The Leonardo Da Vinci show at the National Gallery, “Leonardo Da Vinci: Painter at the Court of Milan”, is billed as “the most complete display of Leonard’s surviving paintings ever held” and has been the talk of the town since it opened. Advance tickets were sold out immediately, but the Gallery reserved 500 tickets per day, released on the day. The box office opens at 10:00 a.m and you are advised that you’ll spend about an hour and a half in line.
Tim got to the Gallery at 8:00 a.m. and there was already a good line up. He was told that he would get numbers 84 & 85, so he settled into coffee and chat with others in the queue, shivering in the November wind.
By the time that I arrived at 9:30, with more coffee, there were over 400 people in line.
There was a vendor selling coffee and breakfasts, gallery staff giving everyone regular up-dates, and reading material about the show was provided to help us while away the time. The English really do know about queuing and there was an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship.
We got in to see the show at 11:00. Inside, it was easy to feel claustrophobic. You could really only see the pieces by staying in the flow of the line up, moving slowly along the walls. I allowed myself to go into a calm state, reading the information, spending as much time as I needed with each drawing and painting, the crowd sometimes moving past me like a river gently bumping past a stone.
The show was a revelation. “The Lady with the Ermine” is hailed as the “second-most famous woman in Leonardo’s life”. It’s an astonishing painting of Cecilia Gallerani, 16-year old mistress of Ludovico Sforza, Da Vinci’s patron. In the painting, she is gazing off to the side, an ermine in her arms. It’s a provocative and mysterious portrait. She and the ermine (the symbol of purity) are said to be looking at Ludovico off stage, the light in the painting emanating from him. It is the first time that the painting has been exhibited in Britain and she is definitely the star of the show.
My favourite piece is “The Burlignton House Cartoon”, an unfinished drawing of the Virgin Mary, sitting on her mother’s lap (St. Anne) with the infant Jesus and St. John the Baptist beside them. There was a beautiful sketch of the same scene as well. The great maternal love in the pictures makes me weep. He catches a beautiful, human, relationship between Mary and her baby that is timeless.
There was a fabulous display of his sketches for the saints in The Last Supper. Da Vinci stressed the importance of gesture to show character: “A good painter is to paint two main things, namely, man and the working of man’s mind. The first is easy, the second is difficult, for it is to be represented through the gestures and movements of the limbs”.
A quote from his notebook reads like a playwright, taking notes. You get a vision of Milan, 1493, as Leonardo was contemplating gesture and groups of people: “One who was drinking and has left the glass in its place and turned his head towards the speaker. Another, twisting the fingers of his hands together, turns with stern brow to his companion. Another with his hands spread open shows the palms, and shrugs his shoulders up to his ears, making a mouth of astonishment. Another speaks into his neighbour’s ear and he, as he listens to him, turns towards him to lend an ear, while he holds a knife in one hand, and the other the loaf half cut through by the knife. Another who has turned, holding a knife in his hand, with his hand a glass onto the table.”
We left the Gallery feeling very full.
Having feasted our eyes, we decided to go to St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields for an evening concert as part of the “Just This Day” project. “Just This Day” is dedicated to promoting “Stillness” and in particular, “Silence in Schools” Apparently, recent studies show the benefits of “strong silence”, a deliberate and focussed stillness, to include higher exam results, increase in self-esteem and a decrease in negative behaviour.
St. Martin’s is in the heart of busy London, yet is known as an oasis of calm. The church was hosting “Just This Day” — a day of silence and discussion of stillness. But we knew none of this at the time. We just arrived. As the concert began, we were requested to sit, and feel the stillness. Why is it that stillness feels so much more profound when it is enjoyed together with several hundred other people?
We were treated to an evening of music by Arvo Pärt sung by the “Choral Scholars of St. Martin’s-in-the-Fields” and played by the Ceruti Quartet. There was early Renaissance music sung by Dame Emma Kirkby and played on the lute by Jakob Lindberg, and a piece by contemporary composer David Stoll, “The Practice of Mediation”. It was all sublime. Music of the spheres. Spiritually uplifting.