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Natural high: Peder Balke's "Moonlit View of Stockholm" (National Gallery) 

When Nicholas Penny became director of the National Gallery in 2008 he promised an end to the cult of the blockbuster exhibition and proposed instead more focused shows that would display the gallery's considerable holdings in new ways. Devotion by Design: Italian Altarpieces before 1500 is a perfect example of what he had in mind. This is a scholarly — but not unapproachable — examination of a rich genre: as well as the numerous little-known artists represented are many of the Renaissance's great names — Duccio, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Leonardo and Michelangelo. 

The exhibition serves above all as a reminder that many of the pictures we are used to seeing in isolation were made for a very different context, and one that would have transformed them utterly. Indeed the show itself is as much about that context-whether the layout of churches or the spectacular gilded settings that were central to their effect-as the images themselves. One of the National's best-loved paintings, for example — Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ from the 1450s — now has a 19th-century tabernacle frame (with pilasters and an arch mimicking an architectural setting) and stands alone as a unified piece. When it was painted, however, it was designed simply as the central panel in a complicated Gothic ensemble that included 15 other paintings showing various saints and episodes from their lives that were the work of a lesser artist, Matteo de Giovanni. As it was initially viewed, Piero's quietly contemplative scene had to fight for attention in a riot of gilding, carving, finials and competing images. 

In fact the name altarpiece itself is somewhat misleading. It assumes these sculpture-painting hybrids were linked to the high altar but they were also hung in side chapels and aisles and some were even painted directly on to walls. And nor did they have any liturgical legitimacy: canon law stipulated the presence on the altar of a crucifix and two candles, and other items took their place there too — a pyx, chalice, paten, missal and so on — but altarpieces had no official role in the celebration of mass. Gradually, however, they came to be adopted largely as a theatrical backdrop against which the priest would raise the consecrated host and thus, with their numinous imagery, aid the congregation's   understanding of the moment of transubstantiation. They were not intended to act as icons for either veneration as holy objects or as a means of intercession with God himself.

The narrative of the exhibition starts with the first polyptychs (multi-panel constructions) in the early 14th century and examines how they were superseded in the next century by the pala (a single picture with the saints that used to be in separate panels joining the Virgin and Child in the main image). Along the way there are discussions of the predella panels that supported the main work and usually showed scenes from the life of the altarpiece's tutelary saint and the extraordinarily complicated carved wooden frames which were seen as works of art in their own right. For example, Michelangelo was paid 60 ducats for his Entombment (1500-1501), while the frame-maker received 50 ducats. 

The fact that so many altarpieces were subsequently dismembered and their panels distributed around the world adds an element of detective and forensic work to an already fascinating exhibition.

Religion is also the subject of the National's second summer show, but this time in its post-Enlightenment guise of Nature. Forests, Rocks, Torrents is a selection of 45 Norwegian and Swiss 19th-century landscapes from the collection of Asbjørn Lunde. It seems at first glance a recondite subject but it offers a glimpse into an unexpected corner of European Romanticism and the work of a group of little-known but beguiling painters.

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