Sin at the National Gallery

Bruegel, Hogarth and Andy Warhol grace the National Gallery's new exhibition on human transgressions. Peter Gray reports.

© The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery’s latest exhibition explores the concept of sin as it relates to art. 

With work by artists as diverse as Bruegel, William Hogarth, Andy Warhol and Tracey Emin, the exhibition traces the many and various ways that sin has been depicted in western art, from the morality pieces of the early Christian art, to the work of modern artists like Ron Mueck and Tracey Emin. 

Featuring both religious and secular art, the show looks at biblical definitions of sin as well as modern secular conceptions of the act.

Early works on the subject were chiefly produced for religious and moral edification, with the artists of the time leaving little room for doubt over where they stood on the subject. 

Jan Brueghel the Elder’s ‘The Garden of Eden’ is a good example. The work explores the concept of original sin as described in the Bible with Brueghel’s magnificent canvas depicting the state of grace that existed before Adam and Eve ate from the tree of knowledge. 

The consequences of this act were colossal. Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden and Eve, and the concept of Original Sin was born. 

Brueghel emphasises this tragic outcome by heightening his depiction of Eden. The painter depicts the mythical garden as a bountiful earthly paradise where nature meets the divine.

Such representations of the Garden of Eden were popular right up to the 17th century when this painting was created.

Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Adam and Eve occupies a similar space to Brueghel’s work, yet Cranach depicts Adam and Eve themselves, right at the moment of their trangression, with the apple poised in Adam’s hand.

Cranach doesn’t shy away from the sexual connotations of the moment, either, taking great care to show Adam and Eve’s naked and seductive bodies.

Another popular historical subject for artists tackling the topic of morality in their work was the seven deadly sins. These seven prohibited acts (pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth) emerged from the teachings of the Desert Fathers.

Early Christian hermits, the Fathers had a profound and lasting influence on the development of Christianity in the West. 

William Hogarth The Tête à Tête

© The National Gallery, London

Countless artists have tackled the subject of the seven deadly sins in their work. One of the most successful was the 18th-century British painter William Hogarth. Some of Hogarth’s finest works involve studies of sinful behaviour in English society. 

This exhibition includes the artist’s Marriage A-la-Mode. This series of six paintings cleverly illustrates the sin of greed, in this case displayed by two fathers conspiring an arranged marriage for their children for money. 

 Over the six paintings, Hogarth demonstrates the fate of many such marriages. 

In the second painting in the series, The Tête à Tête, the signs of marital discord are already apparent. The ‘happy couple’ already look entirely fed up, and there are signs that the husband has already strayed from the marital bed. 

A small dog has found a mistress’s cap in the man’s pocket, and a black spot on his neck may be the beginnings of syphilis. 

Although the exhibition focuses primarily on those who have commited a sin,  the show also showcases several people who would normally be regarded as being without sin. The Virgin Mary is one example.

Diego Velázquez’s wonderful Immaculate Conception presents a Mary who is the very personification of good. 

Other paintings in the exhibition deal with acts of redemption, atonement and/or confession. One example of this is Andy Warhol’s  ‘Repent, and Sin No More!’.

In addition to Warhol, the exhibition brings the notion of sin into the modern age with Tracey Emin’s simple yet stark ‘It was just a kiss’  with the piece representing a simple, secular version of the idea of sin.

Youth by Ron Mueck

© Ron Mueck / photo the National Gallery, London

Another arresting modern conception of sin is offered by Ron Mueck’s ‘Youth’. A young man is caught in the act of lifting his T-shirt to examine a wound. The work, while wholly modern, somehow recalls the image of Christ showing his sacrificial wound. Youth plays with both our prejudices and our traditional understanding of sin.

Howard and Roberta Ahmanson Research Curator Dr Joost Joustra, had this to say about the exhibition: ”Sin invites visitors to reflect on a fundamental concept that pervades our lives and history, but also to marvel at the ingenious ways artists have addressed the subject across time.’

“Sin is a deadly serious subject and artists over the centuries have treated it with imagination and inventiveness. This small exhibition packs a big punch and will, I hope, lead to much discussion and reflection on the meaning and imagery of sin.’ Adds Dr Gabriele Finaldi, Director of the National Gallery.

Sin will be at the National Gallery between the 7th October 2020 and the 3rd of January 2021. More information about the exhibition can be found here.

For information on other great art exhibitions in London, please click here.

-London's Best Events-
What: new exhibition
When: 7 oct 20 - 3 Jan 21
Where: National Gallery
Website: Sin at the NG