Galleries and museums line our lovely streets, packed with art, artifacts and exhibits, from the modern to the ancient. Open their doors and you’ll find a veritable library’s worth of stories that’ll keep you as enchanted as any of our myths and legends…
Yes, if we’re honest, we find the tales behind each of these masterpieces as fascinating as the exhibits themselves – probably even more so. From a lost and found masterpiece, once sold for less than $1000; to an ancient mummy that finally found a face after, oh, just 2,500 years; and what one gallery did with the donation of a famous artist’s entire studio.
The Taking of Christ, Caravaggio, , Dublin
When art expert Sergio Benedetti was asked to visit the Dublin residence of the Jesuits in 1990, it was to consider a restoration of the Dutch copy of a Caravaggio painting that had hung in their dining room for almost 60 years. The original masterpiece, The Taking of Christ, had long been thought lost, until eagle-eyed Benedetti spectacularly revealed that the Jesuits’ painting, once sold for less than $1000 and donated to them, was no copy; it was the work of the great master himself.
The art world collectively gasped, the Jesuits solemnly donated it and the National Gallery swooned with the realization that a work of such incredible significance had literally fallen in their lap.
The dark, moving illustration of biblical betrayal and human terror instantly became one of the highlights of the collection in the National Gallery, and with good reason. Even such established galleries as the Rijksmuseum, National Gallery in Washington or the Getty in Los Angeles do not have a Caravaggio on the bill.
And when you do go to witness the subject of this most sensational lost and found at the National Gallery, your visit won’t cost you a cent.
While you’re there:
You must visit the Yeats room, which houses a substantial range of work from Ireland’s cherished expressionist artist Jack B. Yeats.
Takabuti, , Belfast
The oldest resident of Belfast has to be Takabuti, the lady who lived in ancient Egypt over 2,500 years ago, and moved (relatively) recently to the Northern Ireland capital in 1834.
Oh, and she’s mummified.
Takabuti was brought here by boat in 1834 by a wealthy County Down man named Thomas Greg. He had bought the remains naturally enough at a ‘mummy market’ in Thebes (now Luxor). When he returned home, he duly donated the mummy to the Belfast Natural History & Philosophical Society, and from there she was laid in the Ulster Museum, where she has been oohed and ahhed at for over 150 years.
When she was first unwrapped in 1835 by Egyptologist Edward Hincks, he deciphered the hieroglyphs on the sarcophagus to reveal Takabuti was a married woman, between 20 and 30 years of age, and the mistress of a great house.
Modern science has been able to reveal even more about Takabuti, when experts from Dundee University took on the ambitious task of trying to imagine what she would have looked like in life. Following x-rays, 3D laser scanning, and a lot of latex, a reconstruction of Takabuti’s head, right down to her necklace and wig, can be seen in the museum.
Her story even got its own documentary, cementing her as a true 21st Century celebrity.
While you’re there:
See the excellent collection of Bronze Age artifacts: from amber necklaces and gold lunula to metal tools and weapons.
In 1998, the sole heir of late Surrealist Francis Bacon donated the artist’s London studio to Dublin’s Hugh Lane Gallery, along with its entire contents.
All. 7,000. Of. Them.
What followed is the first computerised archive of the contents of an artist’s studio, and the complete, down-to-the-finest-detail reconstruction of it in a public gallery.
The operation required a team of archaeologists to map the space, tag and note the position of every object. 570 books and catalogs, 1,500 photographs, 100 slashed canvases, 1,300 leaves torn from books, 2,000 artist’s materials and 70 drawings. The door, walls, floors, ceiling and shelves came, too.
Bacon spent 30 years working in this paint-stained, bare-bulbed space. The studio was so small and packed with stuff, it actually dictated the size of the canvases he could work on. Despite the skylight, the studio feels like a cave, a claustrophobic haven of creative solitude and artistic hoarding. His presence had soaked into the walls along with his paint, which is why the people at Hugh Lane even brought the dust with them. And why you can peer through the window of the sealed studio and easily imagine the artist walking in the door at any moment, knocking over a rusty tin as he reaches for a sticky brush, and swiping at a canvas with the decisive swoosh of a man at home with his work.
While you’re there:
You must grab the opportunity to press your nose up against the incredible detail and fantastical scenes of stained glass artist Harry Clarke’s masterpiece, the Eve of St. Agnes.
So the next time you stroll into one of our museums or galleries and peer inside a glass cabinet or at a fine brushstroke, take a moment to ponder the story and journey behind that treasure that brought it all the way to Ireland, or indeed had it made in Ireland.