Skip to Content


Beyond belief

The subtitle of Treasures of Heaven is ‘saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’. The key words here are medieval and Europe.

27 August 2011

11:00 AM

27 August 2011

11:00 AM

The subtitle of Treasures of Heaven is ‘saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’. The key words here are medieval and Europe.

The subtitle of Treasures of Heaven is ‘saints, relics and devotion in medieval Europe’. The key words here are medieval and Europe. There’s not much from England because we suffered the autocratic cleansing of the Reformation in the 16th century, and much of our native tradition of what was then dubbed idolatry was destroyed or swept away. And because our Church was reformed in this way, those of a C of E persuasion tend to be suspicious of relics and devotional aids. Our unadorned worship does not encourage the ritual veneration of bits of people, and our rational selves discredit the endless fragments of the True Cross (just how big was it?) or the numberless thorns that supposedly came from Our Lord’s crown. So it was in a spirit of healthy scepticism that I set foot inside the latest British Museum exhibition under Smirke’s great Reading Room ceiling.

 If it’s possible to divorce religious belief from aesthetic appreciation — and that does not involve disparaging the strongly held convictions of the craftsmen who made these objects or the Church that commissioned them; it means keeping an open mind — then a great deal of pleasure can be obtained from the artistry on display. The exhibition opens with a copper-gilt reliquary bust of St Baudime, a missionary from Rome to France, his hand raised to bless the pilgrim. The precious stones that once adorned this magnificent sculpture have mostly been stripped off, but there is great and benign dignity still present.

There are cabinets of tokens and badges, a mosaic roundel from Dorset, sarcophagi, ivory and alabaster panels, shrines and great amounts of gold and gilt; even a panel painted by Gentile Bellini (1429–1507), more a Renaissance figure than a medieval one. The arm cases are some of the most bizarre relic-holders; the reliquary of the Holy Thorn, 14th-century French, is the most exquisitely decorated. Despite the dim light and reverential music, I couldn’t forget the brisk and irreligious trade in relics, and the relic-hunters who would literally tear a body apart, nor the pilgrim industry which sometimes seems like an early form of tourism. Plenty of beauty, yes, but I personally didn’t find it an aid to belief.

The latest free display in the Sunley Room of the National Gallery deals exclusively with Norwegian and Swedish landscape paintings from the collection of the American lawyer Asbjørn Lunde. The son of Norwegian émigrés, Lunde began to collect Scandinavian paintings in 1968, and has amassed one of the world’s greatest private collections of Norwegian and Swiss landscapes, mostly from the 19th century. In the process, Lunde has become something of an expert, as well as a connoisseur. Those who feared that connoisseurship had become a thing of the past may breathe more freely, and hasten to the NG. There, 51 of Lunde’s paintings are now on view, most of them unknown in this country, offering a distinctive and unfamiliar kind of landscape painting closely linked with notions of national identity as well as with the sublime and the pastoral.

Norway was poor, isolated (‘the crossroads to nowhere’ as Christopher Riopelle neatly puts it in the useful catalogue, £9.99 in paperback) and dependent on its wealth of natural resources. By contrast, Switzerland was rich, independent and an early centre for business. They couldn’t be more different as nations, yet in terms of scenery they are similar — snowy mountains, thick forests, valleys filled with running water — and both turned to landscape as an expression of how they thought of themselves. The work in this exhibition tends to be highly realistic and distinguished by its attention to detail, as seen in the couple of small Swiss paintings which start the show off — by Caspar Wolf and Adam Töpffer. Then a different note enters, with Robert Zünd.

His painting ‘Storm Study’ is a wonderfully moody oil which ably captures that feeling of dark sky hanging like a threat just before the rain starts. The sun is still shining fitfully on an area of grass, helping further to illumine the great grey storm clouds. Opposite hangs an exquisite painting of a solitary pine by Alexandre Calame, called ‘Rocky Path’ (1860). The tree, with its many broken-off limbs, stands in the foreground like a solitary traveller surveying the scene from the top of a valley, with one of the torrents of the exhibition’s title making white water in the background. Calame (1810–64) is undoubtedly the best-known Swiss landscapist of the period, whose versatile genius owes a certain amount to Dutch painters such as Ruisdael, but who far exceeded his models in the telling depiction of mountains and rushing streams.

The Norwegian Johan Christian Dahl (1788–1857) is another of the stars of the show. Look at his paintings ‘Grotto near Naples’, ‘Chalk Pit near Maxen’ and the open-air study ‘Rock from Nystuen’. Paintings such as ‘Fjord Landscape with Menhir’ (1837) underline the spiritual component in Dahl’s art, which balances and extends the apparent naturalism. Actually, although based on meticulous studies made in front of nature, these paintings were composed later in the studio, edited and slowly worked up to a statement about the Eternal Norway, an ennobled version of reality, not a transcription. The pervasive melancholy that seeps from these pictures is perhaps indicative of the impossibility of capturing an ideal, or simply expresses the complexion of the Nordic temperament.

Dahl’s greatest student was Thomas Fearnley (1802–42), a Norwegian with a grandfather from Yorkshire, who worked in Switzerland but also painted memorably in the Lake District. In him the Norwegian and the Swiss traditions are briefly united. Caspar David Friedrich was an influence on Fearnley’s romantic concepts of landscape, and he produced a range of fascinating works from the undramatic ‘View over the Elbe’ to the more intense ‘Tree Study, by a Stream’.

Technical virtuosity can grow tedious if not backed up by an individuality of vision, so it is something of a relief to turn to the wilder images of Peder Balke (1804–87), who pursued altogether broader and more general effects. His work begins the move towards Modernism, and can at times verge on the expressionist. All of his work here is interesting, but the best is undoubtedly the modern-looking black-and-white improvisation ‘Seascape’.

On a sunny Friday afternoon in August, this exhibition was packed, but then so was the whole of the National Gallery. I suppose one should feel delighted that so many want to embrace art in this way, though the crowds make it extremely difficult to look at paintings, let alone concentrate on them. Am I alone in pining for the days when museums were for the devoted few?

Show comments