When I was given the privilege of working with seven co-curators on an exhibition for Hull Ferens that would provoke and stimulate interest in the gallery’s oldest piece of artwork, Pietro Lorenzetti’s ‘Christ between St Peter and St Paul’, I knew that this was something special.
The Lorenzetti was acquired by the Ferens in 2013, for £1,612,940, with the help of an Art Fund Grant and the Heritage Lottery Fund, after the culture secretary had placed an export ban upon it to prevent it leaving the country. Stephen Deuchar, Director of the Art Fund, said at the time, 'This is a very exciting moment not just for the Ferens and for Hull but for the wider British public too. As the only fully autographed work by Lorenzetti in the UK, it’s a hugely significant acquisition.’
After a year of conservation, restoration, stabilising the structure and cleaning, the work was put on permanent display in Gallery 1, where it looks magnificent. It dates from around 1320, constitutes one section of an altar piece, probably executed for a church in Lorenzetti’s home town of Siena and the multiple layers in its making show a great depth of training and skill. First any knots or holes in the wooden panel were filled, sealed with glue and smoothed. Linen was applied over the panel with glue and then multiple layers of gesso were put on to prepare the surface. Lorenzetti would then have done the basic under-drawing and inscribed the outline with a sharp tool, marking out the parts that were to be painted and those that were to be gilded. The gold leaf was applied first, burnished and details added with punching or inscribing techniques. The paint for the panel was egg tempura, mixed from naturally occurring minerals, insect dyes and spices. Lorenzetti has also employed mordant gilding for the gold lines on Christ’s robes, which involved boiling together oil and resin to make a sticky adhesive that could be finely painted to control the metal leaf.
The painter was working at a time of great transition in art, the gestures and facial expressions of his figures, the three dimensional awareness and depth of space around each one, a significant departure from all that had gone before. Saint Paul stands on the left with a sword in his hand wrapped around with a belt, the first a reminder of his beheading as a martyr, the second a symbol of his saintly status as only those of high rank were allowed to wear belts, and on the right is Saint Peter, considered the first Pope, and holding what is still the symbol of Popes, the keys to the kingdom of heaven. At the centre is Christ Pantocrator, one hand lifted in blessing, the golden lines on his robe symbolising his divinity. The inclinations of the heads, the eye glances and facial expressions all give the impression that we have stumbled upon them in a silent conversation.
It was from this thought that the concept for the 'Silent Conversation: Lorenzetti And The Ferens' Collection exhibition emerged, linking the Lorenzetti to other Ferens’ works – a number of them not seen in the public gallery for many years, and I was approached to be a part of the team that would co-curate.
Divided into three parts, the exhibition opened to the public on March 17th, 2018, in Gallery 11 at the Ferens. It traces ‘silent conversations’, where lips are firmly closed, but other aspects of gesture, location, colour or expression in the works conveys an unspoken interaction or internal conversation. ‘Solitude’ includes those works where sole figures are depicted. ‘Pairings’, as might be guessed, investigates exchanges between two figures, and ‘Company’ the untold conversations that may be taking place in works where a number of figures share the space. The use of film, audio-labelling for izi travel viewers and conventional labelling has further added other dimensions to the exhibition.
This exhibition has been an absolute joy to put together. The word ‘curate’ has its etymology in the Latin curare, meaning to take care. In Roman times it signified the person who took care of the bath houses, and in medieval times it had evolved to be the name of the priest who cared for souls - we still have our curates today. Only in the eighteenth century did the word assume a usage in caring for arts and artefacts. Today it means to safeguard the heritage of the works of art, to select new work, to connect it to art history and to display or arrange the work. But, of course, it is so much more. It is also about putting together a good exhibition that will provoke conversation and interest in those who come to view.
'Silent Conversation: Lorenzetti And The Ferens' Collection' can be seen in Gallery 11 of the Ferens Art Gallery, Hull.