‘Almost as botched as Monkey Christ!’ Has the National Gallery ruined a Nativity masterpiece? | Art

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‘Almost as botched as Monkey Christ!’ Has the National Gallery ruined a Nativity masterpiece? | Art

Tthe National Gallery ruined Christmas. Or, to be more precise, it did a very good job of destroying one of the world’s largest nativity paintings. The fact that Piero della Francesca’s Nativity is back on view for the festive season, after a three-year restoration that the London gallery describes as careful and revealing, should be good news. But my joy turned to ashes when I saw this. What in the name of God inspired the restorers to paint two entirely new and disturbingly moronic shepherd faces? Or a big white spot on the stable wall?

The Nativity, a mysterious and elusive work of ghostly wonder, is, oh so carefully and responsibly, clumsily and ploddingly rendered, if not downright comical. Almost every color has been changed, every line re-emphasized. It’s like a glossy digital reconstruction of what the painting looked like in 1475 when it was new – except, instead of presenting it as a hypothetical, it’s been physically painted over or, in the evasive language of restorers, “ retouch”.

Some 550 years ago, Piero painted this unique vision of Mary adoring her baby in front of a stable, accompanied by a choir of angels singing their hearts out, in his hometown of Sansepolcro in Italy. It has survived all that time, albeit with damage done long ago that erased the faces of two shepherds. None of this spoiled its mystery. Piero, a polymath who wrote books on mathematics and geometry, celebrated what he saw as the divine harmony of the physical universe in the choir of angels, with their mouths open in song. Influenced by the ancient Greek mathematical mystic Pythagoras, he connects the geometric, oval faces and tubular limbs of his people with the beauty of the angelic music he invites us to imagine. Try watching it with Thomas Tallis in your ears.

Badly damaged… the shepherds before they were retouched. Photo: The National Gallery, London

Detune that string and what a mess you make of this painting. His pallor was part of his ethereal beauty. Now the eye is drawn to a reddish shepherd’s face painted by the restorer covering a long obliterated part of the picture. It is so awful that it reminds me of the infamous amateur repainting of Christ’s features in a Spanish fresco that caused worldwide hilarity a decade ago. The face of this red-hatted shepherd is thankfully done with more skill than “Monkey Christ” – and it is based on scientific study.

Yet expertise without artistic soul produced an idiotic mistake. This orange-faced man looks empty and gormless, even constipated, his barely human eyes unfocused and lifeless. It’s like he’s trying to remember where he parked the donkey. The rest of the face is also clumsily done, with rough shadows trying to define the nose and cheeks. It’s like a pastiche of Renaissance art through a very cheap, very bad app. The adjacent curly-haired shepherd, pointing heavenward, is hardly better. He looks like a very serious teenager throwing shapes at a school disco.

The reason it is such a scandal to fabricate faces in Piero’s Nativity is that he painted expressions with a serious psychological truth. I don’t for one second believe this restoration is faithful to the original. There is simply no more moving image of a company of singers joining in their song. Or a more human Madonna. Compare their expressions with the inchoate added to the shepherd and you immediately see the problem.

Before the retouching... 'There simply isn't a more touching image of a company of singers – or a more human Madonna.'
Before the retouching… ‘There simply isn’t a more touching image of a company of singers – or a more human Madonna.’ Photo: The National Gallery, London

Paintings that are many centuries old need work over the years, and sometimes, where they are in danger, it needs to be radical. But it is better to be careful and minimal. The overriding priority is to preserve the artist’s own vision as pure as possible. Since much has survived in this work to admire, the NG showed astonishing insensitivity to Piero’s magic.

The intervention appears to have been motivated by the National Gallery’s new interpretation of the picture. This, its researchers now believe, is an illustration of a vision Saint Bridget of Sweden had on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem. “I saw a star,” she said, “but not the kind that shines in the sky; I saw a light, but not the kind that shines in this world.” To emphasize this idea of ​​the star as a cosmic mystery, a patch of light on the stable wall, which was barely visible before, was now crudely emphasized, turning it into a large white spot on gray stones. This is another bad piece of painting. The dead-eyed, dance-floor shepherd, the National Gallery would have us believe, points upwards to make sure we know it’s holy light from heaven.

This is a rather preposterous piece of theological decoding. But okay, file it away with all the other theories about paintings that come and go. With an artist as enigmatic as Piero, these experts should know that theirs is unlikely to be the last word – yet, with that patch of white, they have physically painted what should be only one possible interpretation right in the picture. The effect of the restoration is to draw us away from the simple human drama of the Nativity towards a more abstract and inhuman symbolism.

'Polished as if it were for sale at Frieze Masters'... the painting after the restoration.
‘Polished as if it were for sale at Frieze Masters’… the painting after the restoration. Photo: The National Gallery Photographic Department/Photo: The National Gallery, London

The NG says that, contrary to earlier theories that Piero never completed it, the Nativity is a fully finished work that happened to be badly damaged over the centuries. Thus they made the whole painting more polished and complete, the blue of the Virgin’s clothes, the gray of the stone stable, the smoothness of its roof, sharpened and deepened. The angels also look more solid, but in a dull way that, in the stiffened garments and feet, borders on pre-Raphaelite tackiness.

Yet it still seems unfinished. The empty roughness of the foreground is as raw as a Van Gogh garden, which seems to me a deliberate effect by the original artist – an early, bold case of leaving art deliberately incomplete. In fact, it looks like someone just rolled out a plain old rug. This poignantly devastating Nativity, as broken down as the Bethlehem stable, has now been polished up as if it were for sale at Frieze Masters. The NG is not about to sell his Birth, but perhaps he believes, favourably, that visitors will respond better to a smooth and finished work. I disagree and that’s not what I want for Christmas.

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