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The National Gallery must be one of London’s last sacred spaces. I don’t mean in the same way as the parks or the churches—St. Paul’s or all the hidden gems of nineteenth century synagogues and tiny Gothic buildings, tucked away from prying eyes—because it’s not like that at all. It’s different. It’s a massive landmark, yes, but in a way, perhaps it’s more… I don’t know. Pure?
It’s free. Still free, like it’s always been, and it’s open to everyone. Tourists, locals, art lovers and schoolchildren are all welcome. Even students like me. Repository of the nation’s artistic treasures and, similar to the British Museum, you can just wander in off the street and demand to be transported to another place and time. That’s what happened to me the first time I saw him. The Pollaiuolo Sebastian.
I visited the gallery on a wet Wednesday afternoon, casting around for ideas on which to base my final year undergrad dissertation. Art History. Not a great asset in the current job market, I know, though that’s a bit besides the point. I’d been thinking about saints, because all the symbolism in their depictions—eyes for St. Catherine, who had hers put out, or breasts for St. Agatha, who had hers torn off—would make for an easy essay, with the added interest factor of gore, and because the Renaissance unit of study on my course had easily been one of the most interesting I’d tackled. It all fed into some loose, vapid dream I had to travel, see the whole of Europe instead of my narrow corner of it; maybe even go to Rome and Florence. Not likely to happen when I’d grown up in a Wimbledon council flat and was putting myself through the college degree with a shitty job at Wimpy, but a boy can dream.
Anyway, I digress. This wet Wednesday. Into the gallery, up the wide and echoing staircases, through vast room after vast room of even vaster canvases, and I fell into the dizzying appreciation of hundreds of years of compressed meaning distilled into one building. Battles, portraits, allegorical, historical and Biblical scenes… there’s everything in there. It’s the religious ones that get me the worst, I think, though I’ve never been a churchgoer; those great big paintings that would once have hung in high, dark places, illuminated only by the gilded glow of candlelight, and have been accorded so much adoration by so many people. Altarpieces, and triptychs, diptychs, carved screens and great walls of stunningly detailed scenes… where has that kind of beauty gone in our lives?