Pause to ponder: four Italian art jewels based in Edinburgh

At the end of October I returned to Edinburgh, my university town, for a cousin’s wedding. I took the opportunity to spend a morning revisiting the Scottish National Gallery on the Mound. It was a sweet reminder of the various Italian (and other) art jewels that I discovered as a student here more than ten years ago.

The Edinburgh-based gem I remember most vividly is Sandro Botticelli’s Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child, which is actually due to go on show at New York’s Frick Collection from Nov. 5, 2014, along with several other masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery.

Botticelli_Scotland_96The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christ Child by Sandro Botticelli (1490), Scottish National Gallery

In Italy I have seen countless depictions of the Madonna and Child. But this has always remained one of my favourites. Painted by Botticelli in Florence around 1490, it shows the pair by a rocky outcrop, surrounded by pink roses and other flowers. It is unusual because Jesus Christ is shown asleep- a possible symbol of his future death and suffering for mankind. I like the serenity in Mary’s adoring face and the lovely contrast of the blue and pink colours. The roses, and the bright red strawberries in the right hand corner, can be seen as representing the blood of Jesus the martyr. Mary’s blue cloak and the violets at the bottom of the picture symbolise her modesty and humility.

The painting, on canvas, may have been designed for a home. Botticelli’s work was inspired by his former master and fellow Florentine Fra Filippo Lippi. Here’s Lippi’s Madonna with Child and Two Angels, painted around 1465 and now on display in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery.

filippolippiMadonna with Child and Two Angels by Fra Filippo Lippi (1465), Uffizi Gallery

Another painting in Edinburgh influenced by Lippi is this small picture by his son Filippino, The Nativity with Two Angels. It was created around the same time as Botticelli’s work, in 1490. The central figure of the Madonna is flanked by Joseph and two angels who hold up Mary’s robe. It’s a pretty little painting with influences from Dutch art (such as the towers in the background) and may have originally been made for an altarpiece.

madonnatwoangelsThe Nativity and Two Angels, by Filippino Lippi (1490), Scottish National Gallery

Also on show in Edinburgh is one of my favourite works by Renaissance artist Titian, from the 16th century Venetian School. The Three Ages of Man, painted around 1512-14, is a landscape scene made up of three parts: a group of babies, a pair of lovers, and an old, forlorn man in the background.

Tiziano,_tre_età_dell'uomo_01The Three Ages of Man by Titian (1512-14), Scottish National Gallery

The subject of this painting is the transience of human life and love. The babies on the right, unaware of the concept of love, are being trampled on by cheeky cupid. The  couple on the left stare into each others eyes, completely engrossed by the feelings between them. The old man behind contemplates two skulls, which are likely those of the lovers. The church behind him offers some consolation for the sadness of the scene, representing the eternal salvation of faith.

I like the three-part composition of the painting, and its symbolism. The babies and the couple appear oblivious to the old man in the background and his melancholic reminder of life’s brevity.

A work by Titian that is often on display in the Scottish National Gallery but alternates with the National Gallery in London is his interpretation of the Greek myth Diana and Actaeon, painted for King Philip II of Spain in 1559. I was keen to see this after admiring the sculptures of the same scene in the Royal Palace at Caserta. Unfortunately I visited during the time it is not in Scotland, but the reminder encouraged me to look back at pictures of this piece.

Titian_-_Diana_and_Actaeon_-_1556-1559Diana and Actaeon by Titian (1559) National Gallery of Scotland and National Gallery, London

Along with Titian’s Diana and Callisto, it had been on long-term display in Edinburgh since 1945. The Scottish National Gallery teamed up with the National Gallery in London to controversially buy it off the seventh Duke of Sutherland for 50 million pounds (an example of the value of Italian Gems), after he put it up for sale in 2008. Since that acquisition it will alternate every five years between the galleries.

The scene portrays the moment the mortal Actaeon stumbles upon the chaste Diana, goddess of hunting, as she is bathing nude. In her embarrassed anger Diana eventually transforms Actaeon into a deer and sets his dogs against him. I like the sensuality of the painting, and the various facial expressions of Diana and her helpers. She looks furious, while some of the other ladies are giggling nervously or appear a bit frightened. Actaeon appears confused and alarmed and puts his hands up as if to prevent himself from witnessing the scene. I also like the image of Diana’s cute little dog barking at the intruders in the right hand corner.

It was nice to review this painting of Diana and Actaeon after seeing the large sculptures of the scene at the top fountain in the gardens of Caserta. This is how Diana’s scramble to cover herself is depicted in this 18th century sculpture by Paolo Persico, Angelo Brunelli and Pietro Solari:


I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting the collection at the Scottish National Gallery. New Yorkers are lucky to get a chance to view some of its best treasures at the Frick’s exhibition “Masterpieces from the Scottish National Gallery”, including Botticelli’s Virgin adoring the Sleeping Christ Child. It’ll be on show there until February 1, 2015, so don’t miss it darlings xx


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