When she died, Paula Rego left a considerable legacy of religiously inspired art. While that was by no means an unusual legacy for a modern artist, Rego brought a particular perspective to her religious art – that of the female perspective on the tradition and stories.
Interviewed by novelist Richard Zimler in 2002 about the ‘Nossa Senhora’ she created for the chapel of the presidential palace in Lisbon at the request of Jorge Sampaio, then President of Portugal, she said she’d “been doing saints for a long time, since I was artist-in-residence at the National Gallery, in London”. She commented that “the stories don’t come from reading as much as from pictures — from that whole tradition in which people learned the Bible from pictures.” Asked how she had updated the story, she replied that, in a sense, you can’t, “but what you can do is see it from the point of view of a woman.”
The work that began this strand within Rego’s work, ‘Crivelli’s Garden’ – one key outcome of her residency at the National Gallery – is again on display at that Gallery. She produced this monumental painting between 1990 and 1991, drawing inspiration from a fifteenth-century altarpiece in the collection by Carlo Crivelli. The exhibition unites her monumental 10-metre-long artwork with the 15th-century altarpiece by Crivelli that inspired it and places these alongside life studies Rego produced of the Gallery colleagues that feature in the final painting. With this work, Rego challenged the dominance of the male gaze in Western art, populating her reimagined garden with courageous female figures from folklore and biblical narratives.
Rego’s religious work has previously been exhibited alongside that of Josefa de Óbidos, but the earlier influence is that of Crivelli. His altarpiece, ‘La Madonna della Rondine’ (The Madonna of the Swallow; after 1490), was made for the Ottoni family chapel in the Franciscan church at Matelica, in the Italian Marches. Each of its five scenes is dedicated to a saint. Flanked at either end with depictions of Saint Catherine and Saint George, the stories of the Nativity, Saint Jerome and Saint Sebastian are shown in scenes with acute linear perspectives. As Rego viewed paintings by Crivelli in the National Gallery’s collection, she imagined herself walking down the street depicted in Crivelli’s ‘Annunciation with Saint Emidius’ and re-emerging alongside Saint Sebastian in the ‘La Madonna della Rondine’ altarpiece. This inspired her to imagine a world in which Crivelli’s saints would co-exist within the same space and led to her decision to create her own version of the garden.
Inspired by the narratives of women in biblical history and folklore found in paintings across the collection and stories from the medieval Golden Legend, a compilation of lives of the saints written by Jacobus de Voragine in the 13th century, Rego populated her scene with female figures inspired by the Virgin Mary, Saint Catherine, Saint Margaret, Saint Cecilia, Mary Magdalene, Judith and Delilah. They share the garden with other women from fables, biblical and mythological stories. She set them within a maze-like Portuguese garden while reimagining their narratives to give them more power and visibility. The work explores themes that span Rego’s career, including the role of women within society and religion. She used a colour scheme based on the blue and white tiles of her native Portugal to adorn the walls of the fictional garden, connecting back to memories of her childhood when she was surrounded by stories depicted on the tiled walls of her family home.
The work is a tribute to storytelling and the strong women that surrounded Rego throughout her life, including colleagues from her time at the National Gallery. It is also the beginning of a strand in Rego’s work, which led directly to her ‘Nossa Senhora’, in which she depicted Mary viewed from the lived experience of women, thereby drawing out the feminism implicit in the story. Rego said that of all her pictures, the ‘Nossa Senhora’ paintings “were the most fun to make”. She thought this was “because I am Portuguese and because I love stories, and Christianity is a very good story.”
Rego’s work as Associate Artist at the National Gallery represents one way of responding to the Western tradition of art and religion; Richard Harries’ book ‘Majesty’ represents another. ‘Majesty’ spotlights 50 iconic paintings from the Royal Collection and a variety of renowned museums throughout the world, including The Met, MOMA, National Gallery, Vatican Museums, The Hermitage and more. With a commentary on each artwork by the former Bishop of Oxford and House of Lords life peer, the book juxtaposes important artworks – Caravaggio to Van Gogh, Raphael to Rembrandt – with quotes from Her Late Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’s beloved Christmas broadcasts and words of wisdom from the Gospels.
The artworks included illustrate key scenes from the life of Christ. They are accompanied by the words and teachings of Jesus found in the Gospels, words from Her Majesty relating her faith to the life of Christ and his wisdom, and Harries’ reflections on how the artists have depicted the scenes. Through the interplay between the Queen’s Christmas messages and paintings from the Royal Collection and beyond, ‘Majesty’ offers a new and more intimate way of knowing her faith and life through the power of art.
Harries is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Honorary Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. On his retirement as Bishop of Oxford (1987-2006), he was made a life peer (Lord Harries of Pentregarth). He is the author of many critically acclaimed books, including ‘The Image of Christ in Modern Art’ (Routledge, 2013), ‘Hearing God in Poetry’ (SPCK, 2021), ‘Seeing God in Art’ (SPCK, 2022) and his moving autobiography ‘The Shaping of a Soul: a life taken by surprise’ (John Hunt 2023). ‘Art and the Beauty of God’ (Continuum, 1993) was selected as book of the year by Anthony Burgess in ‘The Observer’.
As with ‘Majesty’, he is particularly effective in surveying a breadth of work using a particular theme or lens. ‘The Passion in Art’ (Routledge, 2004) considers the Passion as portrayed in the whole sweep of Christian history. Spanning the centuries, the images reproduced and discussed include scenes from the Passion of Christ in the Catacombs of Domitilla, mosaics in Ravenna, the Rabbula Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Crucifixion Plaque from Metz, the Gero Crucifix, Cimabue’s ‘Crucifix’, Giotto’s ‘Noli me Tangere’, Piero della Francesca’s ‘Resurrection’, the Isenheim altarpiece, Caravaggio’s ‘Supper at Emmaus’, Rembrandt’s ‘Christ on the Cross’, Marc Chagall’s ‘White Crucifixion’, plus contemporary paintings by Stanley Spencer, Graham Sutherland, and Nicholas Mynheer.
‘The Image of Christ in Modern Art’ (Routledge, 2013) explores the challenges presented by the radical and rapid changes in artistic style in the 20th century to artists who wished to relate to traditional Christian imagery. Here, he looks at some artists associated with the birth of modernism, such as Jacob Epstein and Georges Rouault, and others with a highly distinctive understanding of religion, such as Chagall and Spencer. He shows how fresh and important visual interpretations of Christ have been created both by well-known and less well-known artists. In conclusion, he suggests that the modern movement has turned out to be a friend, not a foe of Christian art.
‘Majesty’, like many other of Harries’ books, “shows clearly how sacred art functions as a theological locus, as a place of divine revelation for those who have eyes to see” and is “particularly valuable in sketching the broad developments of the theme and placing each depiction in its cultural and theological context”.
Writing about ‘The Image of Christ in Modern Art’, Frances Spalding noted that, “Until fairly recently, modern art used to be discussed primarily in terms of its formal challenge and its rupturing of traditional habits and expectation.” Today, she argues, “we bring to this art a wider embrace”, including, as Rowan Williams has noted, the reality that the “art of our age is by no means as secular as some think”. As such, Spalding suggests, it is especially interesting to see what happens when, as Harries does in his books, “a theological lens is held over modern painting and sculpture”.
Rego’s approach is understandably different in that she tells the Christian story from the Virgin’s perspective in particular. Although, in doing so, she is also clearly painting “from the position of an embodied female figure” and drawing “on her knowledge of the Old Masters, Christian art and religious texts, as well as her own experience of flesh and faith”. Always defiantly unsentimental, she embraces the Virgin’s iconography “while unseating serene and ethereal depictions from art history, finding the most pertinent parts of the story and dramatising them in ways that speak beyond the traditional narrative”. In her dramatisation of the story, she “deals with episodes of pain and pleasure, astonishment and fear, through the prism of her own, deeply personal life experiences – pregnancy at a young age, motherhood, the burden of grief.”
Both approaches enable “the old, old story” to live on dynamically in modern art while showing a desire, in the words of Spalding, “to return to the old in order to make it new”.
‘Paula Rego: Crivelli’s Garden’, Room 46, National Gallery, 20 July – 29 October 2023
‘Majesty’ by Richard Harries, SPCK Publishing, 8 September 2023.