The National Gallery has ruined Christmas. Or, to be more precise, it has had a very good go at wrecking one of the world’s greatest Nativity paintings. The fact that Piero della Francesca’s Nativity is back on view for the festive season, after a three-year restoration the London gallery vaunts as careful and revealing, should be glad tidings. But my joy turned to ash when I saw it. What in the name of God inspired the restorers to paint two completely new and distractingly moronic shepherd’s faces? Or a big white blob on the stable wall?
The Nativity, a mysterious and elusive work of haunting wonder, has been, oh so carefully and responsibly, rendered clumsy and plodding, if not downright comical. Almost every colour has been altered, every line re-emphasised. It’s like a garish digital reconstruction of what the painting may have looked like in 1475 when it was new – except, instead of offering this as a hypothetical, it has been physically repainted or, in the evasive language of restorers, “retouched”.
This orange-faced man looks vacant, even constipated, his barely human eyes unfocused and lifeless
Piero painted this unique vision of Mary adoring her baby in front of a stable, accompanied by a choir of angels singing their hearts out, in his home town of Sansepolcro in Italy about 550 years ago. It has survived all that time, albeit with damage done long ago that erased the faces of two shepherds. None of that spoiled its mystery. Piero, a polymath who wrote books about maths and geometry, celebrated what he saw as the divine harmony of the physical universe in the choir of angels, with their mouths open in song. Influenced by the ancient Greek mathematical mystic Pythagoras, he connects the geometric, oval faces and tubular limbs of his people with the beauty of the angelic music he invites us to imagine. Try looking at it with Thomas Tallis in your ears.
Badly damaged … the shepherds before they were retouched. Photograph: The National Gallery, London
Untune that string and what a chaos you make of this painting. Its pallor was part of its ethereal beauty. Now, the eye is drawn to a ruddy shepherd’s face painted by the restorer that covers a long-obliterated part of the picture. It is so awful it makes me think of the notorious amateur repainting of Christ’s features in a Spanish fresco that caused global hilarity a decade ago. The face of this red-hatted shepherd is, fortunately, done with more competence than “Monkey Christ” – and it’s based on scientific study.
Yet expertise without artistic soul has produced an idiotic botch. This orange-faced man looks vacant and gormless, even constipated, his barely human eyes unfocused and lifeless. It’s like he’s trying to remember where he parked the donkey. The rest of the face, too, is clumsily done, …….