Brief encounters: new art from old

The last painting by Piero della Francesca, The Nativity (1470-75), was not created for church or patron, but for himself. It is a painting stripped bare and, perhaps, his testament. On this shield-like plane divided in two by barren and cultivated earth, the baby appears as a seed ready to be planted; his mother's mantle, like an umbilical cord, will be drawn away, leaving him to grow in the garden. A metaphor for any child anywhere, perhaps? Close by, a group of men talk; one man's gesture suggests a discussion of cosmic events. An ox looks on and a donkey brays before their stall which was the shelter for the birth of this child. There are no sheep, no angel's wings or haloes, but these common men are wise enough, because they, like us, know that this was no ordinary birth. The magpie on the mossy roof augurs ill. Goldfinches are pecking thistles encroaching on a garden that is no ordinary garden, it is a remnant of the Garden of Eden, and the baby here will become the fruit of the tree of Golgotha.

"The mysteries of the picture," says Stephen Cox, "which I've tried to unlock, suggested something of the layers of allusion that I wanted to convey in my own work. I also wanted to realise a long-held ambition to make a porphyry room as a reference to the birthing chamber of the Roman emperors. Porphyry could symbolise both imperial blood and the sacrificial colour of Christ's blood. By using it, I could also convey something of the mystique attached to the hardest of stones, which suggested that the emperor gods and their monuments could exist for ever."

Like Turner, Cy Twombly has long been fascinated by the rich culture of the Mediterranean world, stretching back across millennia. While Turner travelled extensively in Italy and interpreted classical myth in terms of the landscape he encountered, Twombly has lived partly in Rome since 1957, and references to the world of antiquity are frequent in his work. It is not surprising, therefore, that he should have chosen a painting by Turner as his source work for "Encounters".

His response to Turner's Fighting Temeraire is three paintings that together present a procession of boats. These boats appear as dark forms against a radiant, pale-blue ground, which Twombly sees as like air itself and which echoes Turner's light-filled canvas. Each boat is formed of a rough half-circle, from which protrude stick-like oars. Such boats, which also appear in some of Turner's paintings, were used in Roman times and earlier. Those in Twombly's paintings are also related to ancient Egyptian sculptures of vessels for the passage of the soul to the underworld. The Three Studies are pervaded by a sense of mystery that seems to connect with travelling into the unknown. The procession we witness here can be read both as a passage from the present into the past and as a passage from this life into the next.

Copyright National Gallery News

"Encounters: new art from old" is at the National Gallery in London (020-7939 3321) until 17 September

This article first appeared in the 24 July 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Miserable small-mindedness