Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s Adoration at the National Gallery
It’s a well-known scene: the Virgin Mary robed in blue sits with the Christ child on her knee, while the three wise men wait to pay homage and present their festive gifts. Jan Gossaert’s version of the Adoration is perhaps one of the most beautiful ever painted. The extraordinary finesse of his brush strokes and his attention to small details make the 16th century masterpiece almost hyperreal.
The new exhibition in Room 1 at the National Gallery takes visitors on a journey into the picture. It’s a Covid-secure experience for between three and six viewers at a time (depending on household groupings). First, you are invited to look at the painting, which hangs alone in the middle of the largest wall. After a couple of minutes, you are asked to enter three individual pods, in which a semi-interactive video is playing.
This video zooms in on details in the painting, bringing them to life through a soundscape and moments of animation. It’s subtle and engaging, highlighting aspects you will almost certainly have missed on the first viewing: the donkey munching on weeds behind Mary’s shoulder; the hairs sprouting from a mole on Caspar’s cheek; the dramatic ruination of the buildings among which they sit.
The experience focuses particularly on the figure of Balthazar, the African king, who waits his turn to worship before Jesus. Gossaert draws attention to this extraordinarily lifelike character by signing his name both on the king’s lavish headgear and on the silver collar worn by his servant. Balthazar’s clothes are painted with painstaking care; particularly beautiful are his elegant-but-waterproof boots, presumably made of animal gut.
After the video has ended, you are invited out of the pods to take a final look at the actual painting and seek out the details you missed the first time round. Here, Balthazar’s voice is imagined through a moving spoken-word poem by former Young Poet Laureate for London, Theresa Lola.
Beautiful, festive, free, and safe – a perfect way to spend a quarter of an hour on a cold December day.
Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s Adoration is at the National Gallery from 9th December until 28th February 2021. For further information visit the exhibition’s website here.