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Visual arts: Sin at the National Gallery

04 December 2020

Nicholas Cranfield finds ‘Sin’ in the National Gallery disappointing

© The National Gallery, London

The Immaculate Conception (1618-19) by Diego Velázquez

The Immaculate Conception (1618-19) by Diego Velázquez

“SIN in the National Gallery” sounds like such a wonderfully open-ended invitation in these strange days that my appetite has remained whetted throughout the pandemic delay. The gallery is uniquely placed to indulge such an exhibition because of its central London position.

Trafalgar Square lies due west of the City, where merchants and the Corporation of London trade in Greed, south of Soho with its perceived attractions for Lust and sexual adventurousness, and east of Mayfair and St James’s, whose restaurants pander to Gluttony and whose flagship stores excite Envy.

The ever-increasing number of street people might testify to Sloth (and our woeful failure to reform vagrancy laws and to offer appropriate housing). The galleries themselves proclaim in gold letters the names of grandiose donors, Proud enough to be so immortalised.

Furthermore, the National Gallery is north of the Whitehall Palace that Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn built, whose location still houses politicians and civil servants service who bring to mind rather too many sins that could make this taxpayer very Angry.

When he wasn’t busy dispatching missions to spread Roman Christianity to the far flung reaches of the Empire, such as Sicily and England in 597, Pope Gregory the Great penned the checklist of the seven deadly sins which Kurt Weill set to music for his 1933 Parisian ballet chanté and which every cleric is mindful of at the daily recitation of the Te Deum at matins: “Vouchsafe, O Lord: to keep us this day without sin.”

© Private Collection, Hong KongThe Garden of Eden (1613) by Jan Brueghel the Elder, on loan from a private collection in Hong Kong

I was disappointed in this exhibition not because it is small, with just 14 works crammed into a lightless room, seven of which are from the National Gallery with a further two that are on long-term loan (hidden behind the small print; there is still no clearly legible indication of which works are not part of the permanent collection), but because Lust predominates.

The unhappy consequence of this is to suggest that religion (and in a gallery of Western Art this means Christianity) is about Puritanism. Age-old strictures on sexual activity are reinforced with the spotlessness of the Virgin Mary underscored (the great painting of The Immaculate Conception by Velázquez for the Seville Carmelites of Nuestra Señora del Carmen in 1618-20) and the need for confession (Holman Hunt’s horrifying The Scapegoat of 1854-55) trumpeted.

The illustrations in the little booklet accompanying the exhibition by Joost Joustra offer a slightly wider scope of sins portrayed and suggest that a fuller exhibition might have redressed the balance.

Surely El Greco’s angry Christ Driving the Moneychangers out of the Temple; The Rich Man Being Led to Hell, an uncompromising work of David Teniers of about 1647; and Leandro Bassano’s Tower of Babel, for instance, could have been brought up from storage for public display? If the show is intended to be as transgressive as the subtitle indicates, it might have included a filmed Mass in Polari, some of Dan Cullin’s war photography, one of Tim Shaw’s perverse bronze figures, or something from the working lives of the sex slaves near by.

© Manchester Art Gallery/Bridgeman ImagesThe Scapegoat (1854-55) by William Holman Hunt, on loan from Manchester Art Gallery (1906.2)

The curator seems unaware that Warhol’s passionate acrylic paint-and-silkscreen canvases of “Repent and sin no more!” were a response to the Reagan (and, one might say, Thatcher) government policies over AIDS, and not a result of his religious beliefs.

I came away grateful for the opportunity to see individual works again in closer detail, but disappointed that, like a Victorian parent, the limited bias seemed solely about prudish chastisement and admonishment for sensual indulgence.


“Sin” is at the National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London WC2, until 3 January 2021. Phone 020 7747 2885 www.nationalgallery.org.uk

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