Author Tessa Hadley on how we carry art around in our mind

Published 26 May 2020

While in lockdown Tessa Hadley pays a visit to her inner National Gallery, contemplating recollections of one of her favourite Renaissance altarpieces, Jacopo Di Cioni’s ‘Coronation of the Virgin’.

  • Tessa Hadley is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Her latest book is Late in the Day (Jonathan Cape).

    From the Summer 2020 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    All the art galleries are closed. I suppose there are a few people going around them, checking security, dusting, feeling the weight of all that art unseen. In some fundamental sense it must be true that a painting doesn’t exist unless someone’s looking at it – and yet that’s not what I imagine, thinking about all those rooms empty of visitors, in this strange suspension of our looking. I imagine those unseen paintings persisting on the walls in all their authority and beauty; I picture the long succession of each gallery’s rooms as urgently, silently alive, loud with the paintings’ dumb eloquence as they speak to one another. I even think, irrationally, that the paintings might be able to be more their whole selves, not compromised by our imperfect looking. If we could be invisible inside the emptiness and catch them like that – if we could be present wholly, as they’re present…

    In the last weeks before the coronavirus crisis, I had been popping into the National Gallery whenever I found myself in town with an hour to spare. Those improvised and solitary visits are the best – no distraction, no sociability, no anxiety over what anyone else thinks. You can sink down inside your contemplation. I didn’t really have a plan, but I wanted to get to know some of the medieval Italian works, teach myself a new little bit of their history – so I meandered left at the top of the staircase in the Sainsbury Wing, and found myself in late 14th-century Florence, in front of Coronation of the Virgin, by Jacopo di Cione (1370-71), the central panel of the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece. I must have walked past it before but I had never looked at it, I didn’t know Di Cione, or his dates, or anything about him or his work. I sat there for a long time before I wandered in to see the Wilton Diptych, and then I left the gallery. On a couple of further occasions I visited the Di Cione, as well as adding in a couple of Piero della Francescas, which I already knew; I worked on understanding what the art historians say, about how innovative Piero is and how singular. My brother is an art historian, and I’m aware whenever I’m in a gallery with him, how my eye is untrained, careless of the visual construction, too quick to move to the content of what is narrated.

  • Jacopo di Cione and workshop, The Coronation of the Virgin: Central Main Tier Panel

    Jacopo di Cione and workshop, The Coronation of the Virgin: Central Main Tier Panel, 1370-1.

    Part of the San Pier Maggiore Altarpiece.

    Egg tempera on wood. 206.5 x 113.5 cm. Main Collection, The National Gallery.

  • So, where is Jacopo di Cione’s Coronation of the Virgin now? I mean, I know where it is, safe in the National Gallery for the duration. But where is it inside me, after all that contemplation, if I can’t see it? The banal truth is, that I can see it, or sort of see it, if I want to – I can look it up on the internet, even more easily than in the old days when I might have found a reproduction in a book. But where is it inside my mind, meanwhile? I’m interested in how we transport the art we love around with us, and at first I’m going to try to write down here what I remember of the painting, without looking it up or checking anything. I’ll look at it online afterwards, when I’ve finished writing, in case I’ve got anything terribly wrong. My visual memory isn’t very good, it’s not exact, not like an art historian’s, or an artist’s.

    If I had to sketch out the shape of the coronation, block out its elements inside a shape, I couldn’t do it – which is quite startling to realise, after so much looking. I know that it’s big, and that in front of it in the gallery there’s a seat; I did my looking from there. A lot of what I can remember is about what I was thinking, as I looked. The painting has turned into a sort of story inside my memory; or, not quite a story – a sign, an element in my inner life of sights and signs. A sign, with accompanying intimations of mood and colour, fragments of form.

    What I most of all remember is the gesture at the core of the painting, where Christ, sitting under some sort of canopy, places the crown on his mother’s head, making her the Queen of Heaven. It’s a piercingly beautiful gesture, between the son and his mother: the tenderness with which he exalts her – his careful precision in placing the crown, using both of his hands – and her humility. Their heads are bowed, their faces solemn. There are other 14th- and 15th-century Coronations around this room in the gallery, including one by Lorenzo Monaco; the gesture and its representation are conventional, repeated around the walls like a rhythm, a kind of pulse. He crowns her over and over. It’s a timeless rite, not an event.

    But why the mother’s subordination to her son? She came first, and when he was helpless, he depended on her! Why isn’t he bowing his head to her, in her matriarchal primacy – why isn’t that our religious story here? We know why. And we know all the violence dissimulated in this exquisitely tranquil painting of the fixed hierarchy: a moon-faced God the Father presides in an upper panel above the Coronation, and saints and angels are ranked below it, watching obediently in their fixed order. When a woman gives birth to a child, that child must in time transcend her; every middle-aged mother knows this submission to time’s passing, and to the transfer of power between generations. I know it because I have three stepsons and three sons. But the gesture here is more than that. It’s archetypally patriarchal.

    The woman gives birth to the man, who then transcends her in spirit and leaves her behind, in nature: it’s only through Christ’s favour, his lovely gesture of coronation, that the Virgin gets her exalted place in the kingdom of heaven. Among the saints watching, there are only a very few women. The son of the male godhead, out of his own humility, elevates the feminine; because his mother is worthy, chaste, exceptional, he surrounds her with consideration and glory. A beautiful gesture between a man and a woman is enshrined at the heart of the painting, but by its very nature – they’re mother and son – it’s safely purged of any suggestion of their sexuality, their sexual biology. It is an ideal pure dream of the patriarchal hierarchy, relegating female biology to the margin, even though we know that Mary has actually given birth.

    I am remembering all the thoughts that played through me, as I sat in front of the painting in that quiet room, with a few visitors coming and going. I wasn’t quarrelling with the painting exactly, or even with myself: my thoughts moved, rather, around these different layers of my sensibility, between my knowingness and my naivety, my doubt and trust. And I remember that my knowing, critical resistance to the painting’s meanings seemed callow, or at least secondary, beside my submission to them, and to the painting’s beauty: its delicate light, the gravity of the facial expressions, the earth-pink tonality (Lorenzo Monaco’s candy-coloured brilliance on the next wall didn’t move me so much). The beauty of the painted gesture between son and mother was its own truth, whatever else I cared to think about it: the gesture persuaded me, for all my doubt, as a significant moment of sacred theatre, a culmination of meaning. Meanwhile, the crowd of attentive saints and angels hold their breath, wordless; some of the angels have instruments, but we can’t hear their music, because time has stopped. The son touches his mother, he recognises her. For a long moment, there isn’t anything else.

  • Above the Coronation itself, as I remember it, there is a series of smaller painted scenes from the life of the Virgin and the Passion, set in recesses in the elaborate gold woodwork. I can’t remember them all: I am sure there’s a Nativity (The Nativity with the Annunciation to the Shepherds), the women arriving at the empty tomb (The Three Marys at the Sepulchre) and, at the far end of the sequence, the disciples filled with the Holy Spirit, watched by a gathering crowd. These scenes weren’t painted to surprise – except with the artist’s virtuosity – but rather to touch off a familiar set of associations. And yet as I ran my eye along them, taking in the familiar stories, I was so stirred, thinking: these people knew better how to live than we do.

    Whatever could I mean by that? I don’t know a lot about the reality of life in the 14th-century Italian city states, but I hope I don’t have too many illusions about it. I’m sure that the commission of this painting would have been part of some game of wealth and power, for the aggrandisement of a patron. And then I’m the beneficiary of so many of the revolutions – technical, medical, intellectual, political – that have come about since then, in our collective lives in Europe.

    So was this nothing but sentimental nostalgia, my overwhelming intimation? These people knew better how to live. My own thought was opaque, as opaque as the figurations themselves – poor shepherds visiting a baby, an angel sitting on an empty tomb, tongues of flame hovering on the heads of the disciples. How can these images resonate so deeply for a thoroughly modern, secular sensibility like mine, as if they lay at the source of significant meaning? In spite of everything. In spite of feminism, say; or in spite of the stain of Christianity’s history of antisemitism, whose shadow is always in the paintings.

    The truth is that these Christian stories have underpinned the whole development of our shared European culture, including our secularism; they have shaped our aesthetic and moral imagination at levels so deep we’re mostly unconscious of it. And then I’ve been looking at Italian paintings since I was 18, when I was working unhappily as an au pair in Florence and went to the Uffizi (no queuing then) on my days off. I’ve internalised, through this lifetime of looking, some of the perceptual and imaginative history of Christianity in Europe, though not as a believer; my imagination has cast itself to some extent into those forms, inside that story. If I had been brought up as a believer, who knows, I might have developed more resistance – an allergic reaction – to the Christian story. (Colm Tóibín rewrote with fierce anger, in The Testament of Mary, the relationship of Mary with her son.)

    So Di Cione brings about in paint once more these intimately known miracles: the Nativity, the tomb, the Pentecost. His plain little scenes, almost diagrammatic, reduced to their essential gestures, feel charged with a riddling significance. They seem to cut through in their simplicity to some tragic-redemptive apprehension which cannot be adequately transliterated into any theological or philosophical language – the images speak to us as clues or signs, oracular, bypassing explanation in words.

    Into all of the iconic Christian images – the Massacre of the Innocents, the Annunciation to the Virgin, the Agony in the Garden, Christ’s suffering body on the Cross, Mary Magdalene’s encounter with the gardener, the failure to recognise a stranger on the road to Emmaus – we have poured for centuries our dread, our love, loss, hope, joy, curiosity and puzzlement. They have mediated and interpreted the world for us, for better and for worse.

    In this lockdown, when I can’t touch my own sons or see them except on a screen, I’m carrying Di Cione’s coronation gesture around inside me, a grave and golden reverberation in my thought, along with that moment of recognition and submission I had in the gallery, whatever it means – These people knew better how to live. There’s so much more art I’m carrying inside me too, all muddled and imperfectly remembered and enriching, woven into my perception, in my mind’s eye. At a certain point in my daily walk, for instance, the trees arch overhead to become a melancholy, lovely Watteau garden. And now whenever I see a hart’s-tongue fern unfurling in a hedgerow, I think of the white hart, emblem of rash king Richard II, painted on the reverse of the Wilton Diptych, kneeling in its gold collar and chain – nature and civilisation entwined. Progress in civilisation can only ever be partial, equivocal, fraught with loss. In a crisis the past can help us imagine how to live.

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