‘a magnificently wrought picture…a most pious image’

On 7 March 2016, Dr Gabriele Finaldi (Director, National Gallery, London) gave a talk entitled Rogier van der Weyden and the encounter between faith and art as part of our BSR at the British Academy lecture series.

Rogier van der WeydenSaint Luke drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-40Oil on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cmBoston, Museum of Fine Arts

Rogier van der Weyden, St Luke Drawing the Virgin, c. 1435-40, oil on panel, 137.5 x 110.8 cm, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

‘As part of the British Academy’s season of lectures and events on faith, we were delighted to invite Dr Gabriele Finaldi, co-curator of the National Gallery’s millennium exhibition Seeing Salvation: The Image of Christ. Gabriele — then still at the Prado — kindly said yes. I was intrigued to learn that he intended to speak to us about Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–64) — the great Early Netherlandish master — but knew him well enough to be reassured there would be good reason.

Upon taking the stage on 7 March, Gabriele (now of course Director of the National Gallery) confessed that the most Italian thing about his talk would be his own name. The packed room (we were, understandably, oversubscribed) laughed. But this was not true, as he explained that the great Burgundian court painter enjoyed great fame in Italy in his lifetime. Quoting Rogier’s contemporary Cyriacus of Ancona, who had been shown the artist’s work by Leonello d’Este, we were asked to focus on his descriptions: ‘magnificently wrought’ and ‘a most pious image’. We were then helped, with these two descriptive lenses to hand, to look very closely at some of Rogier’s key paintings, and to understand why Italy was in thrall to this northern artist.

Gabriele focused our gaze first on the composition of the paintings, then on their intricate details, reminding us of both the importance of the liturgical or scriptural accuracy of what we were seeing and the artistic innovation displayed by Rogier. Our close looking at masterpieces, combined with the speaker’s words, rewarded us: the delicate metalpoint drawing of the Virgin in St Luke Drawing the Virgin (MFA, Boston); the playful Christ child in the Durán Madonna (Prado, Madrid) grabbing the book held by his mother; the intense devotional contemplation in The Magdalen Reading (National Gallery, London); and the cleverly composed liturgical narrative in The Seven Sacraments (KMSKA, Antwerp).

The Prado’s jewel, The Descent from the Cross, provided arguably the most dramatic impact. The device of compressing the scene within its compositional frame immediately lends a discomfort to the viewer, but it is the virtuosity of the finish and the emotion of each figure which help convey such a vivid sense of pathos. The final image in Gabriele’s talk was the Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John (Escorial, Madrid), possibly the artist’s final work, which is not only a stunning painting but also a marvel of careful conservation.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443, oil on panel, 220.5 x 259.5 cm, Museo Nacional del Prado, deposited by the Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Descent from the Cross, before 1443, oil on panel, 220.5 x 259.5 cm,
Museo Nacional del Prado, deposited by the Patrimonio Nacional, Madrid.

The BSR has a proud tradition of scholarship on the relationship between northern European culture and Italy, and this paper was a perfect complement to the careful scholarship of, for instance, Dr Sue Russell (BSR Assistant Director) on Herman van Swanevelt, or Austėja Mackelaitė (Rome Scholar 2014-15) on Marten van Heemskerck — and we could list many more. The lecture encouraged us to look closely and to think about what we were seeing, how it reflected contemporary religious belief and in what ways it might have influenced later artists. In viewing these magnificently wrought pictures, these most pious images, we were connected with the most universal emotions, with humanity itself.  It was a triumphant occasion and a worthy contribution to the BA’s series.’

Rogier van der Weyden, The Crucifixion, c. 1457-64, oil on panel, 323.5 x 192 cm, Patrimonio Nacional, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid.

Rogier van der Weyden, Crucifixion with the Virgin and St John, c. 1457-64, oil on panel, 323.5 x 192 cm, Patrimonio Nacional, Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial, Madrid.

Elizabeth Rabineau (Development Director)


New year, new projects, new partners

As we look ahead to an exciting new year at the BSR, Director Christopher Smith takes a look at some of the partnerships — old and new — that will be taking us forward in 2016.

‘We have always believed in partnerships, and the quality of our partnerships defines us.  The BSR has renewed its successful Memorandum of Understanding with the British Museum, with whom we have worked on topics as diverse as Pompeii and Herculaneum, geophysics in Sudan, the restoration of the garden of the British Ambassador’s residence in Rome, and Napoleon in Italy.

napoleon pvBSR Members at a private view of the exhibition Bonaparte and the British: Prints and Propaganda in the Age of Napoleon at the British Museum in 2015. Photograph by Kirsten Amor.

The partnership was renewed on the day that Neil MacGregor welcomed his last object into the BM — a cross made from the wreckage of a refugee boat whose survivors landed at Lampedusa.  The BSR’s own interests in Lampedusa began with a visit by Thomas Ashby early last century, and were recently revisited in the award-winning Channel 4 documentary by Zed Nelson (BSR Photoworks Fellow 2012-13).

Photographs of Lampedusa Island taken by Thomas Ashby in 1909. Images courtesy of the BSR Photographic Archive.

Lampedusa Cross

The Lampedusa Cross, made by Francesco Tuccio and donated to the British Museum in October 2015. ©  Trustees of the British Museum.

"Death in The Mediterranean" the survivors story"Death in The Mediterranean" the survivors story

Migrant boat graveyard, Lampedusa, Italy (above) and Fanus, a survivor from the October 2013 migrant boat tragedy (below). Photographs by Zed Nelson.

The BSR is also proud to announce three new partnerships. The first, with the Ashmolean Museum, will be celebrated in June, when the BSR will present, uniquely at the British Academy, both the BM and the Ashmolean exhibitions on Sicily.

The second, a partnership with the United Nations’ International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM) in Rome reflects our established position as a leading player in cultural heritage management, and we will act as a bridge between ICCROM and UK universities, especially in work in the Balkans and North Africa.  We look forward to a workshop funded by the US State Department and run jointly with the Swedish and American Academies and with the Society for Libyan Studies later this year.

For the third, the Digital Art History team at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles has launched a new project, the Getty Scholars’ Workspace.  BSR Librarian Valerie Scott and BSR Archivist Alessandra Giovenco have been nominated Project Researchers and will visit the GRI to discuss future collaborative projects using the new Platform.


Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Valerie Scott.

We continue our association with the Rome Art History Network, an international group of art historians based in Rome whose activities foster collaboration amongst the researchers of foreign academies and Italian cultural institutions.

Natasha Adamou (Henry Moore Foundation-BSR Fellow 2015–16) and Caspar Pearson (Paul Mellon Centre Rome Fellow 2015–16). Photographs by Antonio Palmieri.

Through these and other partnerships with, for instance, the Museum of London, Sir John Soane’s Museum, the Henry Moore Foundation*, and the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, as well as numerous universities in the UK and the Commonwealth, the other foreign academies in Rome and a score of collaborations with Italian authorities, the BSR remains a critical intellectual meeting point, and we are proud of the number of world class institutions who choose to work with us.’

Christopher Smith (Director)



*To listen to the talk given at the BSR by Chris Stephens, curator of the recent Henry Moore exhibition at the Baths of Diocletion, visit our YouTube channel.

Climate change and sustainability: the UK and Expo Milano 2015

We were delighted to host the event ‘Climate change and sustainability: the UK and Expo Milano 2015‘ at the BSR on Thursday 15 October 2015. Our first speaker of the evening was Wolfgang Buttress, designer of the UK pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, whose design for the UK pavilion The Hive has recently been awarded ‘Best Pavilion Architecture’ at Expo Milano 2015.

Wolfgang Buttress

Wolfgang Buttress explains how the marriage of music and nature inspired his design for the UK pavilion ‘The Hive’ at Expo Milano 2015.

Our second speaker was Professor Lord Stern of Brentford, who gave a thought-provoking lecture on the ‘logic, urgency and promise of tackling climate change’. Following the event at the BSR, Lord Stern lectured in Florence on 16 October, and concluded his Italian tour by presiding over a roundtable discussion in Milan as part of the programme of events for this year’s Expo on the theme of Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.

Wolfgang Buttress + Lord Stern

Wolfgang Buttress, designer of the award-winning UK pavilion at Expo Milano 2015, and Professor Lord Stern of Brentford, I.G. Patel Professor of Economics and Government, Chair of the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at LSE, and President of the British Academy.

If you don’t have time to watch the whole lecture (see the top of this blog post), you can watch a short interview with Lord Stern before his lecture at the BSR, and see the PowerPoint presentation of Lord Stern’s lecture. There are more photographs from the event on the British Embassy’s Flickr page.

Lord Stern will be lecturing in the UK on 24 November as part of the British Academy Debates on ‘Energy and the Environment’. Follow @britac_news and #BigDebates on Twitter.

Images by Guido Petruccioli