St Balthasar, one of the biblical Magi who visited the infant Jesus, acts as an art gallery guide in a new groundbreaking exhibition designed for mobile phones.
It comes as an immersive experience at the National Gallery, where visitors could journey through an interactive high-resolution image of a picture with sound, poetry and light in socially distanced pods, has now been reimagined as an online experience, the first of its kind for the Gallery.
King Balthasar brings to life Jan Gossaert’s 16th century masterpiece The Adoration of the Kings, which depicts the Adoration of the Magi, as part of the National Gallery’s first exhibition aimed at mobile phone users, allowing more people to enjoy the exhibition wherever they are.
‘Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, mobile edition’ is a digital experience inspired by the ‘sonified’ painting which lies at the heart of the Gallery exhibition of the same name. It comes just months after the Gallery was forced to close by lockdown just a week after opening on 9th December 2021.
The online exhibition builds on the Gallery’s hugely popular digital offer of bringing the nation’s art to the nation’s homes which has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic and during lockdown periods.
In the mobile experience, six poems in the voice of King Balthasar, a character in The Adoration of the Kings, interpret six scenes from the painting while interactive sound brings them to life, guiding people to visual details they may have missed and immersing them in the world of Gossaert’s masterpiece.
Users can journey through the scenes from the painting, starting with the broken pavement in a scene titled ‘Rupture’ and ending with the angels’ celestial bodies of ‘The Star’, using touch to zoom into visual details and see the astonishing skill of Gossaert’s artistic work. They can also share their favourite visual details from the painting on Instagram.
Data analysis from the mobile experience will be used to help understand more about how visitors interact with paintings on their phones.
Both the Gallery exhibition and this online experience have been created as part of the Gallery’s innovation programme.
Emma McFarland, innovation programme lead, said: “Our aim through the innovation programme is to create enjoyable, meaningful experiences which engage new and more diverse audiences with the collection in different ways, placing our visitors at the heart of the design process. This experimental mobile experience was created as part of our response to the constraints on exhibition visitor numbers as a result of the pandemic.”
The design of the Gallery exhibition and the online experience builds on insights gathered from over 80 members of the public.
As with the Gallery exhibition, collaborators include sound artist Nick Ryan and Theresa Lola, former Young People’s Laureate for London, who wrote and voiced the poems. Ryan is globally renowned for creating experiences that push the boundaries of listening and for engaging new audiences with audio.
As with the original exhibition, the mobile experience brings together sound, images, poetry and interaction to explore the themes of rupture, transformation and renewal through the perspective of one of the painting’s principal characters, King Balthasar.
Visitors will experience digital images of the painting which have been ‘sonified’ using ambient sound, poetic spoken word and music. The high-resolution digital imagery helps them discover previously unseen elements which include details that the artist deliberately hid away as well as those that reveal the way he used complex and sophisticated painting techniques to create highly illusionistic details. The painting was rescanned by the Gallery’s scientific department in the autumn at very high resolution so that visitors have the best possible viewing experience.
One of the great works of the Northern Renaissance, everything about the construction, composition, content and detail of this painting is designed to focus the viewer on the Christ Child in the middle of a desolate scene of ruins.
A picture of birth, death and renewal, its exaggerated use of space and perspective gives the sense that the whole world is coming to view this scene; the series of contrasts suggests a moment of significant change in a decaying world, such as the richly dressed kings pictured with dogs at their feet scrapping around among weeds and broken stones.
As the king standing to the left of Mary and the baby Jesus, and with his attendant behind him, Balthasar is the character who best represents the journey to this point of revelation, as he waits in suspense to see the baby Jesus.
The importance of Balthasar is highlighted by the fact that Gossaert signed the painting in two places – on Balthasar’s hat and on the collar of his attendant.
Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, the exhibition at the National Gallery, which closed due to lockdown in December 2020, is re-scheduled from 17th May until 13thJune 2021. It is curated by Dr Susan Foister, the Gallery’s Deputy Director and Curator of Early Netherlandish and German Paintings.
For more information or to view ‘Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, mobile edition’, see: nationalgallery.org.uk/visiting/virtual-tours
Picture: Jan Gossaert’s masterpiece, The Adoration of the Kings, is part of a new exhibition based around mobile phone viewing from the National Gallery, called Sensing the Unseen: Step into Gossaert’s ‘Adoration’, mobile edition. (The National Gallery, London).