Dickinson College Humanities Program in Norwich

The Virgin Blue

August 25, 2009 · 1 Comment

After a delightful performance by E.L.F. trio in St. Martin in-the-Fields, I walked over to the National Gallery with some classmates. I was about to enter a museum with one of the most extensive collections of artwork from the 13th to early 20th centuries, and I was in heaven. As an art history major, art museums, especially one as large as this one, make me feel like a kid in a candy store. Our group made a plan to meet up at 4pm and so Kelley and I headed off to the Sainsbury Wing to investigate paintings from the 13th to 15th century. Although I prefer modern art, I found the works in this section very moving. Of course, they all had a Christian connotation and most of them were placed in a church at one time as an altarpiece or as part of a triptych. As a Reform Jew, I really don’t know much about Christianity outside of the Old Testament; however, everyone can appreciate the beauty of these paintings and the emotions they evoke. After passing through room after room of the Virgin Mary and Christ I began to wonder, why is the Virgin always depicted in blue robes? The blue is a similar shade in every painting, somewhere in between the color of a clear sky at dusk and a robin’s egg. Naturally, I looked it up when I returned to the Arran House. Some of the answers I found ranged from the ridiculous “because it’s her favorite color” to the more academic explanation, “blue was the color Byzantine empresses wore.” All I can say is that the particular shade of blue is a color I’ve only ever seen in these paintings, so I guess I’ll leave it as ‘the Virgin Blue.’

            As we moved through the rest of the museum I was overcome with joy… I was seeing some of my favorite lessons come to life. When you see a picture that you study in your textbook or in a slide comes to life, it’s like seeing it for the first time all over again. Major players like Masaccio, Titian, Raphael and Bellini were all here. It was hard for me to believe that I was actually standing in front of THE Aronlfini Wedding Portrait by Jan van Eyck. This paining first began my love affair with the Dutch school of painters and semiotics…. now I was here, in front of it. I could actually see the dog (for fidelity), the removed shoes (the marriage as a religious sacrament), and the reflection of Van Eyck himself in the mirror along with the inscription “van Eyck was here.” Also, for anyone who is interested, his bride is NOT pregnant. She is simply wearing the style of dress that was popular at this time period. I was even able to see Holbein’s The Ambassadors (1533) and walk across the room to see the anamorphic perspective skull.

            However, when I walked into the 19th and early 20th century gallery my heart really began to race. As Kelly will attest, I did audibly gasp when I saw Gauguin’s Still Life with Mangoes (1891-6). This section was by far my favorite. The late nineteenth century painters were the first school to paint modernity; they disregarded all the set rules, added some color and painted the world around them rather than the bible or portraits. Degas, van Gogh, Cezanne, each one brought paining to a new place either with subject matter, texture or color. The Degas gallery was especially moving. I am fascinated with his series that captures the private movements in women’s lives. He takes everyday scenes intimate such as a woman drying herself off after a bath or having her hair combed and turns it into a story for the viewer. We are left wondering, who is she? What is she doing? Why?

            Of course, I could not make it through the entire gallery in one day. So I plan on returning soon to take in the 17th century (including one of my absolute favorites, Vermeer) and to revisit the early-modern painters. Everyone should visit the National Gallery, regardless of his or her “art background.” It really is the crown jewel in the world of art museums.  I anyone wants to come back with me, please let me know.

Categories: Grace · Museums
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