Stories of Gold | Gold | National Gallery

Stories of Gold | Gold | National Gallery

The first Christmas gift is gold, given
to the young Christ child in his stable. There are golden objects however through the National Gallery’s collection. From golden apples, to golden fleeces and
golden vessels, the National Gallery is full of stories about gold. In the early part of our collection from the early Renaissance works the most regular
place in which we’ll find the act of gift-giving going on is in paintings
depicting the moment of the Adoration of the Magi. The moment that painters
normally choose to depict is the moment in which these gifts are given over. Vincenzo Foppa’s ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ was painted in the early 1500s and
we see in the painting the kings surrounded by a retinue of courtiers,
pageboys; we see a pageboy adjusting the spurred footwear of one of the kings. We also see a pageboy holding the crown of one of the kings. Some of the gold details that we see are much more vivid and more plastic in their appearance. They are rendered using pastiglia where the artists build up the surface first
to create a 3D effect, before then putting gold leaf over the top. So today these gold elements really
pop out to us and they would have been very impressive when the painting was
first made. But today they seem to stand out even
more because of the way in which the rest of the painted surface has degraded
over time and that is thanks to this use of pastiglia where it really creates a 3D
effect and the gold can really shine out to us today. In Rubens’s ‘Judgement of Paris’
we see our protagonist Paris at the right hand side of the picture, and
in his hand he’s holding a golden apple. So there was a dispute between the
gods at a wedding, of all places, as to who was the most beautiful goddess and
the three goddesses we see in the picture; Venus, Minerva and Juno very, very much wanted to be crowned the most beautiful goddess. Venus, the goddess of
love, offers Paris the love of the most beautiful women in the world if he’ll
give her the golden apple. Minerva, the goddess of war and wisdom, promises Paris victory in battle and Juno, the queen of the Gods, offers him land and riches. Paris is in the process of making his decision. He’s awarding the golden apple to the fairest goddess and he’s chosen to give
it to Venus, the goddess of love, and so he’s reaching forward to pass the apple over to her. The apple isn’t actually the most standout shiny part of the painting. There are a quite a number of other precious metal elements to the painting
that start over on the left with the armour and very particularly the shield
of Minerva, also some of Venus’s jewellery and the tie that attaches the quiver of
arrows to Cupid. One of the modern figures of Christmas is Father Christmas and he is
universally recognised as the person who delivers gifts to our houses, often down
a chimney. He derives almost entirely deliberately from America but his
antecedents is very much Saint Nicholas of Bari who was a 4th century Christian cleric in what’s now Turkey. Saint Nicholas of Bari came across a nobleman who was impoverished who had three
daughters. So Nicholas decides that he’s going to help them. This story is
represented in a painting in the National Gallery by Girolamo Macchietti
and the painting shows him, rather fabulously, about throw a gold ball
through a latticed window, and in the room there are three girls asleep and the father also asleep. The story of Jason and the Argonauts is not really that well represented in art, but there
is, at the moment, in the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, a really
fabulous version of this subject by the Florentine artist Bartolomeo di Giovanni.
Jason the hero from mythology embarks in a ship called the Argo with
his crew, the Argonauts, and they head for the ancient kingdom of Colchis because
they want to seize the legendary Golden Fleece which had magical powers.
A repeated figure here is Jason who is seen getting off the Argo on the
left-hand side of the picture, dining with the king of Colchis in the centre
of the picture, and then fulfilling a series of challenges on the right-hand
side of the picture, before he finally seizes and runs off with not just a
Golden Fleece but a whole golden ram. The entire surface is punctuated with tiny
flecks of gold: in the armour, in the architecture, in the clothing that some
of the figures are wearing even in the food that’s being served. My favourite painting the collection, in terms of the depiction of gold objects, is Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting of the Adoration of the Magi. The most
interesting gift in this painting is the gift presented by Balthazar. What he
holds in his hand is a green nautilus-like shell which
has been encased in gold and transformed into a ship. This kind of gift is
indicative of the taste of a wealthy contemporary patron. So gold manifests
itself in a number of different ways and with a number of different meanings.
One thing you can be certain of, where gold is used in a picture is that
there’s going to be some kind of reference to power, wealth, and status.

5 thoughts on “Stories of Gold | Gold | National Gallery”

  1. Thank you for this series, I've been really enjoying it – and it's especially wonderful to have when you can't easily visit.


  3. In many of your videos the curators mention that the colors have changed over time. Could you please make a video of how different pigments with different binders, tempera, oil paint etc., degrade over time? It would greatly help the public in imagining how the artworks originally looked. I have tried googling the issue with little luck.

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