Renaissance Nude at the Royal Academy

Saint Sebastian, Cima da Conegliano, c1500.                                                                There are two images of St Sebastian which greet you when you enter the exhibition. And what a study in contrasts. St Sebastian was of course martyred by being shot through with arrows. He is normally represented tied to a tree or similar, writhing in agony as his chest is pierced with numerous arrows. But not this time. This St Sebastian appears to be posing for a life class and thinking about the catwalk. A single arrow has pierced his thigh and seems to be being worn as ornamentation. It is a striking image but one os forced to wonder if its purpose was really Christian devotion.
Saint Sebastian, Augsberg and probably designed by Hans Holbein, 1497.                                           The second image of St Sebastian, and there are several more in the exhibition, is equally beautiful but could not be more different. A small gleaming sculpture in silver, this St Sebastian is indeed tied a tree and writhing in agony as his chest is pierced with arrows. Standing about 18″ high it is wonderful piece of work highly decorated but still pulsing with emotional energy. As a means of reminding the viewer of the true cost of martyrdom, it would be hard to better this devotional object.

There was trepidation in some quarters in advance the Renaissance Nude would be full of voluptuous, reclining female nudes designed to appeal to the male gaze. Of course, there are plenty of examples of Renaissance paintings which fit that stereotype,  from Giorgione, Titian and others, but they are few and far between in this exhibition. In fact the exhibition turns this prejudice rather on its head dominated as it is by some compelling male nudes, both paintings and sculpture.

A Faun and his Family with a Slain Lion, Lucas Cranach the Elder, c1526.                                              There is a disturbing dissonance in this image which really grabs your attention. On the surface we have a delightful family scene of a husband and wife relaxing, albeit nude, with their two children in a woodland clearing, with a lake, city and mountains in the background. But at the faun’s feet lies a dead but still fearsome looking lion. The underpinning narrative I do not claim to know but it is a delightful domestic image.

The theme of the exhibition is that as the medieval period transitioned into what we refer to as the Renaissance, depictions of the nude became increasingly prevalent. But while the traditional narrative would suggest that this process started in Italy and was closely associated with the emergence of humanist thinking linked to the rediscovery of Greek and Roman art and literature, this exhibition tells a different story. It demonstrates how the nude as a subject of art emerged across Europe at roughly the same time and was as closely linked to the telling of the Christian story as it was the development of humanism. It is a compellingly represented story.

The exhibition comes to the Royal Academy from the Getty Collection. And so a further attraction is that many of the exhibits are drawn from US collections and particularly that of the Getty Collection itself. They are therefore works which were certainly much less known to me and reinforced the sense that this is a genuinely fresh perspective on what might feel a very traditional subject. It is well worth a visit.

Luxuria, Pisanello, c1426.                                                                                                                               One of the most arresting images in the exhibition is this tiny image of Lust. Dating from the early C15 we are confronted with a fully contemporary nude, both in looks and attitude. Thinner and bonier than a typical voluptuous Renaissance nude, and sporting a wonderful Afro, she looks directly and confidently at the viewer.
Venus Rising from the Sea, Titian, c1520.                                                                                                 There are of course one or two overtly voluptuous nudes in the exhibition, and there would have to be unless you wished to deny a significant strand of Renaissance art. This Venus by Titian, on loan from the National Galleries of Scotland, is perhaps the most famous example. The mythological story of the birth of Venus provides the pretext for a Renaissance ‘pin-up’. It is beautifully rendered piece by one of the great Renaissance masters but we can be in no doubt that it is an entirely secular painting created for the pleasure of the male viewer.