The National Gallery of Ireland contains many wonders. As in most big art galleries, though, you can walk past wall after wall of old masters without any of them leaving much of an impact on the eye or memory. Then suddenly one of them will look at you, and make you stop. And if you spend long enough in conversation with it, it may stay with you for years.
That happened to me many years ago on a visit to Dublin, with a painting attributed to the Netherlandish artist Gerard David entitled ‘Christ saying goodbye to his mother’.
It’s a simple picture. That’s part of its appeal, after all the big canvases around it, cluttered with saints, cherubs, elegant costumes and violent homicides. Christ stands, still, bare-footed and very straight. He’s dressed in a full-length gown, turquoise and unadorned. The room he’s standing in is simple too, though by no means poor: wooden panelling on the walls and wooden cupboards below; modest, pastel-coloured tiles on the floor; a window, filled with pale stained glass. The light should fall from the left, and so it does in the case of the drapery, but, this being Christ, an interior light illuminates his white face and hands, and his feet. He looks like a scholar, and certainly not a manual worker, a carpenter’s son. Very different from the older and stony-faced Christ in Dürer’s roughly contemporaneous woodcut version of the same scene.
Nothing spoken, then, and the face, framed by long but thin brown hair, arched eyebrows and sunken cheeks, is impassive. Expression is concentrated in the hands. The left hand, held up and open, imparts a conventional blessing on the unseen Mary. But the other is lower, and closed, with thumb touching index finger. It betrays anxiety, or at best inner feelings or knowledge to be concealed from others. The contrast is repeated in the feet. Christ’s right foot gestures towards Mary (and us), openly and directly. The other stands at an angle, withdrawn, pointing along the line of tiles beyond the picture’s edge, just as the room’s perspectives meet at an invisible point somewhere far behind the figure of Christ. At the same time as the act of farewell takes its course there are even deeper things that are unsaid, held back, unrevealed.
Little is known about Gerard David. He was born near Utrecht about 1460 and worked as a painter and manuscript illuminator, in Antwerp but mainly in Bruges, dying in 1523. His work was disregarded or undervalued until the nineteenth century, and even today it’s little known. Though his style was in the main conservative, he pioneered the use of landscape in his painted altarpieces, and seemed to specialise in contemplative figures. A good example is a picture in the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, Rest on the flight into Egypt, with its serene Mary and philosophical donkey.
On another visit to Dublin in March 1999 I returned to the National Gallery to see the departing Christ again, and when I was there came across a book of poems by the Irish writer Paul Durcan, Crazy about women, all directly inspired by pictures in the Gallery’s collection. The David painting is one of his choices. His focus is less on the figure of Christ and more on the invisible, implied figure of his mother. His poem begins like this:
Barefoot in the waiting room of the vet
Stinking of disinfectant and polish
Farewell, my sweetest mother,
Dogsbody given the run around by everybody,
I go now to be offered for the salvation of mankind
And to work for relief in the Sudan
In your turquoise nightgown, my boy’s first beard,
And you to be led away by artistic guards in denim suits:
The modern solution
To the mystery of life:
To put mother down.