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Art review: Storytelling: A Life of Christ on Paper at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

25 August 2023

Nicholas Cranfield sees an exhibition that tells the stories of Jesus

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

Ecce Homo, a 1589 engraving by Agostini Carracci, after Correggio

Ecce Homo, a 1589 engraving by Agostini Carracci, after Correggio

THE Barber Institute, housed in the 1939 Art Deco University of Birmingham gallery (Arts, 5 June 2020), boasts more than 150 paintings. It also has more than 800 sculptures and works on paper.

The permanent collection is arranged chronologically, invaluable for exploring the development of West European art. The first room, the Green Gallery, contains works from the 14th to the 16th centuries.

There, small panel paintings (Bicci di Lorenzo’s St Romuald, Ugolino di Nero’s St Francis, and Simone Martini’s plangent St John) lead to Tintoretto’s 1554 portrait of a 22-year-old Frenchman and the 277.5cm-tall Visitation of the Virgin Mary, painted after 1583 by Veronese for an altarpiece once in S. Giacomo Murano, demolished in the 1790s. (His Resurrection altarpiece for the same church has been housed in the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital since 1950, and the Christ and the Sons of Zebedee is in Burghley House.)

Alongside, in the small print bay, are 11 depictions of scenes from the Life of Christ chosen by Dr Chloe Church for a project that she has undertaken as the current National Gallery curatorial trainee on placement. In the corresponding print bay in the Beige Gallery, Robert Wenley has chosen works of Dutch landscape for an equally engaging show, “Nature and Artifice”.

There are no Nativities, Crucifixions, or Resurrections in Church’s selection. Rather, the story of Christ’s childhood, ministry, Passion, and post-resurrection life is illustrated by the paintings in the Green Gallery.

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of BirminghamThe Raising of Lazarus by G. B. Castaglione

For his chiaroscuro woodcuts in black and browns, Giuseppe Rossigliani (c.1503-60) turned to paintings by his contemporary, the Mannerist Parmigianino (1503-40). Christ Healing the Lepers imagines Jesus and his disciples walking on after the healing (Luke 17.11-19). The Appearance to Saint Petronius of the Virgin and Child with Saint Sebastian derives from a work that Parmigianino had undertaken in Bologna in the late 1520s, when he left the Rome of Pope Clement VII after the Sack (1527).

The new 16th-century technique of chiaroscuro woodcutting used colour woodblocks to add tone to a printed image. Printed images brought the Gospels to many more than a painting could, offering storytelling in an age before mass literacy.

Guido Reni also turned to Parmigianino for his 1590 etching The Deposition, an unusually crowded scene in which the three closest disciples of Jesus bear in between the Virgin and the Magdalen. Around 1660, Reni’s pupil Luigi Scaramuccia (1616-80) etched Titian’s 1542 The Crowning of Thorns for Cardinal Girolamo Farnese, papal legate in Bologna 1658-62.

Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of BirminghamBartolommeo Biscaino, Holy Family, c.1650

The National Gallery in London has 11 paintings by Correggio, 1489-1534. Among them is his Ecce Homo (NG 15). This was painted c.1525-30 and derived from Dürer’s Small Passion (1511). In turn, Agostino Carracci engraved the Correggio in 1589, retaining the extraordinary detail of the Virgin scraping her fingernails along the parapet as she falls back in a dead faint, a detail unique to Correggio.

The two contrasted scenes of The Raising of Lazarus are by two brothers, G. B. Castiglione (1610-64) and Salvatore Castiglione (1620-76). The former has two onlookers peer down into the tomb as the revivifying Lazarus stretches both arms. Other mourners crowd forward by the light of a torch, oblivious of the Light of the World standing as if transfigured behind them.

“Storytelling: A Life of Christ on Paper” is at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts,

University of Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham, until 24 September. Phone 0121 414 7333. barber.org.uk

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