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Why artists incorporate architecture in their paintings? What does it mean that a picture is architectural? The buildings had an important aesthetic role in the picture, they decorated and provided ornamental motifs. However, architectural aesthetics also carried a deeper work within the paintings, such as providing qualities of scale, structure, proportion,… The National Gallery shows, until September, an exhibition that explores the role played by architecture in works from the late Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Although the buildings in the paintings were often considered as background or padding, playing a passive role in the work, the exhibition reveals the architecture represented a crucial role in the development of it.

The first part of the exhibition explains how artists used architecture to design their compositions. Establishing a relationship between a painted image and its real environment was a major concern for customers, artists and architects. The work of Domenico Veneziano The Virgin and Child Enthroned (1435-1443) shows a virgin enthroned in a kind nature that stresses the effect of niche construction creating a deeper perspective. In Christ in the House of Simon the Pharisee (1500) architecture provides separate spaces, although connected, for each group of figures, focusing the viewer’s attention on the central scene.

Arches, doorways, windows and other architectural forms images also conducted a rhetorical function, addressing the audience, welcoming the box. These structures were applied with greater consistency in representations of the Annunciation. The painting of Carlo Crivelli The Annunciation with Saint Emidius (1486) is highlighted, where the Virgin is depicted in a room, just open the viewer on one hand, ensuring a privileged view.

In spite of working on a smaller scale that architects, painters played a fundamental role in the construction of real places and the creation and dissemination of the identity of places through their images. One example is Sandro Botticelli’s Three Miracles of Saint Zenobius (1500).

A final part explores how architecture can create structured time frames within the painting. In The Adoration of the King (1470-1475) Botticelli, the scene takes place in a ruined church or temple. The artist aims to reflect not only past time, but continually passing time.

Finally, the exhibition shows five short films specially commissioned for the occasion. Swiss architect Peter Zumthor, filmmaker Martha Fiennes, art historian TJ Clark, film historian John David Rhodes and film director Peter Gornstein offer modern perspectives on the real and imaginary architecture.

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