A few weeks ago, I went with my husband to the stunning collection of paintings at the Academy of Fine Arts, Vienna, and we spent five euros on a photography pass. These are some of the photographs I asked him to take - which, incidentally, made us realise what a challenge it is to photograph paintings, especially behind glass!
When I am looking at old paintings nowadays, I like most, to look at faces.This Portrait of a Young Woman drew my attention as soon as I walked into the part of the gallery where she is displayed, with 'Rembrandt,' in my head. She is indeed a painting by Rembrandt, painted in his first year in Amsterdam. There she is, with her stiffly starched ruff and cap, her ear showing beneath it, and her hair scraped back, quiet and modest, no doubt. But there is nothing stylised or archaic about her face. She is a person who you might meet (in different clothes, of course) on the street nowadays, or perhaps walking her dog, a little shy, I think, not very keen to chat to a stranger, which makes it harder for her that she's been exposed to the stares of strangers for years and years. She seems kindly, though, and genuine.
This young woman is probably one of the silent many who lived without leaving any written record of herself, but on the canvas we can still meet her and look into her eyes.
There may be a symbolic agenda in the paintings, but the medium the agenda is expressed through is the human body, the human face, which we can recognise because it is like our own. OK, her thoughts will have been very different from ours. Nevertheless, there was still that physical humanity that has been passed on to us, the inheritors, and which we pass on to our children and grandchildren who will live in such a different world again.
And here is the young Van Dyck, a self-portrait again, which he painted in 1613 to 14 when he was only fifteen. It's incredible that he achieved such artistry at such a young age, but however precocious he was, he's a moody adolescent - it shows in his face.
Then there is this family, painted by Pieter de Hooch in Delft, in 1658.
This is the face that interests me most among these, though; this woman looks to me like one of the older members of our Quaker meeting. It's a well-worn face, unassuming, no-nonsense, but thoughtful and intelligent.
My last featured painting (as they say) is a Murillo,painted some time between 1670 and 1675, and I am pretty sure there is something similar in the National Gallery. It shows two lads lying on the ground and playing at dice.
The past may be another country, where they did things differently, and yet we are linked to those people of a former age through in muscle and nerve and sinew, skin and bone, and the DNA they have passed on to their descendants. When I look at them on canvas, the human beings who came before us seem no longer lost, decayed, or strangers, but our family, human beings just like us. That may seem obvious, but like many obvious things, is a cause of wonder that takes me beyond words.
All photographs by David Wilson.