The Magic of Veronese

The Church of England - - Sunday - Veronese: Mag­nif­i­cence in Re­nais­sance Venice Na­tional Gallery Veronese: Mag­nif­i­cence in Re­nais­sance Venice is at the Na­tional Gallery un­til 15 June. Ad­mis­sion: £14; range of con­ces­sions. Tick­ets: www.na­tion­al­gallery.org.uk / 0844-847-2490

No artist ex­pressed the splen­dour and op­u­lence of Re­nais­sance Venice with greater panache and richer colour than Paolo Caliari [1528-88], named Veronese af­ter his na­tive city. Dom­i­nat­ing the Vene­tian School with his great con­tem­po­raries Titian and Tin­toretto, he painted Bi­b­li­cal and Clas­si­cal themes for ec­cle­si­as­ti­cal and lay pa­trons, sump­tu­ously adorn­ing churches, pa­tri­cian palaces and pub­lic build­ings across Venice and the Veneto re­gion.

Na­tional Gallery’s Veronese: Mag­nif­i­cence in Re­nais­sance Venice, pre­sent­ing 50 mas­ter­works from col­lec­tions world­wide, is the first-ever com­pre­hen­sive UK show­case of his oeu­vre. Its ac­ces­si­ble for­mat is broadly chrono­log­i­cal: Early Works [1545-60], Por­traits [1555-65] and Al­tar­pieces & Paint­ings for Churches [1560-70] to The­atri­cal­ity & Mag­nif­i­cence [1565-80], Art of De­vo­tion [1570-80], Al­le­gories & Mytholo­gies [1570-80], then Late Works [1580-88].

The sheer rich­ness of his the­atri­cal-scale scenes is al­most dis­con­cert­ing. Hand­some fig­ures in lush silks and fine vel­vet, amid lux­u­ri­ous fur­nish­ings and ta­pes­tries in soar­ing ed­i­fices, en­act in vivid tableaux and care­fully posed crowds, re­li­gious and mytho­log­i­cal episodes. All by vis­ual im­pli­ca­tion cel­e­brate the wealth of the Vene­tian Repub­lic - but the re­li­gious­themed ones also af­firm a Catholi­cism resurgent af­ter the Coun­cil of Trent [1545-63] launched the Counter-Ref­or­ma­tion. Res­i­dent in Venice from 1553, Veronese won many Church com­mis­sions, mainly for al­tar­pieces, fresco cy­cles and ceil­ing can­vases for churches and re­li­gious in­sti­tu­tions.

From his 1548 Con­ver­sion of Mary Mag­da­lene, with Christ and pen­i­tent in deep en­counter, and con­tem­pla­tive mid-1550s Vir­gin and Child with St Peter, to his 1583 Agony in the Gar­den, its ex­hausted Christ cra­dled by an an­gel, Veronese cre­ated works - usu­ally for pri­vate chapels - with in­tense de­vo­tional fo­cus. Yet his re­li­gious paint­ings are typ­i­cally cel­e­bra­tory, rather than mys­ti­cal or deeply spir­i­tual.

His Risen Christ ver­i­ta­bly dances from the tomb; on their Flight into Egypt, the Holy Fam­ily pic­nics among smil­ing an­gels and happy an­i­mals; the two great Ado­ra­tion of the Kings, for Venice and Vi­cenza churches, vis­ually praise the in­fant Christ.

The Sup­per at Em­maus [c.1555] is his most re­mark­able cel­e­bra­tion of faith tri­umphant. Gaz­ing heav­en­wards, the cen­tral fig­ure of Christ at a sim­ple ta­ble, with two dis­ci­ples and two wait­ers, blesses the bread - and does so amid a finely-dressed fam­ily group in­clud­ing 10 chil­dren, a black ser­vant, two dogs and a cat. In this pic­to­rial revo­lu­tion, blend­ing Bi­b­li­cal scene with con­tem­po­rary-era people, Veronese pro­claims with joy­ful rev­er­ence the Risen Christ bring­ing new­ness of life to all hu­man­ity. It was prob­a­bly the fo­cus of fam­ily wor­ship in a Vene­tian palace.

Veronese pow­er­fully im­aged the re-af­fir­ma­tion of the role of the saints in per­sonal piety and pub­lic wor­ship, a key Counter-Ref­or­ma­tion theme. The Mys­tic Mar­riage of St Cather­ine [c.1570] for the epony­mous con­vent in Venice, cel­e­brates the saint in mag­nif­i­cent bro­cade gown, with child Je­sus putting a ring on her fin­ger as an­gels cir­cle above. This work and its con­tem­po­rary Mar­tyr­dom of St Ge­orge com­po­si­tion­ally de­lin­eate earthly and heav­enly realms as dis­tinct yet spir­i­tu­ally close.

Of­ten set­ting por­traits of pa­trons in his re­li­gious works, he yet cre­ated few in­de­pen­dent ones: Por­trait of a Lady [c.1565], ‘Bella Nani’ is the most fa­mous, her ret­i­cent gaze con­trast­ing with her lux­u­ri­ous vel­vet gown and gold jew­ellery.

Re­nais­sance Venice was at the fore­front of re­dis­cov­er­ing the An­cient World, not least Greek mythol­ogy. Fol­low­ing Titian, Veronese won rep­u­ta­tion for largescale al­le­gor­i­cal paint­ings, of­ten in dra­matic or the­atri­cal mode. Perseus and An­dromeda [1580], its fly­ing hero about to slay the ul­tra-ugly sea monster and save the chained hero­ine, is the most strik­ing ex­am­ple on show, while Four Al­le­gories of Love [1575] is a moral­ity cy­cle, on holy and sin­ful love.

Show­cas­ing a supreme Vene­tian pain­ter, deemed in his time “trea­surer of art and colours”, this hugely en­joy­able Old Mas­ter ex­hi­bi­tion is a ‘must-see’. Brian Cooper

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