Talks & Events –


27th July : Hugo van der Goes : The Gentle Painter

Briefly, Hugo van der Goes (1430/40-1482) was the second generation of 15th century Flemish artists. The Monteforte and Portinari altarpieces and various portraits are layered with meaning, not just because the altarpieces portray religious events, but because they contain closely observed elements of nature. Van der Goes’s altarpiece for the Portinari family, commissioned by Tommaso Portinari in 1473 when he was an agent for the Medici in Bruges, did not arrive in Florence until after the artist’s death.  When it did, it caused a rumpus.
Van der Goes’s legacy and influence was not just in large pieces. His influence on illuminated manuscripts was also huge. We will look at the work of those whom he might have influenced and why.
This nativity, with the shepherds, hangs in the Gemaldgalerie, Berlin. We will look at this piece and various other works by this lyrical artist, including his influence on the late 15th c illuminators and other artists.
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The Nativity : Hugo van der Goes (1443/44 – 1482)
01372 272235 to book. Numbers limited. email:

June 29th Sicily – a Mediterranean Jewel

Sicily, the largest island in the Mediterranean sits at the trading crossroads of the ancient world. The island was first settled 10,000 years ago, but we will start our exploration of the history of the island with the occupation by the classical civilisations in the 8th century BC and proceed through the succeeding occupations by the Romans, Arabs, Normans, the House of Hohenstaufen and the Spanish, up to the present day.

All of these nations have left evidence of their presence in surviving examples of art and architecture. The Valley of the Temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site, has glorious examples of Greek architecture with temples dedicated to Juno, Concordia, Aesclepius, Heracles, the twins – Castor & Pollux and not surprisingly considering the looming presence of the volcano Mt Etna, Haephestus – the blacksmith god whose forge was said to be contained within the volcano. Another Greek myth tells us that almighty Zeus confined the monster Typhon beneath Europe’s most active volcano. Below is the Temple of Hera at Selinunte, an ancient Greek city in the south-west of the island, that was destroyed by the Carthaginians as they retreated at the end of the first Punic War.

 The arrival of the Arabs saw the introduction of the cultivation of lemons, rice and sugar cane. The Emirate was to last until the arrival of the Normans in the 11th century. Under the rule of King Roger II, the island saw a flourishing of the arts and peace. King Roger did not take part in the Crusades, but many Crusaders visited Sicily either on their way to, or returning from, the Holy Land. As a result of his non-participation, King Roger became the richest man in Europe and his lasting legacy seen in the surviving mosaics in Cefalu Cathedral erected in 1131. Roger’s Admiral, George of Antioch, founded the Martonara which contains a mosaic of King Roger being crowned by Christ (below left).

The Schatzkammer in Vienna still has the embroidered red silk coronation mantle of King Roger that dates from 1133-34 (below right)








As with all civilisations,  there is a time when historians believe they can call a Golden Age and the relatively short time the Normans were present is what Sicilians believe was theirs.

The Normans were not run out of the island, but married into the imperial House of Hohenstaufen. Constance, the posthumous daughter of Roger II, was now queen of Sicily and married Henry VI, Holy Roman Emperor, and thus the island was absorbed into the Holy Roman Empire.

During the 14th century, the island came under Spanish rule and remained so until the unification of Italy in the 19th century.  The artistic remnants of the baroque period are seen in the churches and secular buildings that have survived earthquakes and war.

In 1860, Garibaldi conquered Sicily with the audacious invasion known as the Expedition of the Thousand. The island then became part of the Kingdom of Naples and Sardinia and subsequently, part of a unified Italy. The 19th century also saw the rise of the notorious Mafia.

Sicily is an island of mystery and romance. The layers of history tempt the holiday maker to explore and when the day is over, what better than to relax and discuss your adventures over a meal of traditional Sicilian fare washed down by wine made from grapes on the slopes of Mt Etna. Being an island, the sea food is amazing and the island is the third largest producer of wine in Italy. Gosh – perhaps I should organise a tour!

The local magazine, the Ashtead & Leatherhead Local, shows the evening date of 29th June, but this time is full hence the additional date of Friday 6th July at 7.30 p.m.

01372 272235 to book. Numbers limited.

Talks from earlier this year.

May: The Dawn of Flemish genius: the lives and works of Jan van Eyck, Robert Campin & Rogier van der Weyden.

Last month my art lovers group looked at the work of the three Florentine artists who would influence architecture, art and sculpture up to the present day.  This month we will look at the paintings of the three painters who still cause people to weep because of their ability to capture the human condition. Van Eyck, Campin and van der Weyden were contemporaries of the Florentines, but their painting was different. van Eyck used multi point perspective, Campin portrayed the Gospel stories as part of everyday 15th century life, and Rogier van der Weyden described such intense emotion it that anyone seeing his work cannot fail to be moved.

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Detail from Descent from the Cross 1435. Rogier van der Weyden. Mueso del Prado.

Who were they? What was life like in northern Europe? Were they so different from their Italian counterparts and if so, why?

Here’s the link to my art history group website. 

£10 including coffee/tea, cake & biscuits. Tel 01372 272235 or email to book. Numbers limited. 


You might be interested to read my article on the Blog page.


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Detail from van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross c1435. Museo del Prado,


Brunelleschi, Donatello & Masaccio: The Florentine Masters of architecture, sculpture and painting.

For those who have been to Florence, the work of these men are a must see.
Only by looking at the engineering of Brunelleschi’s dome of Santa Maria della Fiore for ourselves can we appreciate the genius of this man. We see the practical application of his experiments in perspective in Donatello’s statues of St George and St Mark on the exterior of the Orsanmichele. Masaccio’s three dimension illusionist rendering of the Trinity painted on the wall in Santa Maria Novella and the murals in the Brancacci Chapel of Santa Maria del Carmine mark a momentous change in religious art.

Even a little knowledge of the work of these masters will help anyone to understand the leap of understanding of mathematics, perspective and portrayal religious scenes that happened in Florence in the early fifteenth century.

Interior of Santo Spirito
Brunelleschi was a mathematician who applied his skills to produce exquisitely engineered buildings. Influenced by the writings of the Roman architect/engineer Vitruvius his designs echo those of classical Rome. The Ospidagle degli Innocenti, the church of Santo Spirito (the interior is shown above) and the Pazzi chapel are three of his buildings.
Brunelleschi experimented theoretically with single point perspective that could be used to create the illusion of three dimensions on a flat surface.  Masacchio’s work of the early 1420s is reminiscent of earlier artists and lacks depth, whereas in his 1427 altarpiece of the Trinity in Santa Maria Novella, painted on a flat wall, the illusion of depth is created by his use of single point perspective.

Donatello’s bronze David is the first bronze statue of the Italian Renaissance to be cast in a single pour.

His Mary Magdalen, carved in lime wood, has an emotional tension that is arresting when you first see it in the wood. These two pieces are intended to be viewed from the ground unlike his St Mark and St George, which are set above the crowd. Again, this requires an understanding of illusion that requires the use of single point perspective in order to create a figure that does not appear distorted and to the onlooker everything appears perfect.

The predella under the statue of St George shows his battle with the dragon.  We call this technique rilievo schiacciatoand Donatello has ‘painted’ the scene with his chisel producing a surface of differing depths in a similar way to the three dimensional qualities of Masaccio’s paintings after he had mastered single point perspective.
Brunelleschi had entered the competition to be the one create new bronze doors for the Baptistry, but lost out to the younger Lorenzo Ghiberti. Ironically, it is Ghiberti’s use of drama and single point perspective to create a dramatic relievo scene that wins him the commission. Michelangelo referred to these doors as The Gates of Paradise.
The influence of these three masters cannot be understated. Michelangelo used the technique of rilievo schiacciato when he carved the Madonna of the Stairs. Like Brunelleschi he had the problem of creating a dome to span the crossing for the new building of St Peter’s basilica in Rome. He used perspective when he carved his David in the same way Donatello did for his St Mark, St George (& others) and, like Masaccio, he had to overcome the problems of painting a realistic scene on a flat surface that had depth, but for Michelangelo the perspectival problems were greater because the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel is high above the congregation and is curved.
To give you some idea of the burgeoning of ideas and techniques across Europe at the beginning of the 15th century, these three Florentine masters were working south of the Alps at the same time that van Eyck and Robert Campin were painting their detailed realistic altarpieces and portraits in the Netherlands. Michelangelo said of the work of the Flemish artists “….  Italian painting was devout, but would not cause the worshipper to shed a tear, whereas the work of the Flemish painters could move them to shed many.”

March: Symbolism – an examination of how our perception of the content of paintings has changed over the centuries and how to decode a painting.

Before 1500 most art was devotional. The audiences then would have recognised many symbols that we look at and wonder why they have been included.  Many manuscripts have jewelled margins, and each of the precious stones have meanings.  Diamonds for constancy, rubies for sacrifice, emeralds – hope, sapphires – the colour of the Virgin’s robe.  The use of these precious gems bestow status on the image, and also on the owner of any manuscript. 

MS M 399 da Costa Hours Morgan
The da Costa Hours in the Morgan Library, New York. MS M399 f113v

On this page we see St Luke, the patron saint of artists, writing his gospel, but if we look closer we see through the door that he is seated in his studio painting an image of the Virgin who stands before him surrounded by a golden light.  The margin contains bejewelled treasures that appear in many of the margins created by this workshop, and also a predominance of pearls, which symbolise purity.  

The margins often became a place where the artist could add a touch of humour, such as this harp playing monkey, or a mermaid playing the viol. My particular favourite is this little chap – who or what he is, I have no idea! 

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Da Costa Hours Ms M 307 f 133. Morgan Library, New York.

Often meanings have become changed over the centuries and some have even been attributed to having been used in medieval documents despite them coming from the New World.  Since Señor Columbus did not cross the Atlantic until 1492, the sunflower was never a medieval symbol! This is the Burne-Jones window of St Frideswide in Christ Church College chapel, Oxford. 

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St Frideswide

However, the humble European marigold was long known for its heliotropic properties and therefore because it followed the sun (i.e. the light) became associated with the divine. One of its local names is Mary’s Gold, and because of its properties was used in ointments and salves to soothe skin irritations. 

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Field marigold.


Colours, gems, flowers, birds and beasts all had meanings.  We will look at images and artefacts from medieval times to the 20th century to see how meanings have become changed, remained the same or even lost completely.  Finally we will attempt to decode a painting as to the allegorical meaning it carried.

Friday  11 a.m. & 7.30 p.m.  £10 including coffee/tea, cake & biscuits. Tel 01372 272235 or email to book. Numbers limited.