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Artist of light and shadow

by
01 May 2015

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition about Gherardo delle Notti

Museo di Palazzo Reale, genoa

Night scene: Dead Christ with Two Angels, 1612-13 by Gerrit van Honthorst (Gherardo delle Notti)

Night scene: Dead Christ with Two Angels, 1612-13 by Gerrit van Honthorst (Gherardo delle Notti)

FOR most visitors to Florence, the great paintings of the Uffizi galleries are so much the prime tourist destination that it is often difficult to justify the time spent in queuing or the patience needed in seeing individual works of art. This necessarily means that many become so exhausted by the time that they reach the terrace café that any further appetite for paintings or sculpture is bound to be compromised.

Given the present re-hang of the collection, with formidable works taken from the celebrated Tribuna and placed elsewhere, and with all the Titians, Raphaels, Pontormos, and Caravaggios moved down to the first floor, this is regrettable. More than before, any serious-minded gallery-goer needs to think carefully about priorities and to plan accordingly.

The temporary exhibitions also suffer from this rearrangement, as they are only accessible after walking through the entire gallery with all its inevitable distractions. Nor is it possible to book solely for the exhibition.

The exhibition of Italian paintings by the Utrecht-born Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) is the first in a series to celebrate 2015 as "the year of art in Florence", as if an excuse was needed.

Despite the strange subtitle, which looks better in Italian than it reads in translation, but which proves to be irrelevant, of which more anon, this is a significant retrospective of a Caravaggesque painter from the Dutch Golden Age who was famed for his ability to depict night scenes, gaining him his sobriquet Gherardo delle Notti (Gerard of the Night).

In his lifetime, he was regarded with great esteem, and he became, successively, a court painter for Charles I in London and at Hampton Court, and in 1635 was commissioned for classical scenes by Christian IV of Denmark. He is the later author of a series of family portraits (1642-43) painted in The Hague of the exiled Stuart Queen of Bohemia and her children, including Prince Rupert of the Rhine and his brother Prince Maurice of the Palatinate, and their sisters, now in the National Portrait Gallery and various private collections.

This acclaim followed an earlier period working in Rome, which is the subject of this monographic exhibition, in which English visitors will recognise the confrontation in the National Gallery's Christ before the High Priest c.1617 as one of the great 17th-century paintings in Trafalgar Square.

Perhaps his most celebrated commission for Florence was for the Adoration of the Shepherds, which he painted while he was still working in Rome for the Guicciardini chapel in the church of Santa Felicità in the winter of 1619-20. The church served as the parish church for the Grand Dukes of Tuscany, and still nestles under the Vasari corridor that links the Uffizi and the Palazzo Pitti.

The painting remained as the altarpiece there until 1667, when it was replaced by a Crucifixion by Lorenzo Carletti. In his 1832 Voyages historiques et littéraires, Antoine Claude Pasquin, called Valéry, noted that both paintings were in the choir alongside a Resurrection by Antonio Tempesta. Three years later, it was sold from the church when it entered the Uffizi collection.

When the river Arno flooded Florence on 4 November 1966, Honthorst's night scene of the shepherds crowding round the illuminated Christ Child beneath four delightful cherubs that tumble out of the dark night sky was used on the cover of the exhibition appeal literature to help restore works. In the still unresolved car-bombing of the Uffizi on 27 May 1993, when six people were killed, the canvas was one of three destroyed. The two other paintings were by Honthorst's contemporary Bartolomeo Manfredi.

What is left of the canvas has been painstakingly restored, and bears the scars of the destruction. It is shown with justifiable pride alongside some 40 paintings by the artist in an exhibition that concludes by showing his influence as a painter of night scenes on the likes of the Sienese Francesco Rustici (1592-1626), Matthias Stomer (1600- c.1650), and the Arlesean Trophime Bigot (1579-1650).

Far from being bizarre, as the subtitle suggests, although the Christian iconography may be increasingly unrecognisable to many visitors, the paintings are predominantly religious scenes. Two feature the Nativity, one of which was long owned by the Earls of Portland, but was sold off from Wellbeck Abbey at Christie's in 2010 for £1.1 million. The other was in a Medici villa and is now in the Uffizi.

An inner radiance from the Christ Child illuminates the night scene in both, as the Virgin piously unveils her newborn for the gaze of the angels (Uffizi) and the Shepherds (now in a German private collection).

It is suggested that this topos, in which the painterly radiance is in stark contrast to the darkened stable, derives from a Bolognese tradition such as found in the similar depictions of Domenichino, Lanfranco, and Reni. A contemporary of Honthorst, Giulio Mancini, recorded that Rubens painted a similar altarpiece for the church at Fermo in 1608, drawing on the much earlier work of Antonio da Correggio, a picture, now in Dresden, that dates from the late 1520s. But the tradition is much earlier.

The inspiration for such a striking popular composition, with its shaded reminder of John 1.5 and 1.9, comes from the well-known vision accorded to St Bridget when she visited Bethlehem on 13 March 1372. The record of her visions was translated from Swedish into Latin soon after her death the following year. One of those testifying in the process towards her canonisation in 1380 mentioned such a night scene being painted in Naples; and a beautiful triptych by Niccolò da Tommaso, now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, also predates her canonisation.

A century later, Honthorst's (and Rubens's) fellow countrymen Geertgen tot Sint Jans, who painted several scenes of the Nativity by Night in the 1480s, one of which is a much-loved painting now in the National Gallery, and Hugo van der Goes popularised the scene of darkness and light.

Several pictures form a sequence of the Passion of Christ, a theme emphasised in the Counter-Reformation preaching of the period, and include a Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane (St Petersburg), the Mocking of Christ from the Capuchin church on the via Veneto in Rome, which is reckoned to date to the artist's earliest years there (1610-15), and a later and more horrifying depiction of the same scene from Los Angeles.

Christ in the garden had looked painfully resolute in front of an angel, but, in keeping with the Northern Netherlandish tradition of a Man of Sorrows, he is harrowed and greatly troubled by the violence to which he is subjected. With downcast eyes, Jesus avoids looking at his executioners, who mock him, and whose fierce faces leap out of the darkness by the light of a flaming brand held by one of them. The only repose now will come in death.

In an overdoor panel painted around 1612-13, we see the Dead Christ with Two Angels (Genova, Palazzo Reale). Honthorst uses strong models for his Saviour, so that the force of death is even more overwhelming. Also from the former royal palace in Genoa, and cut down to fit an identically reticulated frame, comes a less widely known St Augustine of Canterbury.

Sitting at his desk, he looks in contemplation at a crucifix, while he points to a map of England, where he would bring the gospel. It is not clear why Honthorst was asked to produce such a picture, but his own visit to the court of Charles I in 1628 may have proved a satisfactory-enough excuse, and brought a reminder of the need to encourage the conversion of a new Protestant nation.

A dying Magdalen, supported by one angelic messenger while another holds a light before her face (Milan, private collection), offers us a chance to consider our own mortality and the comfort we might seek in death, and is one of those canvases in which the artist makes us pause alongside his subject, as in the earlier (1611-12) frieze-like Judith's Prayer before Killing Holofernes (Paris, Galerie Didier Aaron & Cie).

Holofernes sleeps heavily in upholstered luxury as Judith's maidservant draws back the curtains from the bedside. Judith has paused in the act of unsheathing her fierce-looking scimitar, and offers a silent prayer heavenwards. All three figures spread across the canvas (190×245cm). This is one supper party (the remains of which are on the table behind the vengeful Jewess) not to forget. The Cleve-land Samson and Delilah has a similar apprehensive concentra- tion and silence as the Philistine sets about cutting the Nazarene's locks.

Other religious pictures include Jesus in his Father's Workshop, a scene Honthorst painted more than once, with the Virgin helping the boy Jesus to hold up an oil lamp to provide light as his father carves wood with an adze. After a long day in his workshop, St Joseph Reading comes as a surprise. The Carmelite devotion to the Virgin's spouse may explain the commissions for such tender observations of fatherhood. A startled St Luke Reading a Letter (Chambéry) and an ecstatic St Francis reeling back as his hands and side are pierced with the stigmata are painted with real assurance.

The tables set for lutenists, a wedding banquet, and a mischievous fortune-teller show Honthorst as a painter of genres; but the scene-stealer has to be the tawny-coloured rabbit pertly leaping up to sniff the sole of Orfeo's bare foot, let loose from the Palazzo Reale in Naples.

"Gherardo delle Notti: Most Bizarre Paintings and Merry Suppers" is in the Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, until 24 May. Open daily except Monday. Phone 00 39 055 294883.

www.unannoadarte.it/gherardo 

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