An Array of Ageless Visages

The faces on show at the National Gallery and the Queen's Gallery are of their times, yet timeless

Michael Prodger

If you could put an average European male from, say, 1500, next to his 2008 counterpart, it would not be hard to tell which era each belonged to. Even were you to strip Renaissance man of his giveaway clothes and restyle his hair, he would still stand out by standing shorter – by an average of four inches. If, however, he had been lucky enough to escape the pitting of smallpox and if he kept his mouth closed to hide his rotten teeth, there would be nothing in his features to distinguish him from today’s model: faces are immutable.

The visitor to Renaissance Faces: Van Eyck to Titian, at the National Gallery from October 15, will confront an extraordinary array of ageless visages. There are some 60 paintings in the show as well as sculptures, drawings and medals. A large proportion of the exhibits are foreign loans to complement the National’s strong 15th-century holdings. The artists represent a roll-call of the period: Van Eyck, Holbein, Dürer, Lotto, Bellini, Raphael, Botticelli and Titian among them. As an opportunity to confront the great and the good – both artists and sitters – this is a select gathering.

Prior to the Renaissance, portraiture was concerned with death rather than life. Tomb effigies, votive images and medals were made less to record physical appearance than to symbolise the temporary home of the departed soul. It was humanism that led to an explosion in portraits as living likenesses. The two great centres were the Netherlands and Italy: in the north, artists initially used oil paints to show sitters three-quarter or full face (such as Hans Memling’s mesmeric Portrait of a Man Holding a Coin of Nero, c.1475), while in the south they used tempera and painted faces in profile (such as Pisanello’s heraldic depiction of Leonello d’Este, c.1441). Such was the cultural traffic of the time that these distinctions did not last long.

This is not, however, an exhibition about the stylistic development of portraiture but about the different ways that portraits were used. “Through painting, the faces of the dead go on living for a very long time,” noted the architect and theorist Leon Battista Alberti, but patrons quickly realised that portraits could also be exchanged as diplomatic gifts, display the sitter’s social standing, give prospective husbands an idea of the beauty – or otherwise – of their bride-to-be and keep friends and lovers close at hand. They could amuse, too, as is evidenced by a rare appearance of a work by Giuseppe Arcimboldo. His c.1590 portrait of the Emperor Rudolph II as Vertumnus, the god of the seasons, must surely be the most bizarre royal portrait ever painted. The emperor is composed of vegetables, fruit and flowers – a pear for a nose, a corncob for an ear, a marrow for a forehead. How the scientifically minded Rudolph must have laughed, though not perhaps as much as his courtiers.

This exhibition is remarkable for both the quality of the exhibits and their variety. As in any good social gathering, the stately and the beautiful mingle with the lively and the ugly, their massed gazes offering a blink of recognition across the centuries.

Many of the sitters in the National Gallery were inhabitants of the world on display at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace: Bruegel to Rubens: Masters of Flemish Painting (from October 17). The exhibition covers the period 1500-1665, the golden age of Flemish art but also a time of bitter civil strife as the inhabitants of the Low Countries sought to free themselves from their Spanish overlords.

Unlike the gallery’s The Art of Italy exhibition of last year, this is not a show full of surprises; most of the artists – the likes of Marten van Heemskerk, Crispin van den Broeck, Frans Wouters – justify their relative anonymity. There are, however, some spectacular pictures by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Rubens and Van Dyck that show once again just what riches lurk in the Royal Collection.

The choicest of the seven paintings by Rubens are the two large landscapes he painted for his own enjoyment c.1618-19: Winter: The Interior of a Barn and Summer: Peasants Going to Market. Summer is a shimmering pastoral with plump peasants and equally hearty animals processing through rolling, un-Flemish countryside. While it symbolises God’s bounty, it also shows a sense of optimism brought by the end of the Eighty Years War. Winter is a bravura performance: as snow falls outside, a farmer contentedly surveys his family, his workers and his livestock safely gathered within. In this one scene, lit by the light from a small fire, Rubens shows his mastery of landscape and weather, flesh and fur, pose and anecdote.

It shows too that he was a true son of the Flemish tradition, at the head of which was Pieter Bruegel the Elder. It was Bruegel’s delight in peasants “engaging in various drolleries” that transmitted itself down the Flemish painterly line. There is nothing droll about his Massacre of the Innocents, 1565-67, though. In a snow-covered Low Countries village (no hint of the Holy Land here) soldiers dressed in the garb of the hated Spanish are running amok, knocking down doors and, deaf to the pleas of the inhabitants, slaughtering birds and animals.

At first it makes no sense until you look harder and discern that beneath the plumage of a swan a pair of childish legs is sticking out and that all the other animals are painted over the ghostly figures of children too. The Emperor Rudolph II, the same man painted by Arcimboldo, ordered the children covered over and the scene changed from a biblical massacre to one of plunder. He may have smiled at seeing himself as a pile of vegetables but not at such a stark image of the slaughter his fellow Habsburgs had unleashed.

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