A series of beautifully renovated sixteenth century paintings are currently on display in a new and free exhibition, Christ and His Cousin: Renaissance Rediscoveries at the Hugh Lane Room of the National Gallery of Ireland.

This exhibition consists of wondrous art interpretations inspired by Jesus Christ, John the Baptist and their legendary meeting as infants.

To accompany these works are four rare volumes drawn from the Gallery’s Library and Archives, some of which were key elements in defining the development of sixteenth century art during the Renaissance. The paintings are very little known to the public but have undergone a magnificent transformation under the supervision of Simone Mancini, the head of conservation at the National Gallery. Mancini has treated these paintings to help unveil previous conditions that were not originally recognised. “These conservation treatments and analysis have generated a considerable amount of information on Renaissance pictorial practises and processes and have even confirmed experimented art techniques,” Mancini commented.

Now I know what you’re thinking, with the society we currently live in where religion no longer has a central role in many of our lives anymore, why should we show interest in these particularly reverent works and scriptures of art?

I spoke to curator of Italian and Spanish Art Dr. Aoife Brady, to better understand the importance of this collection of art works and also about the smaller hidden away elements that have newly been brought back to life in these depictions due to conservation efforts.

“People assume, ah these are just biblical scenes but these are actually legendary scenes” she said. The scenes painted come from what are known as Apocrypha; Apocrypha were scriptures that were not deemed as official Catholic or Christian scriptures, they were texts that were written after the Bible where lay people would learn about details of saints and other religious figures that were not previously described. One example of this was ‘The Golden Legend’ by Jacobus de Varagine, one of the four volumes present at the showcase. This book was an imagined bibliography of John the Baptist’s young life which included the legendary meeting between him and Christ as young boys.

Dr Brady explained that the Renaissance period brought about a growth not only in art but in the study of humans and humanism, the idea of the individual and an interest in human interactions, many artists believed that painting the two men as children would help to humanise religion and make it more accessible.

“After we acquired the works we saw that they were painted by minor Italian artists, they were also in quite poor condition and have never been shown before, these works were in our storage facility for so long, which is currently already so vast,” said Dr. Brady.

“It was time to take them out of the darkness, do more research on them and bring them onto the walls for the first time,” she added.

Dr. Brady told me that according to the Bible, the two cousins depicted had actually only met in adulthood, when John baptised Jesus in the river Jordan. However, their relationship as young children in later texts proved to be very popular hence why many Italian artists were inspired to depict them as children during the Renaissance period. “This meeting as children is based on legend but there are many hidden aspects and symbols that are predicting both John’s destiny to baptise Christ, and the inevitable tragedy that befalls Jesus later on in life” she said.

While strolling from painting to painting all scenes of the Madonna, Jesus and John may appear similar but each of them contain their own special individual symbols and styles. Many of these symbols range from hand signals to clothing to the very positioning of the characters.

In Antonio del Ceralolo’s oil paint piece, we at first glance see a playful innocent scene between the two toddlers, but incredibly due to the fantastic conservation efforts, the team had unearthed the symbol of a goldfinch with bright red plumage on the finger of Christ. The goldfinch is famous in the bible for having plucked thorns from the crown Jesus wore during his Crucification. John also appears to hold up his hand in a way of blessing. “John is more or less a fortune teller, he knows from a very young age that he was born to baptise Christ” said Dr. Brady.

Image by Julia Brennan

Another painting contained an ode to the famous Italian city of Florence where many of these paintings originated with small Romanesque buildings being painted into the background of the scene.

Dr. Brady also told me that in all the scenes Jesus never steps foot on ground, he is always either highly elevated or keeping his feet on the clothing of his mother, compared to John who is always positioned on the ground wearing an animal-like garment to highlight the minimalist life he led.

Image by Julia Brennan

“Religious and devotional images appear to be boring and strict to people but there are human elements in them and are beautiful once you give them that lift,” she said.

One of the challenges of showing art of a religious nature is that people have gradually become detached from it over the years. “In Ireland especially, it is seen that religion isn’t the most important aspect of society anymore but you have to see that there is more to these creations than just the religious aspects” said Dr. Brady.

According to Dr. Brady many of these paintings would have been hung in domestic settings such as people’s homes as part of worship; they wouldn’t have been present in galleries or churches like the more well known Italian artists of the Renaissance such as DaVinci or Michaelangelo. “Religion was such a central part of society in sixteenth century Florence and played a big part in many people’s lives – but I believe you can use these paintings to discover the history of what it was like during that period rather than feel that you’re just looking at a piece of devout art” said Dr. Brady.

“One of the things I wanted to do with this exhibition is make these paintings more accessible to people of all backgrounds, different ethnic backgrounds, different religious backgrounds even those with no interest in religion at all and I wanted to make this exhibition more about the narrative quality of these paintings,” said Dr. Brady.

If you’re a history head, an art fan or just someone who wants to dive head first into a cultural experience, Christ and His Cousin: Renaissance Rediscoveries will be on show and running until the 8th of May 2022 with free admission. A number of online events will also be running alongside the duration of the exhibition. For further information, do visit www.national gallery.ie.