The National Gallery director on religious art, family singalongs, and the Marian painting that survived the Puritans

Gabriele Finaldi talks of the National Gallery as if it were a cathedral. Its doors are open, all are welcome, no fee is charged. The galleries – long naves of paintings – instil a change in visitors. “They become quieter,” he says. “They spend time looking. They perhaps don’t spend quite so much time talking. Things begin to go on in their heads, their imaginations, as they look. I think this happens in all galleries, but where there is great art, I suspect it happens more easily.”

It’s true. Before I meet Finaldi in his office above the north terrace of Trafalgar Square, I visit the Sainsbury Wing where there is a contemplative hush. These galleries of medieval and Renaissance art are a sanctuary from the tourists, buskers, pavement artists, protesters and floating Yodas of the square outside.

Finaldi has been director of the National Gallery since 2015. Tall, urbane, bearishly broad-shouldered, he would have been a man for Giovanni Battista Moroni to paint – Moroni’s The Tailor in the National Gallery’s collection could be Finaldi’s younger brother. Moroni was born in Albino, near Bergamo in 1520; Finaldi in Barnet, near Wembley in 1965. He grew up in Catford, a south London suburb, with his Italian father, half-Polish mother and seven siblings. He discovered painting at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and read history of art at the Courtauld, where he wrote his doctorate on the 17th-century Spanish Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera (son of a Valencian shoemaker, he painted in Caravaggist style, was often on the run from his creditors, a rags to riches story). Before joining the National Gallery, Finaldi was deputy director at the Prado in Madrid.

He has since returned to Catford, and he and his six children are practising Catholics. They are a musical, harmonious bunch. When Finaldi moved into the director’s office at the Gallery, he brought a piano with him. But he found he never had time to play and the piano is now in Catford. He says music is a way of calming the mind, putting aside the demands of the gallery. “Ding, ding, ding!” chimes his computer as email after email arrives. “Playing music changes the tempo of your day. It takes you to a quite different place. It puts you in tune with different emotions. It also brings me together with members of my family.” Finaldi plays; his children sing.

Finaldi’s scholarship is underpinned by faith. When he talks about religious painting it is not in the sceptical, abstract terms of some curators – “some people believed this once …” – but with inspired insight. He has given intense thought to what an altarpiece, a gilded martyrdom, a bloodied Crucifixion, would have meant to the devout. What they mean now.

Is something lost when a painting is removed from a church or a private chapel? Can you still have a profound, prayerful, religious experience even in a crowded gallery? “Oh, I don’t have the slightest doubt that it’s possible,” says Finaldi. “I do think, though, that much has been lost.” Many of the paintings in the Sainsbury Wing, for example, “come from a church environment, or, anyway, a devotional or faith context of some sort. A place where people would have looked upon these images as if looking on the divine. They would have looked on a painting of the Virgin Mary and appealed to her for their sick family members and asked for her graces to be given.

“So the context is lost, not just the physical context, but over time the belief context has become much, much weaker. To the point where people often don’t know what they are seeing in some of these pictures.”

This is partly a problem of education. The school syllabus is ever more secular. Children are not taught Bible stories, hymns, and saints and their attributes. How do you bring on a new generation of art historians – of art lovers and gallery-goers for that matter – if they cannot tell Delilah by her shears and St Anthony the Great by his pig?

“It is worrying,” says Finaldi. “Not just because these are Christian references that are not being understood or picked up. It’s about the cultural environment in which a generation emerges. There is a rich visual language tradition, a rich symbolic language in literature, which we find increasingly difficult to understand if we are not attuned to allegory, if we are not familiar with the great themes of classical antiquity and the Bible. If we are not aware of the background, then our experience is impoverished.”

The myths of antiquity are as essential as the Bible to our understanding of Milton, Shakespeare, Titian, Veronese and Botticelli. We need to know Ovid, Homer, the Old and New Testaments. “Whether it is Noah or David and Goliath: these are stories that are embedded in our psyche and in our culture,” Finaldi says. “To know the sources is always an enriching experience. It’s not about being clever. It’s not about declaring a position with regard to religion. It’s about understanding the roots of our own culture, how we got to where we are.”

Finaldi speaks passionately about the story told in the first room of the Gallery’s exhibition Monochrome: Painting in Black and White. Here we see paintings that exclude colour for moral reasons. “It was decided that colour, which is sensual and enticing and inviting, is potentially dangerous,” he explains. “So the choice to switch to black and white and the tones in between is a sort of avoidance of temptation.” Monochromatic depictions of saints strip art back to “the essential, the honest, the trustworthy”. If colour is illicit and tantalising, then greys become monastic, meditative and pure.

Colour can also be a virtue: a way to distinguish between dull, grisaille earth and rainbowed heaven. Hans Memling’s Dunn Tripytch (c1478) is shown in the exhibition with its folding doors almost closed. We are presented with the grey sculptures of saints painted on the outer wings. “Then,” says Finaldi, “as you look between the wings you see this sliver of the mystical, heavenly world of the Virgin and Christ Child through the gap.” Peer through the chink and you are dazzled and transported by ecstatic colour.

If a visitor to the National Gallery had time to see only one painting, where would Finaldi send them? “I’d say the Wilton Diptych. It’s a beautiful, mysterious picture, one that has miraculously survived the passage of time. It has survived iconoclasm and puritanism. It has come down to our time in a battered state, but the interior opens up a vision of a heavenly realm, which is unequalled. It is a very English take on what heaven is like: the King of England kneeling before the Virgin Mary and the heavenly court.

“Rather amazingly, and you have to look very, very close up to see this, the standard which is held above the Christ Child has a disc at the top. It’s actually an island with some small boats around it and it’s almost certain that it is England on a silver sea.”

I double back through the galleries to see it. The diptych is as Finaldi described it: beatific Virgin in blue, King Richard II in gold robes, a miniature England inside an orb. Then, out into Trafalgar Square – from the sacred to the profane – where the Yodas are still floating.

Laura Freeman’s first book The Reading Cure is published in February.
Monochrome: Painting in Black and White is at the National Gallery until February 18