Christ Discovered in the Temple
This exquisite painting from 1342 depicts a rather mundane subject - a family row. Mother ticks off her son - hugging a book defensively to his chest like a sulky teenager - while his father gently encourages him to explain himself, hoping everything will return to normal. But there's a stalemate. All three have their mouths shut. Something hangs in the air. The boy is the twelve-year old Jesus. Missing for three days, he's just been found in the Temple in Jerusalem, teaching. According to the book in her lap Mary, at a loss to understand, has asked 'Why have you treated us like this? We've been so worried.' Her son's answer will be that he's been 'doing his heavenly father's business'. With that he will take his first step away from his earthly family. The artist, Simone Martini conveys the tightness of the group - poignantly, on the verge of its breakup - through balanced shapes and colours. Mary's blue and red are reversed in her son's outfit, while Joseph's cloak blends the two. Martini captures psychological tension through facial expression and gesture - note the family resemblances - and Josephs' graceful S-shape as he tries to reconcile his unbending family. All this is achieved without much sense of spatial depth. Martini and his fellow artists in Siena left perspective to artists in Florence. The Sienese were interested less in what the world looked like, and more in what the spiritual world feels like. With works like this - probably a portable altar for private worship, as it's also painted on the back - they wanted to evoke a sense of wonder and ecstasy. The gold leaf, with tiny punched patterns - a Martini innovation - would have glittered in the candlelight. We're transported through a little window to heaven. For a long time paint was made by binding natural pigments with egg rather than oil. Since egg dries very hard, this egg tempera paint lasts. And unlike oil it doesn't discolour. It was used on top of white, making the colours even more brilliant. Egg tempera also dries very quickly, making mistakes difficult to correct. Artists had to plan their compositions carefully, and work confidently with short, quick brushstrokes. So the fine detail here - in the hair for example - is astonishing.