Inspired by Civilisations: The Eye of Faith

This week Mary Beard returned to our screens on BBC, exploring “The Eye of Faith” in the latest episode of the landmark series Civilisations. In this blog, we take a look at some examples of the many works connected to or inspired by faith in the National Galleries of Scotland.

One of the earliest works in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery is a small triptych created by the early Italian Renaissance painter Bernardo Daddi. Intended for a domestic environment, it would have likely been kept in a bedroom or a study; and was portable enough to accompany its owner on journeys if necessary, to aid their prayer and meditation even on the move.

Bernardo Daddi Triptych, 1338

It shows an unusual selection of scenes -  the crucifixion of Christ and St Peter, the Nativity, an Enthroned Virgin and Child and St Nicholas’s donation of the dowries (an act which allowed the impoverished daughters of a noble to marry, saving them from a life of destitution).

What you can first see when looking at this triptych is the value placed upon devotional objects at the time. No expense was spared in the creation of this triptych, covered in gold leaf and decorated using some of the most expensive pigments available.  It was also an early example of Italian art breaking away from the Gothic and Byzantine styles, towards a more natural depiction of human form. Daddi was one of the earliest to contribute to the flourishing of this renaissance, breaking away from the flat ethereal figures of the past. His depictions give his characters a sense of depth, solidity and emotion that could resonate with the viewer, such as Mary Magdalene at the crucifixion, who clings to the cross in grief, her red cloak catching the viewers eye.

What is most interesting about this work though, and similar portable triptychs of the time is how they allow people today a glimpse into a very personal view of faith. As a commissioned work, the scenes would have been the choice of the patron, and therefore reflected the thoughts and concerns that they wished to contemplate in their devotion. Looking at such works today invites the viewer into a private world within the wealthy fourteenth century Italian home and allows us to realise the important place that faith and belief held within it.

Religious art was also a significant subject in the arts of Northern Europe, which in turn fed into the development of Christian art in Scotland. One of the most important altarpieces painted for a Scottish chapel, Hugo van der Goes Trinity Altarpiece is a rare survivor of Scotland’s religious art pre-sixteenth century. Commissioned for the Holy Trinity Church in Edinburgh by its provost Edward Bonkil, it is also one of the earliest depictions of Scottish royalty – showing James III, Margaret of Denmark and their son, who would eventually ascend the throne as James IV around ten years after the creation of the work.

Hugo van der Goes, The Trinity Altarpiece, about 1478 - 1479
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2016

Van der Goes painting has not come down to us intact though. The central panel, which likely depicted the coronation of the Virgin is thought to have been a victim of Scotland’s reformation, and the iconoclasm that followed across the nation. The reformed faith, driven by the enthusiasm and zeal of figures such as John Knox rejected such images, encouraging the destruction of stained glass, sculpture and painting of ecclesiastical subjects. Indeed, it is likely that the only reason that the Trinity Panels survive today is due to their depiction of royalty.

The legacy of Knox and the leading Protestant reformers in Scotland was the emergence and establishment of Presbyterianism as the heart of the Church of Scotland, maintaining an identity, hierarchy and tradition separate to that of the English Church. The actions of the Presbyterians and their leading figures were considered candidates worthy of the genre of history painting in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, most notably by Sir David Wilkie.

Sir David Wilkie John Knox Dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House (unfinished) About 1840

The son of a minister himself, Wilkie painted two important scenes taken from the Scottish Reformation, The Preaching of John Knox before the Lords of the Congregation and the unfinished John Knox Dispensing the Sacrament at Calder House. Although incomplete, we can see how Knox is placed front and centre; a position where you could have found the divine in the religious works of the past. You have to wonder what the iconoclast would have made of this image.

In the twentieth century, artists continued to be inspired to create due to the presence of faith in their lives, to draw inspiration from religious art in their work and to make use of the eye of faith to respond to contemporary events. Natalya Goncharova’s Images of War portfolio took inspiration from Orthodox iconography and folklore tradition to create images that depicted Russia and its allies as the righteous force against the evil of the Central Powers during the First World War. In The Vision in the Clouds, we see the Madonna and Child blessing a group of the Imperial cavalry. Angels fly over the heads of the soldiers in Devoted Christian Troops, offering their protection. The message conveyed is a simple one – we know that God is on the side of the faithful -  our side.

Natalya Goncharova 'Devoted Christian Troops' from the portfolio 'Images of War' 1914 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.
Natalya Goncharova 'Vision in the Clouds' from the portfolio 'Images of War' 1914 © ADAGP, Paris and DACS, London 2018.

Finally, the impact of religion and faith in modern Scottish painting is most evident in the work of John Bellany. Aspects of his art were heavily influenced by his experiences growing up in the tight-knit, religious fishing community of Port Seton, near Edinburgh. One of his earliest works, Allegory combines Christian imagery with that derived from his own experiences working within the fishing community.

John Bellany Allegory 1964 © The Estate of John Bellany. All Rights Reserved 2017/ Bridgeman Images

The layout of the work is derived from the Isenheim altarpiece, a German Renaissance work by the artist Matthias Grunewald, but relocated to a fishing village like the one where he grew up. A gutted haddock has replaced the image of Christ, the spectators substituted with passive fishermen. By blending these elements of religion and the everyday in this work, Bellany was able to take a real-life scene and imbue it with religious monumentality, showing how even today, the eye of faith can see something in the simplest of life’s moments.

Civilisations continues on BBC2, Thursdays at 9PM.
Bernardo Daddi's Triptych and the Trinity Altarpiece are currently on display in the Scottish National Gallery.

20 March 2018