There’s a darkened room in the National Gallery that is glowing with two exceptional paintings that are nearly 600 years old.

These are panels by one of the greatest Renaissance painters that few people have heard of — Francesco Pesellino — and this exhibition at the National Gallery may be the first one ever held that’s been dedicated to his works.

Pesellino is noted in early biographies for his particular talent in the painting of ‘cose picole’ sic (small things), his propensity for collaboration, and commissions by Florence’s ruling Medici family. These three concepts form the exhibition’s key themes and establish Pesellino’s reputation as a skilful and sought after Renaissance painter.

He was short-lived, dying aged just 35 years old, and not much is known about him other than his early life working with his grandfather and of course, the paintings he left behind. One of the things known though, is that when he married unusually young for the time, aged just 20, he was already sufficiently successful to be an independent painter and was able to put down a substantial dowry of 100 florins.

Now, 601 years after his birth, an exhibition about his paintings opens as soon as you walk in, with two glowing panels right in front of you.

These are the exhibition’s highlights, and the recently restored panels from the Story of David and the Triumph of David were likely to have been commissioned originally for a prominent member of the Medici family. First shown in the gallery in 1963 on long term loan, the gallery bought the paintings in 2000, and they’ve recently been given a restorer’s touch.

It is thought they were been painted for domestic display and likely to have been panels to decorate a cassoni, a type of richly decorated storage chest, as the restoration has discovered evidence of part of old keyholes at the top/side of one panel. They even suspect that some of the repaired damage was caused by keys bashing against the paint when the chest was being unlocked.

The wonder of the exhibition, though is the clever lighting that makes the two panels glow with almost holy light luring you closer to take a look, a detailed look at the intricate painting. Magnifying glasses are provided so you can get even closer, as it’s now that you can really understand why the artist was so lauded in his lifetime.

How much more famous would he be if he hadn’t died so young?

Early paintings were smaller commissions, probably as he established himself, but he was later to win a number of large commissions, thanks to the detailed work in his smaller works. Although he died young, his paintings are known to have inspired many of the next generations of Florentine painters, with a focus on the skilful design of his paintings.

Although the National Gallery owns two paintings by the painter, this is the first time they’ve hosted an exhibition dedicated to his works.

The gallery’s first acquisition was an altarpiece that was unfinished when Pesellino died in 1457, and later completed by his studio. The panel was later chopped up and sold separately, but over a number of decades, the gallery was able to buy up the fragments to recreate the panel as it was originally.

As one of the few nearly complete altarpieces in the collection, the work reveals much about Pesellino’s posthumous reputation, as well as the history of acquiring art in the UK.

The exhibition has also brought together a number of smaller works on loan from other owners, and there’s an early sketch of an archbishop to an early altar panel and a small diptych showing his ability to render large scenes in miniature.

It’s a small exhibition, dominated by the two glowing panels, but considering the scarcity of surviving works, likely to be a once in a lifetime opportunity to see them together in the same room.

The exhibition, Pesellino: A Renaissance Master Revealed is at the National Gallery from this Thursday (7th Dec) until 10th March 2024 and is free to visit.

It’s in Room 46, at the front of the gallery, opposite the Frans Hals exhibition entrance. You don’t need a ticket for the Pesellino exhibition, but they recommend booking a free ticket to the gallery to help skip queues on busy days.

Exhibition Rating


National Gallery
Trafalgar Square, London


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