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Strange Beauty: Masters of the German Renaissance at the National Gallery

The National Gallery’s German Renaissance paintings haven’t always been loved. In fact, certain stuffy Victorians tried to get shot of them

The Crucifixion (about 1490-5)

© The National Gallery, London

'Cupid complaining to Venus', about 1525

© The National Gallery, London

'A Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (Anne Lovell?)', about 1526‑8

© The National Gallery, London

'Saints Genevieve and Apollonia', 1506

© The National Gallery, London

'Saint Jerome', about 1496

© The National Gallery, London

'Jean de Dinteville and Georges de Selve ('The Ambassadors')', 1533

© The National Gallery, London

‘The Trinity and the Mystic Pietà’ (1512)

© The National Gallery

'Angels Worshipping the Christ Child' (1470-80)

© LWL– Museum Für Kunst und Kultur

Cows were fine. Saints were fine. Even Christ on the cross was fine – as long as it was painted by a classically inspired Italian with an unthreatening sense of decorum and a buttery touch. Someone like Raphael, whose demure 'Saint Catherine of Alexandria' (1507) greets you as you enter the National Gallery's 'Strange Beauty' exhibition.

What absolutely wasn't fine in the 1820s and '30s – when the National Gallery lurched into life, first in a Pall Mall townhouse then in the purpose-built Trafalgar Square home it occupies today – was the kind of in-your-face, highly expressionistic sixteenth-century paintings hanging in subsequent rooms of this scintillating show. Lucas Cranach's 'Cupid Complaining to Venus' (1526), for example, with its bony nakedness explicitly on display. 'Too nude,' says Susan Foister, deputy director of the National Gallery and co-curator of the exhibition. Or Albrecht Altdorfer's anguished portrayal of 'Christ Taking Leave of his Mother' (1520). 'They were quite worrying,' explains Foister. 'I think people found them indecorous, something that was so stark that it couldn't really be consumed in polite society.'

Despite Queen Victoria getting hitched to Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, this sentiment prevailed throughout the nineteenth century, with the more lurid imaginings of Catholic Germany ruffling the crinolines of stuffy, Protestant Victorian London. It created a climate in which one of the most unusual episodes in the National Gallery's history took place. In 1856, an act of parliament was passed so that the gallery could sell off part of the Kruger Collection of early German art, which had been purchased just two years earlier by William Gladstone. It led to the now inconceivable breaking up and scattering across the globe of the Liesborn altarpiece.

While attitudes did soften towards the end of the 1900s, two world wars ensured German art was off-limits during the first half of the twentieth century (Cranach's Cupid, for example, wasn't purchased until 1963). 'Strange Beauty', then, is a story not just of changing attitudes towards the body in art but of how a significant portion of the National Gallery's collection was amassed. 'It's a story we can't normally tell in the galleries,' says Foister. 'I think it will be quite a revelation to most people.'

Show stoppers: curator Susan Foister's pick of works in the exhibition

‘The Trinity and the Mystic Pietà’ (1512) by Hans Baldung Grien

Purchased in 1894, Baldung’s painting shows how some expressionistic works ended up in this country almost by accident. ‘There is a starkness about the way he depicts this scene of suffering which exemplifies the qualities that made people nervous about German art,’ says Foister. ‘But it was snapped up in the eighteenth century by the Duke of Norfolk. He thought, mistakenly, that the little people at the bottom of the painting were his ancestors.’

‘The Ambassadors’ (1533) by Hans Holbein the Younger

Born in Augsburg, Holbein travelled to England in 1526, eventually becoming King’s Painter to Henry VIII. ‘People could always view him as an honorary English person – they didn’t have to see him as German at all,’ says Foister. When ‘The Ambassadors’ was purchased in 1890, it was hoped that the courtiers in this enigmatic scene were English. ‘People didn’t quite know what they were getting,’ explains Foister. The famous anamorphic skull, for example (which only reveals itself fully if you look sideways at the painting), was obscured by dirt and thought for a time to be a fish. ‘It was only later that its all-singing, all-dancing nature was revealed.’

‘Angels Worshipping the Christ Child’ (1470-80) by Master of Liesborn

This panel formed part of the high altarpiece in the Benedictine Abbey of Liesborn, Germany. It arrived in London as part of the Kruger Collection but was sold in 1856 when, controversially, the altarpiece was broken up. Now owned by a German museum, it will rejoin its siblings in the partial reconstruction of the altarpiece. ‘It would have been a very substantial crucifixion scene,’ explains Foister. ‘But we’re missing the central part. Maybe the exhibition will stimulate more fragments turning up from some attic. Who knows?’

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