Hidden Gems: Renaissance paintings in Sydney and Melbourne


Overseas travel is off the agenda for the foreseeable future, but Adam Bushby has fossicked through our state galleries to unearth four renaissance paintings by European masters held closer to home; hidden gems on par with works in international collections. These paintings reside in Sydney and Melbourne, but even before isolation restrictions end, we can all visit them anytime online.

Orazio Gentileschi, The Mocking of Christ, 1628-1635

Religious and mythological stories are filled with violence and sex. Artists have always been drawn to the various slayings, beheadings and sacrifices described, often painstakingly, in these histories, parables and fables. It is only the great artists who truly capture the febrile tension between a shocking narrative and its putative moral lesson.

Orazio Gentileschi, at his best, is one such artist. Late last year, the National Gallery in London purchased his The Finding of Moses for £22 million. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne has its own Orazio. And while The Mocking of Christ might not rival the London masterpiece, it was produced around the same time and contains many of the famous artist’s stylistic attributes. These include the unmistakeable influence of Caravaggio, blazes of colour and taut movement.

This is a painting soaked in violence. Christ is physically struck, bound, shoved and jeered by two tormentors, one armed with a strap, the other a staff. His skin, both pure and pallid, signifies his divine status but also seals his earthly fate. A crown of thorns digs into his scalp, spilling crimson blood on to scarlet and white robes, each a cipher for his own blood and flesh. What is so effective about The Mocking of Christ is how Orazio drags us down to the strada and into the scene, pressing the figures up against the picture plane, as well as depicting anecdotal details like cracks in the walls, suggesting that we, the viewers, are somehow complicit in this dolorous and macabre spectacle.

Orazio GENTILESCHI, The Mocking of Christ, (1628-1635), oil on canvas, 124.5 × 159.5 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Purchased with funds donated by Allan Myers AO and Maria Myers AO, Alan and Mavourneen Cowen, the NGV Women’s Association, Ross Adler AC, John Higgins, June and Neil Jens, Patrick Matthiesen, Naomi Milgrom AO, Bruce Parncutt and Robin Campbell, Andrew Sisson, Loti & Victor Smorgon Fund, Spotlight Stores Charitable Foundation and donors to the Orazio Gentileschi Appeal in honour of Dr Gerard Vaughan AM, Director of the National Gallery of Victoria (1999–2012), 2012.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a young man, around 1565-1570

In this 16th-century painting, held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW), a handsome young man fixes his hooded eyes on the viewer, assured and insouciant yet still a little cautious. He wears a close-fitting buttoned black jacket, crowned by a crisp, white ruff that pushes up against a trim beard. Placed before a swirling grey background, his intelligent face is brought into bright relief. Giovanni Battista Moroni is rightfully famed for his lifelike portraits of northern Italian patricians, images that seem more concerned with capturing a spirit of individuality instead of performing mere flattery, an achievement celebrated in 2015 by a dazzling exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

The bust length format of Portrait of a young man is said to allude to antique statuary, reflecting a continued interest in classical humanism that was common among intellectual circles. A number of Moroni’s portraits refer to this more directly, placing his subjects among crumbling architectural ruins and stone fragments. In large works like The Man in Pink, his considered mixture of realism, luxurious colour and architectonic elements is breath-taking.

The portrait in Sydney is closer in scale to works like The Sculptor Alessandro Vittoria at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. A sculptor appears to be presenting his work to the viewer, gripping the stone torso firmly to convey a sense of its weight. However the sculpture also resembles an antique fragment, emulating a string of earlier portraits depicting gentleman antiquarians surrounded by their curiosities. Combining these types suggests mutual admiration between painter and sculptor, a wry nod to the paragone debates over whose chosen art form was superior.

Giovanni Battista Moroni, Portrait of a young man, c1565-70, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Purchased with funds provided by the Art Gallery Society of New South Wales Collection Circle 2014.


Domenico Beccafumi, Madonna and Child with infant John the Baptist, circa 1542

Art history is often preoccupied with artists and patrons who were agents of change, creating new and influential works of art that would come to shape the prevailing style of an artistic ‘centre’ and impose a dominant mode over the ‘periphery.’ The story goes that the centre gradually shifted across the centuries from Siena to Florence to Rome, but artists like Domenico Beccafumi show how spellbinding works continued to be made in places that were supposedly fuori moda [unfashionable]. While his works reveal an understanding of the modern manner and its proponents, Beccamfumi’s style is also the realisation of an idiosyncratic vision of theology by a distinctively Sienese painter.

In Beccafumi’s Madonna and Child with infant John the Baptist, held at the AGNSW,three figures emerge out of darkness. A young John the Baptist leans forward with crossed arms, a seated Virgin Mary casts a thoughtful downward gaze, and the Christ child stands cautiously on his mother’s lap. Produced late in Beccafumi’s career, this painting brings together the modest countenance of Leonardo, the robust form of Michelangelo and the pastel colour of Pontormo, utilising soft lines and indeterminate spaces to dissolve each of these elements into one coherent composition, an approach shared with other late works including another Madonna at Palazzo Barberini in Rome.

Domenico Beccafumi, Madonna and Child with infant John the Baptist, c1542, Art Gallery of New South Wales. Art Gallery of New South Wales Foundation Purchase 1992.


Hans Memling, The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin, 1475 or 1479

The story of Italian Renaissance art is incomplete without an account of art produced north of the Alps, with artistic innovations crossing back and forth over time to push the development of painting on both sides. Although Early Netherlandish art of the latter 15th century is quite distinct from quattrocento art, certain aspects of shared religious iconography reveal an elemental kinship.

Hans Memling’s The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin, held at the NGV, presents Christ frontally, exposing the wounds of the Crucifixion. Depicting Christ in this manner directly calls to mind countless antecedent icon images found across Europe, but subsumes its abstracted spiritual function into the tender expression of a mother’s grief.

As a devotional image, various instruments of the Passion invite the viewer to reflect on the suffering of Christ, such as the column of flagellation to the left. However the image also contains some of the exquisite details for which Memling and his contemporaries were prized, namely the handling of the shawl and its starchy folds. This hallmark of Netherlandish painting can be seen in works like The Annunciation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In a domestic interior belying the miraculous event taking place, the angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she will conceive the Son of God.

Hans MEMLING, The Man of Sorrows in the arms of the Virgin, (1475) {or (1479)}, oil and gold leaf on wood panel, 27.4 × 19.9 cm, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. Felton Bequest, 1924.

Adam Bushby