Genoa. His compilation The Golden Legend (c. 1260) was one of the most influential books of the time, and his notions lingered in the kinds of things told to Catholic children by the nuns who began their education. Today, the wonderful folklore of the High Middle Ages has largely evaporated; yet his notions can be seen all over European art, especially in the genre of devotional paintings to be seen in this exhibition. An encounter with these paintings will open up many little-known aspects of their heritage.

(Those who wish to learn more about the critical use that can be made of these traditions should consult The Legends of the Saints by the Bollandist Hippolyte Delehaye (Four Courts Press, Dublin 1991), a modern edition with a new introduction by the Dublin native expert in this field, Father Thomas O’Loughlin, Emeritus Professor of Historical Theology at the University of Nottingham.)

And while in the National Gallery, visitors should explore the adjoining rooms which are full of examples of religious art from the Renaissance and other periods. No matter how familiar we think we are with the collection, there will always be unfamiliar images to grab our attention and open up new experiences for the eyes and the imagination.