Titian collection at National Gallery is priceless

'Diana and Actaeon' is now showing at the Scottish National Gallery. Picture: Contributed

'Diana and Actaeon' is now showing at the Scottish National Gallery. Picture: Contributed

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THE paintings in the National Gallery’s Titian exhibition speak to a time when we aspired to values much higher than the pound in our pockets

Once there were two great Titians hanging in the National Gallery, now there are three. Diana and Actaeon and Diana and Callisto, back from London, are joined temporarily by London’s own great picture, The Death of Actaeon. The effect is terrific. The National Gallery have put the rest of their Venetian paintings on the wall and also a selection of prints and drawings, but even Titian’s own Venus Rising from the Sea and Three Ages of Man are dwarfed by these titanic pictures. You could empty the whole gallery. Nothing can stand up to the drama of them hanging together.

The stories are from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The Death of Actaeon was painted after the other two. It is Titian’s own gloss on the story of Diana and Actaeon, but carries on the underlying theme of the two earlier pictures: human frailty in the face of nature and of fate and the gap between our mortal imperfection and our ability to conceive the ideal. A stream flows through the first two pictures linking them. In The Death of Actaeon it is there too, but it is now a rushing river sweeping Actaeon to his fate.

Diana is the principal in all three pictures. Goddess of the Moon she is unforgiving of those who trespass on her inviolable chastity. That was Actaeon’s crime. Out hunting, he stumbled upon Diana and her maidens, naked as they bathed. It was an accident; he was innocent, but Diana was without compassion and condemned him to his fate. Turned into a stag, he was hunted and pulled to pieces by his own hounds. That is what is happening in The Death of Actaeon.

Diana’s gesture in Diana and Actaeon, meanwhile, is one of modesty turned to anger as she strikes an invisible blow at Actaeon that leaps across the intervening space like an electric charge. He reels from the shock of it, dropping his bow. Diana herself is an extraordinary figure with massive hips and tiny head half hidden by her raised arm. To give her extra power, Titian has abandoned the classical norm, twisting her body so that it is partly in profile and partly in three-quarter view. A chain of overlapping, naked figures binds Actaeon to Diana even as they seem to spring apart. Thus the picture is held together, not by Renaissance order and stability, but by dramatic tension. The landscape is wild and the architecture too suggests disorder. Not only is it ruined, but in places it tilts drunkenly off the horizontal and vertical. A stag’s skull on a leaning column hints grimly at Actaeon’s fate.

The story of Diana and Callisto parallels that of Diana and Actaeon. Callisto, like Actaeon, transgressed innocently against Diana’s law. Seduced by Jupiter disguised as her mistress, she became pregnant. Suspicious, Diana ordered that she be stripped and so, in Diana and Callisto, her swollen belly is revealed as witness to her crime. Weeping in her defenseless nakedness, Callisto is a tragic figure and utterly unclassical in her patent humanity. Her pathos so graphically described indicates how in every brushstroke the drama in these pictures is psychological. That is quite new. The only possible comparison is Titian’s near contemporary Shakespeare. Think of King Lear confronted by Poor Tom’s nakedness: “Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art.” But in the play, Poor Tom’s nakedness moves Lear to sympathy; Callisto’s leaves Diana quite unmoved.

Where Diana and Actaeon is held together by tension, this picture has a startling caesura through the middle of it. This gap speaks of Callisto’s exclusion as Diana points across it to expel her from her band. In this picture, too, the column of a fountain leans off the vertical and the landscape beyond is wild and turbulent. On the column, a relief of Diana hunting a stag also makes a link to the two Actaeon pictures.

Driven out of Diana’s protection, Callisto was turned into a bear by a vengeful Juno, jealous of Jupiter’s lovers. (Nearby a lovely drawing by Domenico Campagnola shows the moment of her metamorphosis.) As a bear, Callisto was about to be hunted down by her own son when Jupiter intervened to turn mother and son into stars in the constellation of the Bear.

The third picture follows the merciless logic of the first two. Diana is a magnificent figure running in from the left. Seen in profile and partly in shadow, her face is almost invisible. The divine and the ideal are faceless. With her bow in her left hand and one breast bare like an Amazon, she appears to shoot an arrow at Actaeon, but there is no arrow and no bow string. This might be because the picture is unfinished, but neither it nor the goddess need such details. Her arrow, like the blow she strikes in the other Actaeon picture, is metaphysical.

On the right, Actaeon, half-stag, half-man is torn to pieces by his hounds. Where the other two are richly coloured, this picture is in muted earth colours, lifted by the madder of Diana’s robe and by touches of vermillion. On Actaeon these latter hint at blood as in a tangle of paint, he is dragged down by his dogs: back from his confrontation with the divine to that earthbound nature from which neither he nor we ourselves can ever escape. What is most novel about all three pictures, and which opens the future of all western painting, is the way all this is expressed through their physicality, their richness not just of colour, so striking in the first two, but of surface. It is not just the drama of the composition that we see, but the drama of Titian painting it. Look closely, you can imagine the marks of his fingers. Thus he makes tangible in the painting our own physical nature: we can imagine the divine as he does so grandly, but it is beyond our comprehension and indifferent to our fates.

These pictures are Titian’s response to meeting Michelangelo in Rome and seeing the Sistine Chapel. The contrast he draws between his work and Michelangelo’s is striking, however and his is the more modern. There is no Christian context here, no promise of redemption. Innocent or guilty, we are part of nature and helpless in the face of our mortality. It is a bleak vision which has more in common with Calvin, also Titian’s contemporary, than with the Catholic orthodoxy to which Titian nominally subscribed.

If in a century or two there is anybody left to write the history of our time, they may puzzle about the decline of the West as Gibbon puzzled over the decline of Rome. They will perhaps conclude, however, that what went wrong was that having evolved a set of values to live by whose humanity gave us a claim to be unique among civilisations, we then tried to reduce them all to a simple calculation of profit and loss: to equate morality with economy and make everywhere a marketplace. Thus we lost our way. These pictures, like Shakespeare’s tragedies, stand at the dawn of that humane civilisation of which we were once justly proud. They helped define it. To acquire them for the nation cost a lot of money, but it was as meaningless a calculation of their value as if it had been a ransom asked by a Somali pirate and not by a Scottish duke. We had to meet the cost to take them out of that false calculation of money value, thus to defy its insidious and corrupting power and reinstate them where Titian put them, among the things that define the higher values that we once sought to live by. To give them a star rating would be an impertinence.

• Until 14 September

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