In England:

Wall paintings in Yorkshire and Cornwall

Sandham Chapel

The Tournai fonts in Hampshire


Shah Jahan Mosque, Woking


In Italy:

 Pisa

Ravenna

 Basilica of San Francesco, Assisi

  Assisi's churches

New! Holy Sepulchres in Jerusalem and Europe.
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Introduction: a storm in Venice

    In September 2003 my wife and I were mooching around the sunny Piazza San Marco when something odd started happening. The people who had been busily selling silly hats and Venezia tee-shirts to tourists were packing up their barrows and trundling them as fast as they could under the shelter of the Ducal Palace colonnade. Within minutes the blue sky filled with cloud and a gusty wind blew in from the lagoon, scattering the pigeons. They knew what was about to happen too – soon they were crowding on the windowsills. Then came the heavy rain, and the first crack of thunder.

   
  
The storm raged on for ten minutes or so, then, as abruptly as it had come, it went. The traders pushed out their barrows, the pigeons flew down from their perches, and the well-to-do tourists emerged from Florians and began to mill around once more in the bright sunshine. We emerged from such meagre shelter as we had been able to find.
    “You know what?” I said. “Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony suddenly makes sense!”
  My wife, who is used to taking no notice of my more pretentious pontifications, just sighed, but I persisted.
  “You see, that storm in the fourth movement has never convinced me; more Fantasia than meteorology.  All those merrymaking peasants dancing about, that sudden roll of thunder and the storm, then, suddenly, sunshine, birdsong, and that lovely tune just right for shepherds and shepherdesses to gambol to. Thunderstorms just don’t work like that.”

 Well, they don’t in England.

 English thunderstorms take a whole afternoon to build up, rumble on for a while, and then gradually fade away in miserable drizzle that can last for hours. Thunderstorms in Venice don’t do that; and Austria, where Beethoven wrote that symphony, isn’t that far away.
  To understand art, you often need to find a context; and to do that, you may need to get on a plane; though not necessarily, as we will see later. 

Looking for context

  I love art galleries. When I can’t get to them, I’m happy to scour the Internet for pictures or pull one of the (far too many) art books off my groaning shelves. But for a lot of art, these ways of looking at it lack something – context. This is particularly true of religious art. As Roy Strong puts it in A Little History of the English Country Church, 'Artefacts (in museums) have been removed from the context of faith and become exhibits in the history of art'. 
  Well, OK, sometimes context isn’t always as good as I’m cracking it up to be. Viewing murky, smoke-blackened pictures in chapels of Italian churches is not always that wonderful an experience, even after putting your fifty eurocents in the slot to illuminate them. At least in a gallery the picture will (probably) be cleaned up a bit and decently lit. And yet . . . another word one could use is, well,  sanitised.

   Of course, not all paintings need the sort of context I’m going to talk about in this study. A Dutch landscape or a picture of Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol work fine anywhere. Sometimes a good part of the context can be supplied in the annotation – who painted it and for whom, where it came from, and so on. But however good the annotation is, it cannot let us see the artwork as it was intended to be seen.
  So what contexts may be lost? Let’s look at an example. 



    This Annunciation by Duccio (National Gallery, London) is a small panel from the great Maesta, originally painted for the Duomo in Siena. My study of this extraordinary masterpiece can be found here.
    In the early eighteenth century the Maesta was broken up, with the intention of redistributing it around the church. At this time a number of the component panels went missing; some are now in art galleries around the world, some have disappeared entirely. In my study I have used a reconstruction of what the entire Maesta looked like (minus the missing panels), in an attempt to provide a context. But when the component parts are scattered, as has happened to so many altarpieces, getting a feel for what the original artwork looked like is very difficult.
 
   It's not just about context within the artwork. An important aspect is where it was located, and what its function was. Go to Siena now and you can see the remaining part of Duccio's altarpiece in the Duomo museum. The right city, but a museum nevertheless. In its original location, the front (with a large image of the Virgin) had a devotional function, while the rear (the story of the life and passion of Christ)  had a didactic function. A broader context is a historical one; the Virgin was sacred to the city. 
  So, even for complete works of art, context can be multi-layered and complex: devotional, political, locational, functional, theological.  Even when a work of art is exactly where it was, and how it was, there is another missing context - the mindset of those for whom it was painted. 
   In the Strozzi chapel in Santa Maria Novella, Florence, is Nado di Cioni’s fresco of Hell, painted in 1350 as Florence struggled to recover from the Black Death. I have discussed this as part of a study on the Magi here.  In the twenty-first century, inured by watching horror films, viewers may regard this fresco as slightly comic; how different then. Here's Roy Strong again: 
   ‘In order to comprehend the importance of images we need to understand the medieval mindset. Today we take reading, writing and visual stimulation for granted. We encounter more images in a day than a medieval villager would have seen in a lifetime. Yet virtually the only images he or she ever saw were displayed in the parish church. The impact of this visual world on the many worshippers who were unable to read or write must have been overwhelming: spelled out before their eyes was the story of creation and salvation – and their own place within it.’

   So where are the great works of art that we will look at, the ones that are where they were, and as they were? A few obvious candidates come to mind; Leonardo's Last Supper, the Sistine Chapel, the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua, the monastery of San Marco and the Brancacci Chapel in Florence. But I'm not going to start in Italy. Just to be different (or out of sheer perversity) I'm going to take my cue from Roy Strong and start with locations in England. As you'll see, I'll still be able to squeeze in some Giotto. 

  


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