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The Bible and the Visual Imagination.
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The Courtauld Institute of Art Gallery

Biblical Art in the permanent collection

Somerset House, Strand, London WC2

The Gallery of the Courtauld Institute of Art houses some of the most important collections of European drawings and paintings in the United Kingdom. The Gallery, like the Institute itself, is housed in the magnificent setting of the 18th century Somerset House, in the heart of London.

Of considerable interest is the Gallery’s collection of Biblical art, much of it acquired through the munificence of individual donors, especially Thomas Gambier Parry (1816-88) and Count Antoine Seilern. The Gambier Parry collection came to the Courtauld in 1966, through the generosity of his descendants, who had kept his great collection intact, and that of Count Seilern in 1978. This short introduction focuses upon Biblical art from those two collections, now housed in Rooms 1 and 6 respectively.

Thomas Gambier Parry was a notable collector of medieval and renaissance art. He was deeply imbued with the principles of the Tractarian Movement within the 19th century Church of England, and a prominent member of the Ecclesiological Society. The church which he built and decorated from 1838 onwards at Highnam on his Gloucestershire estate is a lasting memorial to Parry’s passionate and knowledgeable interest in medieval and renaissance art and architecture.

The Parry bequest includes outstanding works dating from the 13th to the 16th centuries. From the 13th century comes ‘The Coronation of the Virgin’ by Guido da Siena (fl.1260-1300) – the earliest known Sienese representation of what was to become a favourite subject for artists. Among the 14th century works are the Estouteville Triptych of c.1374; Bernado Doddi’s (c.1280-1348) Polyptych of the ‘Crucifixion with Saints’, intended for the Florentine church of San Giorgio a Ruballa; Barnaba da Modena’s (fl.1361-83) ‘Virgin and Child’; and the Camoldolese monk Lorenzo Monaco’s (c.1375-1425) ‘Coronation of the Virgin’. Da Modena’s work adheres closely to the Byzantine canons, which is not altogether surprising as he lived and worked in Genoa, where Byzantine painting was long dominant. Monaco’s painting has more than passing historical interest; it was once in the collection of Napoleon I’s uncle, Cardinal Fesch, one of the earliest and most discriminating purchasers of Italian ‘primitive’ art. Also from the 14th century dates Parry’s magnificent collection of ivory panels, diptychs and triptychs; beautiful and intricate work, excellently and accessibly displayed here.

From the 15th and early 16th centuries comes Fra Angelico’s (c.1395-1455) ‘Man of Sorrows with Saints’ of c.1421; Mariotto Albertinelli’s (1474-1515) ‘Nativity’ – probably painted at the turn of the century – and also his breathtaking ‘Creation and Fall’ of 1514-15. This great narrative painting sees the text of Genesis 1-3 unfold in a unified landscape. The painting reads from left to right, with God the Father blessing and naming the animals (Gen.1:24-5 & 2:19), creating Adam (Gen.2:7), creating Eve from Adam’s rib (Gen.2:21-5) and the Temptation (Gen.3:6). There is also Benvenuto da Garofaldo’s (1481-1559) ‘Holy Family with the infant St John Baptist and St Elizabeth’, once in the Royal collection of Charles I; and the ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ by the Master of the Twelve Apostles (fl.1527-42). Altogether it is a collection of late medieval and renaissance art which no Biblical scholar should miss.

The same has to be said of the Prince’s Gate Bequest of Count Seilern. Here the visitor will find outstanding works on Biblical themes dating from the 16th and 17th centuries, and especially works by Rubens. Mention has to be made of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s (1472-1553) famous ‘Adam and Eve’ of 1526 and Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s (c.1525-69) ‘Christ and the Woman taken in Adultery’ of 1565 (Jn.8:2-11), notable for being painted in grisaille. The P.P.Rubens’works include scenes from both the Old and New Testament narratives – Cain slaying Abel (Gen.4:8); Moses and the Brazen Serpent (Num.21:9); Esther before Ahasuerus (Esther 8); the Flight into Egypt (Matt.2:14); the Entombment (Matt.27:59-60) and the Conversion of St Paul (Acts 9). Also to be seen here are Rubens’ preparatory works for his great Antwerp Cathedral altarpiece.

As well as such works as these from the core collections on permanent display, the Courtauld Gallery also regularly hosts temporary exhibitions. In 2007 these include Guercino: Mind to Paper (22 February-13 May) – drawings by one of the most versatile draughtsmen of the 17th century – and Temptation in Eden: Lucas Cranach’s Adam & Eve (21 June-23 September), the first UK exhibition dedicated to this artist. Biblical scholars please note these dates!

John Morgan-Guy
February 2007


Courtauld Institute of Art

Engraving showing Hogarth at work on a painting.William Hogarth, 1764 (Founders' Library, University of Wales, Lampeter)