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The National Gallery’s Barocci paintings show the glory of the counter-Reformation

The richness of their theology is lost on the curators, though

By on Friday, 5 April 2013

The Stigmatisation of St Francis (1594-95)

The Stigmatisation of St Francis (1594-95)

There are several reasons why one should go to the Barocci exhibition currently on at the National Gallery.

First of all, it is the opportunity of a lifetime to get to grips with this artist. Only two of his works have permanent homes in Britain: this exhibition gathers works from all four corners of the globe, so seeing such a considerable body of the artist’s work all in one place is not something that is likely to recur any time soon. The curators have assembled several canvases and the preparatory drawings too, so that enables us to see how the artist worked. In addition, the collection makes clear the way the artist progressed: I have to say, and many may disagree with me, his earlier work is by far his best. The link given above allows you to look at some of the exhibits online.

The second reason to go is because Federico Barocci is an artist of whom – be honest – you have never heard, and a good artist too. Every now and then there is an attempt to claim that some half forgotten painter is a neglected genius, but in this case it is probably true.

Barocci spent most of his working life in Urbino, which, if the National Gallery’s film is anything to go by, is a beautiful place. His patron, Duke Francesco Maria II della Rovere, was very religious, and so was the artist. With the exception of some portraits, and one canvas depicting Aeneas fleeing Troy, all of Barocci’s paintings are religious, either altarpieces, or else made for private devotion. Several are still in the churches for which they were painted, such as a Visitation made for the Chiesa Nuova in Rome, which was the object of rapt contemplation by St Philip Neri himself. The labelling of the exhibits betrays the fact that the curators have little working knowledge of Catholicism, and they make no attempt to analyse Barocci as a religious, even theological, painter. But he certainly was that, and it is clear that he was deeply devoted to the Madonna and to St Francis, and much taken with the incarnation aspects of the Catholic faith.

Barocci did venture to Rome, where, it is thought, jealous rivals attempted to poison him. He attributed his survival and eventual cure to the intercession of the Madonna. It is rather a good thing that he survived; his paintings are one of the glories of counter-Reformation Catholicism, and I particularly liked his Rest on the Return from Egypt, which is partially reproduced here. This is an unusual subject. One can see it is the return from Egypt, not the outward journey, because the Child is quite big. Theologically, this is a rich seam for contemplation. The word “rest” is biblically rich too. One wonders, though, just how much of these layers of meaning a modern audience will absorb. Can a secular world really appreciate such brilliance and grace, to use the National Gallery’s phrase?

  • John McCarthy

    From your comments Barocci seems quite an artist.

  • Brian Crowe

    Can recommend ‘Federico Barocci’ by Nicholas Turner, published by Vilo, Adam Biro. A superb book with many beautiful reproductions of Barocci’s work. I can’t get to the exhibition unfortunately, but I can still enjoy his work.

  • C_monsta

    “Can a secular world really appreciate such brilliance and grace” ? Barocci was indeed a great painter, but how can one take such imagery as a serious depiction of grace when all his infants look like curious elves?

  • John Fisher

    That is because “modern” man is so removed from continuity it is nothing more than looking at pretty pctures in someone else’s photo album.

    “We are the hollow men
    We are the stuffed men
    Leaning together
    Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!” That is what being modern means!

  • Benedict Carter

    What art shall the Counter Reformation II give rise to (as we are undoubtedly suffering right now the Reformation Mark II)?

    Can’t imagine it could possibly be Paul Inwood’s latest opus, “Missa “Get down Offa that Thang” in D Major for Drums, Massed Pipes of the Black Watch and Combine Harvester Engines.

  • Joseph Sowerby

    My own observations on a visit to this exhibition can be found here:

    We also went on to visit an exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery – of paintings by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo.

    I would recommend seeing both exhibitions, together, as we did.

  • Dr Falk

    and yet the Spirit of God shines through and in modern men and women and children. This whole world is filled with God – where we stand is holy ground.

  • getyourshare

    funny thing is poeple like you have been saying this for at lest 2500 years

    you have no sence of histroy
    you know what you been told to know

    you are the hollow man

    filled with the emptiness
    of others

  • getyourshare

    yea what shines thought is your interpretion of god
    sadly this is totally diffent to everone else
    this make you very very alone

    ps that is why there is somany differanty religions in the world just in case youi where wondering

  • getyourshare

    please have a look at my drawing i think you will finnd it helpfull for everyone

  • Dr Falk

    Thank you for your response. i don’t actually feel alone but in union with God. Best wishes to you

  • C_monsta

    Why do you think that doodle would be helpful to any one?

  • Rebecca Bickerton