Oxford's oldest student newspaper

Independent since 1920

The Christ Church Picture Gallery review

Oxford proudly boasts, undoubtedly, one of the best cultural scenes of any city in the United Kingdom. From the Ashmolean to the Natural History Museum there is no shortage of ways to spend an afternoon soaking up centuries of history; all without spending a penny. There is, however, a lesser-known and equally exciting place which few students (or tourists) have yet to discover. 

The Christ Church Picture Gallery has free entry for Oxford students. It offers a chance to view one of the most impressive college art collections, with pieces spanning the 14th to 18th centuries, beautifully displayed in a semi-subterranean gallery designed by Sir Phillip Powell and Hidalgo Moya. Tucked away in the back of the college, it is easy to miss the gallery as visitors must enter through Canterbury Gate, opposite Oriel and, from there, signs guide you to the entrance. 

The gallery comprises three distinct rooms that guide visitors through the spaces, beginning with the earliest works. Some of the most captivating pieces are a number of fragments extracted from Scenes of the Lives of Hermits, a sprawling work of the Tuscan and Florentine Schools created c.1440-1450. Composed of tempera on panel this work is a prime example of the more you look, the more you see. There are countless figures depicted, each illustrating various stories and allegories from the Bible. Amongst them, it is possible to spot monks, saints, and comically reptilian devil figures, which have maintained their brilliant detail and colour despite being almost six hundred years old.  

As you progress through to the second room of the gallery, prepare to be struck by perhaps the most spectacular, and maybe grotesque, painting in the collection at Christ Church, Annibale Carracci’s The Butcher’s Shop (c.1583). The painting is monumental in scale at almost 2×3 metres and it depicts the interior of a butcher’s shop with two butchers, possibly the artist’s brother Agostino Carracci and cousin Ludovico Carracci. The Carracci family were influential in the rejection of the Mannerist style and were crucial in altering the course of Italian art. The importance of direct observation from nature, as stressed by Carracci is reflected in The Butcher’s Shop where he  employs a limited palette of earthen colours instead of the brilliant unnatural hues associated with the prevailing Mannerist style. The painting is also of note for its depiction of tradesmen in a dignified, ceremonious demeanour which is distinguishable from earlier satirical everyday subjects.. The Butcher’s Shop takes pride of place in its current spot in within the gallery, yet for a long time the painting was hung in the college kitchen before it was recognised for its artistic value in the 20th century

Filippino Lippi’s The Wounded Centaur (late 15th century) continues the evolutionary trajectory seen in Renaissance art. Lippi, a close associate of Botticelli, belonged to a cohort of Florentine artists who pioneered innovative approaches to painting. Notably, the painting devotes significant attention to the background, featuring caves and reflections in the sea. This reflects a newfound interest in depicting geological formations, a departure from the typical focus of Renaissance painting on the primary subject. Moreover, Lippi’s rendition of the story diverges from the traditional narrative found in Fasti Book V by Ovid. In Ovid’s telling of the story the centaur Chiron sustains a fatal wound while examining the poisoned arrows of Hercules, tainted by the venom of the mythological Hydra. In Lippi’s version, the centaur is shown inspecting not the arrows of Hercules but the quiver of Cupid, which is perhaps the artist’s warning to the viewer about the dangers of love.

The gallery not only plays host to impressive pieces on canvas but also on paper. Amongst the collection are works by well-known artists such as Albrecht Dürer and Leonardo da Vinci. Few national museums can claim to house works by such giants of Renaissance drawing. For this reason, amongst the many others, it is surprising how few students that I have spoken to have given this hidden gem of a gallery a visit. If you find yourself wondering what to do this Trinity, the Christ Church Picture Gallery is open Thursday to Monday and entrance is completely free for members of the University, where tickets can be booked online.

Check out our other content

Most Popular Articles