The Renaissance Nude at the Sackler Gallery

The Renaissance Nude at the Sackler Gallery


The publicity material surrounding this exhibition uses Bronzino’s portrayal of Saint Sebastian as a rather beautiful young man with a shock of ginger hair, and a red cloak draped over his nude torso, coyly looking out of the frame with a wistful expression, which contains more than a hint of a
pout. He seems particularly unconcerned by the arrow sticking out of his rib-cage. Sebastian was a popular subject at the time and he was usually depicted naked, lashed to a tree, and pin-cushioned with arrows. Classical legend holds that he did not die from being shot, but was nursed back to health by Saint Irene of Rome. It was only when he returned to tell Diocletian, the Roman Emperor, the error of his ways, was that he was then clubbed to death.

There are three other depictions of Saint Sebastian, by Donatello, by Martin Schongauer and by Giovanni Battista Cima da Conegliano, whose saint is sporting a Kevin Keagan mullet, and who looks as though he was posing for a centre-fold, with one carefully placed arrow in his thigh. The Dream of Raphael by Marcantonio Raimondi, no stranger to erotic compositions himself, shows two naked women asleep in the foreground, while all hell breaks loose across the water, with more naked people fleeing for their lives from the conflagration, while strange creatures, fresh from starring roles in a Bosch nightmare, are creeping towards them up the shore, one remarkably penile. Of all the hundreds of willies on display in this exhibition, only one is in a state of arousal, in Nymph and Satyr by Marco Dente, and it naturally belongs to Pan, who is spying on the naked nymph Syrinx. Pisanello’s
drawing of Luxuria is modern in its pose, with the model, unusually, staring directly at the viewer. Artists at that time, tended not to paint directly from the naked female form, but to use androgynous male models in an early attempt at gender fluidity, or they could work from memory.

Titian’s demure and sensual Venus Anadyomene has just emerged from the sea and is wringing her hair while casually glancing over her shoulder, unaware, of the viewer’s presence. The exhibition has been divided into five galleries, each focusing on a different theme, starting with The Nude
and Christian Art, featuring Dürer’s most celebrated engraving of Adam and Eve. Two panels of Dieric Bouts’ original triptych depict heaven and
the descent into hell, The Fall of the Damned, with dozens of naked humans falling into the abyss, to be consumed by ghoulish demons, monstrous
trolls and reptilian ogres. Away from Christian subjects, the next chapter is Humanism and the Expansion of Secular Themes, which is arguably more interesting, as it deals with adultery, drunkeness, debauchery, lust and calumny. In this section is a print by Hans Baldung Grien of Aristotle and Phyllis, with a voluptuous Phyllis riding the old Greek philosopher bareback around a courtyard as a means of a humiliating punishment, with his pupil Alexander the Great looking on.

Hans Baldung Grien’s tutor was Albrecht Dürer, whose The Men’s Bathhouse is a curious mix of gay posturing and simmering sexuality. The posing pouch of a man lounging on a water stand-pipe at the left of the woodcut is at exactly the same height as the faucet, (or dare one say, cock?) which
surely is no co-incidence. Artistic Theory and Practice features Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed anatomical drawings of the human body, showing dissected muscles and sinews of the neck and shoulders. There are three books about human proportions on display, one of four by Dürer pubished after his death in 1528, showing a Figure of a Woman in Motion. Cesare Cesariano produced one on the Vitruvian Man, while Francesco
di Girogio investigated Human Proportions as the Basis for Chuch plans.

Beyond the Ideal Nude devotes itself to far from idealised nudes, both male and female, with Hans Baldung Grien’s Witches’ Sabbath presenting a coven of scary old hags, and a seriously gruesome painting of Christians being impaled on thorn bushes, entitled Martyrdom of the Ten Thousand from the workshop of Hans Leu the Elder. Saint Jerome is featured as a stark naked wooden sculpture by Donatello, who is scourging himself with a stone, to try and take his mind off carnal thoughts. He would have had trouble in the final gallery, called Personalising the Nude, where patrons began to commission works of art that incorporated nudes. Isabella d’Este Gonzaga, Marchesa of Mantua, was a powerful patron of the arts, and she was in the habit of commissioning the best painters around to paintings for her famous studiolo, her private study. Mantegna had already painted the mythological Pallas and the Vices (Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue) in 1502, and the following year, she got Pietro Perugino to paint another allegorical scene called Combat between Love and Chastity, which represents the the duelling forces of libido and restraint, represented by Venus and Diana, who, unlike most of the other protagonists, are partially clothed. The canvas is full of lustful scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses.

As with most of the exhibitions in the Sackler Galleries, this is a scholarly exercise of just about the right size, with around 90 works on display from
around the world, all produced in a mere hundred and thirty year window, from 1400 to 1530, in Europe. Many works are on loan from the Royal Collection, and the exhibition is curated by the Senior Curators at the J Paul Getty Museum and the Royal Academy of Arts. The hefty catalogue has 400 pages, with over 250 illustrations, published by Getty, but is a hefty £48.

The Renaissance

The Royal Academy: Sackler
Until 2 June 2019
Admission £16

About author