Tucked in beside the college’s monumental quadrangles, the Picture Gallery struggles to draw attention to itself. Its unassuming entrance, in fact, is only distinguishable from a residential door by a pair of sign posts.
Half way down the flight of stairs into the underground gallery space, however, and I feel like I’ve entered the gallery equivalent of Mary Poppins’ handbag. The area opens out into surprising dimensions to reveal an impressive, eclectic selection of work.
The first room is gilded with Medieval iconography. Stylishly elongated limbs and halos, Virgins clad in ultramarine and naked Christ’s sports loincloths of varying translucence. Half way into the neatly curated forest of plump Christ-child arms lurks ‘The Wounded Centaur’.
This much-discussed painting is the work of Florentine maverick Filippo Lippi, whose scandalous biography ranges from capture by barbary pirates and escape by a rope of sheets from the clutches of Cosimo de’ Medici.
Tellingly, the Cupid who lolls against a rock in the background of ‘The Wounded Centaur’, tells us that it is not Hercules, (as in Ovid’s Fasti) but Love which has pricked the creature’s heart.
Lippi’s amendment bears strangely prophetic relation to his biography. So the story goes, the Pope agreed to grant Lippi permission to marry a Florentine nun whom he had abducted and impregnated. Before the permission reached Lippi, however, the artist had been poisoned by his lover’s indignant family members.
Exiting this room past a wall collage of saints’ lives, the space opens out into a much larger gallery of Renaissance paintings. The viewer’s eye is channelled between two pillars towards the back wall to Caracci’s monumental, ‘The Butcher’s Shop’.
The painting is a dynamic assemblage of men and raw meat, unnervingly mirroring one another across the huge canvas.
This fleshy enlargement of a scene of manual labour presents itself as a thoughtful rebellion against the constraints of contemporary Mannerism. The painting’s meaty hangings perform a dramatic interplay between the dual meanings of ‘viva carne’: “living flesh” and “red meat”.
Nothing, in particular, grabs my attention in the third and final room, which is lined with the meticulously detailed portraiture typical of the Northern Renaissance. Nevertheless, I’m surprised that this treasure trove remains quite so hidden.
Stepping out of the gallery back into the quad I think, whimsically enough, that there’s not just the one door to wonderland in Christ Church after all.