Virtual Veronese at London’s National Gallery — miracles of art and technology

Europe is in schism, even brushstrokes are accused of taking sides, and at the abbey San Benedetto al Po, a great cosmopolitan centre of learning south of Mantua, Andrea Asola is in a fix. He has inherited, from a humanist predecessor, a lavish, unfinished decorative scheme for 15 new and restored chapels, but a papal edict has just banned the reforming books written by his own Benedictine colleagues.

Asola duly makes a bonfire of them in the monastery garden and faces up to Counter-Reformation demands for his chapels. He needs something unambiguous, something stunning, to proclaim the Catholic Church triumphant and get suspicious Roman authorities off San Benedetto’s back. The abbot has a budget — 123 gold scudi. Paolo Veronese is his man.

The National Gallery’s beautiful altarpiece “The Consecration of St Nicholas” was one of three paintings delivered by Veronese to San Benedetto in 1562. If, like me, you might expect to be irritated by Virtual Veronese — which features a “volumetric video actor” as Abbot Asola surveying the painting in its chapel — may I suggest that you suspend disbelief and give this new “digital experience” a chance. A play about miracles within miracles — spiritual, aesthetic, technological — it is thought-provoking, touching, fun and free.

“The Consecration of St Nicholas” narrates a miracle at the cathedral in Myra, present-day Turkey. The bishopric was vacant; the night before the election by a group of bishops, the senior one had a vision — God told him to appoint the first man who walked into the cathedral next morning. This was Nicholas, a youth in emerald green who falls to his knees in humility and drops the book he was holding — godly authority trumping independent (Protestant-inclined) learning. At that instant, one of art’s most stupendous angels, dizzyingly foreshortened, pink-robed, plunges headfirst into the scene to offer, as divinely ordained, a bishop’s staff and mitre.

‘The Consecration of St Nicholas’ (1562) by Paolo Veronese © National Gallery, London

The painting’s 10 figures, two dark-skinned and turbaned to underline its eastern location, are life-size, dynamically gesturing, intensely human in their surprise and excitement. Veronese belonged to the age when mimetic realism still astonished — that people who appeared to live and breathe could be fashioned from oil paint.

Today, scanned 3D computer models create imagined characters and milieux. One trope of Virtual Veronese is that just as Old Master supreme illusionism made the supernatural believable during the Renaissance, so immersive virtual reality gives us the illusion of escaping time and place — and here reinstalls “St Nicholas” in its original setting after two centuries.

After the palaver of fitting headsets and earphones (and reading a health and safety form), you choose as your guide either a virtual Asola or curator Rebecca Gill and step into an empty gallery next to the Espresso Bar. Hey presto, the room vanishes and you are in the gold-frescoed St Nicholas chapel on the Po embankment. Candles flicker, shadows fall on the rose-grained marble floor, cadences of Gregorian chant — from a 1560s choral book produced in this very monastery — soar in the vaulted space. A novice monk rushes in, surplice rippling in the breeze; he looks up, mesmerised, at the altarpiece.

Then enters the bearded, worried Asola, uncanny doppelgänger of his depiction in the painting. In guarded tones, he warns about the Inquisition — he was later interrogated for allowing heresy into his abbey — and underplays the monastery’s wealth. The monks are acted by Grahame Fox and Simon Victor, filmed with multiple cameras to allow you to walk around them as they move and talk. They disappear when the bell sounds for mass — the “pumpkin” moment returning you to a bare 21st-century gallery.

Angels hover above, and a shaft of light falls on the baby Jesus, cradled in the arms of Mary, while the three kings approach, bearing gifts
Veronese’s ‘The Adoration of the Kings’ (1573) © National Gallery, London

The encounter, produced by Focal Point VR, lasts 10 minutes, feels extraordinarily lifelike and I didn’t want it to end. It is affecting — even as you accept the gimmickry — and illuminating despite the staginess (there is always something of grand opera about Veronese) inflecting the didacticism. I chose the company of Asola and, slots being precious, have seen only stills and a transcript from the Gill version, where the scholarly explanations are more straightforward, but the frisson/falsity of engagement with historical personages is absent.

Either way, the experience sends you straight to a far longer encounter with Veronese in room 9. In the contrast between the San Benedetto chapel and the museum interior, you cannot help sensing what religious works lose by being torn from their ecclesiastical context — “St Nicholas” was looted during the Napoleonic wars and reached Britain soon afterwards.

But the virtual display also enhances our understanding of how Veronese, a stonecutter’s son and the most architectural of painters, constructed space and buildings in rhythm with the intended locations for his works. Room 9’s Veronese highlights alongside “St Nicholas” are the towering/tender “Adoration of the Kings” (1573), choreographed around a rustic hut rising out of antique ruins, and the enthralling, five-metre-long “Family of Darius Before Alexander” (1565-67). All are monumental compositions whose human drama and pathos are deepened by interplay with architecture.

Figures wearing rich 16th-century clothing kneel in a palace setting before a commanding young man dressed all in red
Veronese’s ‘The Family of Darius Before Alexander’ (1565-67) © National Gallery, London

The palatial backdrop of loggia and portals in “Family of Darius” underlines Alexander’s conquering power and echoes Palladian buildings in Verona. “St Nicholas”, composed for San Benedetto’s classical interiors, repeats the columns of its setting. You enter the painting, as Nicholas entered the cathedral, through these steps — but for the figural arrangement the upward thrust of the architecture is inverted to suggest the saint’s meekness and piety: framed by the portal, Nicholas kneels at the bottom of a pyramid of sumptuously dressed clergy. His rapt expression signifies revelation — and the spiritual revitalisation that was a Counter-Reformation goal.

Light streams through, as it does past the arches in “Darius” and “The Adoration”, and there is a glimpse of brilliant blue sky: these are Venetian paintings, where “glorious garments rustle in the air of the sea and . . . sun-lighted faces are the very complexion of Venice”, Henry James wrote. Themes are generosity (St Nicholas, aka Santa Claus, who gave to the poor; the Magi bearing gifts) and magnanimity (Alexander’s grace to defeated Darius’s family). The compositions are full and abundant.

Christ sits at the centre of a table where a multitude of figures are feasting. The table sits behind three ornate arches, with blue sky and city towers in the background
Veronese’s ‘The Feast in the House of Levi’ (1573), originally intended as a portrayal of the Last Supper © Bridgeman Images

This carried its own problems: in 1573 the Inquisition charged Veronese with flooding a “Last Supper” with trivia: dogs, jesters and “men dressed in the German fashion”. Veronese changed the title — to “The Feast in the House of Levi” — not the painting, explaining that he added elements “for ornamentation, as one does . . . If there is a space left over, I fill it with figures”. It is a humane, rich vision, striving for harmony in divided times — and, real or virtual, comforting and joyful now.

To April 3, nationalgallery.org.uk

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Anita Shire

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