Old Masters in an Oxford museum

His intensely human face creased in distress, the centaur peers at a sheaf of arrows, one of which has pierced his hoof. Behind him his mate and her foal-babies huddle in a rocky cleft while Cupid, bow in hand, sprawls on an outcrop before a violet-blue haze of sea and sky.

By the Florentine maestro Filippino Lippi, “The Wounded Centaur”, with its wealth of imaginative detail and triumphant draughtsmanship, is a supreme example of late-15th-century mythological painting. That it is to be found in Oxford suggests, surely, a home in the Renaissance galleries of the Ashmolean Museum.

In fact, Lippi’s panel resides in the Christ Church Picture Gallery. Furthermore, it is just one jewel in a collection of Old Master paintings that has been open to the public since 1765 yet is still unknown to all but connoisseurs.

The building is literally as well as metaphorically invisible. No sign will direct you to the entrance, which is tucked round the back of Christ Church and takes you into the unprepossessing basement of an 18th-century accommodation block. Only when you proceed along a glazed corridor towards the galleries do you become aware that you are in an extremely elegant modernist edifice of glass, cement and creamy stone.

Constructed in 1968 by the architects Powell and Moya, the façade was made deliberately invisible from the outside so as not to obstruct the view of the surrounding buildings. Or, as Jacqueline Thalmann, the museum’s curator, puts it, the gallery has been constructed “from the inside out”.

This approach – the antithesis of recent contemporary museums, which have prioritised exterior form over interior function – is good news for the artworks.

Thalmann leads me into a gallery made intimate by a low-hung wooden ceiling and cement columns. For a moment, I simply stand and gaze, mentally ticking off a roll call of Italian masters that includes Lorenzo Lotto, Jacopo Bassano, Veronese and Tintoretto.

Certain works, such as Veronese’s “The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine”, are of exceptional quality; all merit sustained attention. Most extraordinary is “The Butcher’s Shop”, which depicts two eviscerated carcasses crowded by knife-wielding lads with one crouching, blade in hand, over a live terrified lamb. Painted in the 1570s, this macabre scene is a rare Italian forerunner of northern European genre painting. To my amazement, it turns out to be the work of Annibale Carracci, the early baroque Bolognese maestro who usually painted religious and mythical melodramas.

“I always feel that it says something about General John Guise that he could endure those carcasses in his own home,” observes Thalmann, referring to the 18th-century art collector without whose generosity the gallery would never have been born. It was Guise who, in 1765, bequeathed “The Butcher’s Shop” along with 200 paintings and 2,000 drawings to his former college, giving rise to what was then Oxford’s most prestigious public art collection. Originally, most paintings hung in the Lower Library, where they could be visited on appointment; “The Butcher’s Shop”, appropriately, graced the college kitchen.

Guise was born in 1682 into a respectable but not particularly wealthy Gloucestershire family. His interest in art was possibly sparked when he was a student by his friendship with Henry Aldrich, a keen print buyer who was dean of Christ Church. Described by Horace Walpole as “a very brave officer, but apt to romance, and a great connoisseur of pictures”, Guise probably left his collection to Christ Church in order for it to remain intact. Although his chief passion was for Italian paintings, he also branched out, as proved by the dynamically sketched oil “Horse and Rider” by Van Dyck.

Perhaps Guise’s finest legacy was his collection of drawings. Ranging from the 15th to the 18th century, it includes works by Michelangelo, Raphael, De Ribero, Pontormo and, astonishingly, seven Leonardos – including the “Grotesque Bust of a Man” probably owned by Giorgio Vasari. For reasons of conservation only a few are displayed at once. When I visited, a military-themed show included a taut-contoured archer by an anonymous 15th-century French artist, a warrior whose muscular languor betrayed the hand of Rubens, and a sheet of crossbows by Leonardo.

Lippi’s masterpiece has a different provenance; it was part of a donation of 37 early Italian paintings made to Christ Church between 1828 and 1834 by another alumnus, William Fox-Strangways. He also left a further 41 paintings to the Ashmolean, including Paolo Ucello’s magnificent “The Hunt” and any visit to Christ Church should encompass a trip to its better-known counterpart.

The son of the Earl of Ilchester, Fox-Strangways – the uncle of the photographer William Fox-Talbot – fell in love with the “simplicity and severity of early Florentines” while serving as a diplomat in Italy during the 1820s. At that time, the so-called Primitives were far from fashionable. Indeed, they only became so several decades later after their championship by John Ruskin, another Christ Church alumnus who must have been familiar with Fox-Strangways’ collection.

Certainly, it is another exceptional gathering. Highlights include a rare fragment by the 15th-century Flemish artist Hugo Van Der Goes, and a 14th-century panel of four angelic musicians recently confirmed as part of the “The Coronation of the Virgin” altarpiece by Bernardo Daddi that hangs in the National Gallery in London.

Particularly interesting is a 14th-century panel from the school of the Sienese master Duccio. A rare early example of a commission by a female donor, it portrays the latter kneeling at the feet of an olive-skinned Madonna, whose static, boneless body is shrouded in a midnight-blue robe. Her appearance, allied to the fact that the base of her throne has been discoloured, probably by the kisses of the patron, is a reminder of the close rapport between medieval Italian painting and Byzantine icons. Duccio and his peers were enormously influenced by the glittering, hieratic styles of the mosaics and paintings that had been made by Greek artists to decorate churches in Italy during the Dark Ages.

Probably seduced by an uncluttered intensity similar to the Primitives, Fox-Strangways purchased several icons himself. These now form the core of a temporary exhibition, Sacred Faces: Icons in Oxford, at the Picture Gallery.

Under the Byzantine Empire, icons were explicitly designed as objects of veneration. Their painters were priests who were required to conform to pre-existing canons of representation, whereas Italian painters enjoyed far greater freedom of expression. However, the 16 icons on view here were all made after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, a moment when the end of Byzantine rule gave icon painters – in certain areas – the freedom to experiment with western styles.

The Venetian colony of Crete, not surprisingly, was a hub of aesthetic exchange. Painted around 1514, an icon of “St George Killing the Dragon” portrays a saint whose flat contours are indisputably Greek while the horse, his crested neck virtually swivelling out of the frame, enjoys a realism similar to the equines of the Tuscan artist Gentile da Fabriano.

In other areas, styles remained conservative. Painted in mainland Greece, a 17th-century icon of “St George Killing the Dragon” on loan from the Ashmolean has none of its counterpart’s vigour. “The Ottomans allowed the Orthodox Christians to worship freely but local taste remained conservative because they were isolated from outside influences,” explains the show’s curator Dr Georgi Parpulov, who is a lecturer in Byzantine art and archaeology at Christ Church.

The refusal to relinquish tradition could also be an act of resistance. Designed to be carried in a pocket, a 19th-century metallic icon bears medieval-style reliefs of biblical scenes. “From the reign of Peter the Great, official art in Russia became more westernised,” says Parpulov. “Italian artists were invited over to decorate churches in neo-baroque and neo-classical styles. The medieval tradition of icon-making was preserved as an undercurrent.”

This exhibition is a fascinating opportunity to observe one of the most complex cultural rapports in history – and make the acquaintance of a first-class museum that has been little-known for too long.

‘Sacred Faces: Icons in Oxford’, Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, until December 22 www.chch.ox.ac.uk/gallery

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