Painted Ghosts and Ghouls

As the evenings draw in and the fog descends, it appears Halloween has once again crept up on us. With devils, skeletons and ghosts galore wandering around London this weekend and tonight, it only seems fitting that I introduce my very own Halloween themed blog post.

So, let’s explore what the National Gallery has in store down its numerous long corridors complete with squeaky floorboards.

Arriving at the Sainsbury Wing in room 63, you’ll encounter none other than Satan himself.

Behold, Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil.

St Michael looking fierce, painted 1468

Oh yes, you see that strange-looking creature bottom right? That is Bartolomé Bermejo’s depiction of the Devil. Not the red skinned, trident wielding character we are used to seeing.

This painting would probably have been part of a larger altarpiece and this fellow peering out of the image would have been quite terrifying to viewers of the 15th century. Imagine seeing it by candlelight with those rows of pointed white teeth and red eyes staring out. Quite freaky.

Not to mention that this was painted in oil, a technique derived from the Netherlands.When using oil paints, artists had to layer many thin glazes of paint which resulted in a generally more convincing image compared with previous techniques. Artists were able to achieve more depth, deeper colours and render a variety of textures.

For example, the golden armour of Saint Michael reflects the light as if it is a real metallic surface. There is even a reflection of the city of Jerusalem on his breastplate which is also scattered with twinkling jewels and gems. These hard shiny surfaces contrast with the Superman-like cape which flutters behind the saint. It really would have been a feast for the eyes, and the Devil would have been all the more terrifying and lifelike. It seems that Bermejo had a very active imagination when compared with a painting of the same subject that hangs in a neighbouring room.

Next, let’s journey to spirit realm in room 24 where hangs Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast.

Belshazzar’s Feast, painted 1635

We stumble upon a party of nobles in the middle of a rather hearty and fruitful meal, when suddenly King Belshazzar of Babylon and his guests see legit writing on the wall. They gasp and cannot believe their eyes as a hand appears to write:

“God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end. You have been weighed, measured and found wanting.”

That very night, the King was killed… dun dun duuuh.

This was all because the King had blasphemously used sacred vessels his father, Nabuchadnezza, had looted from the Temple of Jerusalem.

Whoops – won’t be making that mistake again will we King B? I can’t imagine the guests
wanting to stay for desert having just witnessed this spooky encounter, can you?…

The whole scene is lit up by the bright white light rembrandt-bel-close-upemitting from the writing which could refer to it being the word of God. But this also allowed Rembrandt to show off his skill at rendering the effect of light on many different surfaces, including the King’s heavily embroidered cape, the smooth metallic vessel and the soft moulding of light on the characters’ faces.

This painting’s style and subject is similar to those by Caravaggio, who was well known for his scenes of intense drama enhanced by his use of theatre-like spot lighting to illuminate his compositions. There is an exhibition of Caravaggio at the National Gallery at the moment if you’re keen to know more.

Rembrandt painted the Feast early in his career so would most likely have been using the painting to demonstrate his skill as well as referring back to masters such as Caravaggio who only died in 1610, 25 years before this painting was executed.

The final stop of this Halloween special is in room 4 where you’ll find Holbein’s The Ambassadors. 

The Ambassadors, painted 1533

So, what do two guys in furry getups and fancy hats have to do with Halloween?

Well, take a look  at that strange object that’s in the foreground. No amount of squinting of the eyes and tilting of the head will help you here. To really see what this is, you have to walk round to the right of the painting and look at it side-on.

Suddenly, it all make sense and you see a skull – the ultimate symbol of mortality and holbein_skulldeath.

This optical illusion is a remarkable piece of painting by Holbein which he places so prominently you cannot miss it. It is there to remind the viewers, that despite the riches and lavish belongings of the two men in the painting, they are aware of their own mortality and that salvation lies with God. Did you spy the small crucifix peeking though the green curtain at the top left?

There are all sorts of symbols and interpretations of this painting that will have to wait for another blog post, but the skull is definitely the most unusual and ominous feature, an ideal object to finish with on our brief tour of the spooky and creepy at the NG.

So batten down the hatches and close the curtains, for the freaky and fierce are out in full force tonight – in the painted world as well as ours!


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