When I was in London last week, I went to lunch in the National Gallery’s very civilized restaurant in the Sainsbury’s Wing with its views over Trafalgar Square and the cool, calm ambience that may stem from the fact that everyone dining there had really come for the art.
There was an elegant Italian woman eating on her own and making pencil notes on an A4 pad, two intense young men with dark-framed spectacles and tweed jackets talking about Giotto, and, like everywhere else in the World these days, two women were discussing Colin Firth, King George VI and THAT movie, The King’s Speech.
I had an excellent cauliflower soup followed by rack of lamb and a very enjoyable Neapolitan red wine which, the entertaining Neapolitan waiter told me is the coming thing. Naples and Southern Italy in general, as I am sure you all know, is best known for its white wine but that is all changing or so it seems if my waiter is to be believed.
After lunch, as I always try to do when I am in London, I went to the Medieval and Renaissance Gallery on the floor above the restaurant to spend some time with just one painting.
That day, I went to the Florentine room and sat in front of Fra Lippo Lippi’s Virgin and Child with Saints Jerome and Dominic. You really don’t have to be a devote Christian to love the masterpieces of the Italian Renaissance especially if the artist in question is Fra Lippo Lippi who may have been a friar but that didn’t stop him fathering a child or living with the baby’s apparently very beautiful mother.
We know that she was an attractive woman because she appears in so many of his paintings. I don’t think she is the Virgin in this picture but, true to form, this Mary is pretty obviously modelled on a real life Italian beauty and she lives on in that spirit. if she had been around in the 1960s, I thought, she would probably have been one of Mick Jagger’s girlfriends.
I love Lipp’s humanity which shines from this picture. Mary, with her child greedily suckling at her breast, is all feminity and feminine cool gazing intently at her son, Jerome, the wild man amongst the Christian Fathers, is rapt in amazement but also a kind of mad man’s anguish at what he is seeing – devouring the image with his eyes. Dominic is quite different. He is all gentle sensitivity, absorbed in what I assume is The Bible and his face has all the marks of great intelligence. The downward mouth with its hint of a smile, the heavily lidded-eyes focused in concentration and then the raised eye-brows show us that he is surprized, moved and enlightened by what he is reading.
A bird is feeding is chick with a worm in the tree and, Lippi is, I suppose, showing us that each member of the group is receiving nourishment of one sort or another.
I did too and I am not just referring to that rack of lamb.