The Inspiration Behind a Monumental Display of Biblical Women

An artist conjures a whimsical new version of a magnificent 15th-century mural

Artwork Diptych
Paula Rego drew inspiration for her triptych Crivelli’s Garden (top) from a 1490s altarpiece, La Madonna della Rondine (above), by Carlo Crivelli. She said of her fanciful, figure-packed work: “The whole thing is full of stories, it’s just story after story after story.” ©The National Gallery, London (2)

Paula Rego found inspiration just about everywhere. In Bible stories told by her Catholic grandmother, in Walt Disney and Jane Eyre, in the cobalt tiles that decorated her childhood bedroom: Tidbits she tucked away turned up decades later in her paintings and pastels. But the year that the Portuguese-born artist spent in residence at London’s National Gallery in the early 1990s offered a true gold mine. “I could creep upstairs and snatch at things, and bring them down with me to the basement,” she recalled.

Among the treasures Rego, who died in 2022 at age 87, discovered in the vast museum’s galleries was the Venetian painter Carlo Crivelli’s paneled altarpiece La Madonna della Rondine, created for an Italian chapel in the 1490s. It would inspire Rego’s monumental Crivelli’s Garden, a 30-foot triptych depicting more than a dozen female saints and Bible characters, from well-known figures like Mary Magdalene to the hermit St. Mary of Egypt. (Several were modeled after women from Rego’s life, including her daughter and her younger self.)

Commissioned in 1991 for a National Gallery cafeteria, the painting was displaced this year by a major renovation. Beginning in July, however, Crivelli’s Garden will find a new temporary home, this time in a gallery alongside the Renaissance painting that inspired it. “It seemed quite a fun opportunity,” says curator Priyesh Mistry, who conceived of the juxtaposition, “to be able to bring the two together, to see what would happen when they’re in conversation.”

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This article is a selection from the July/August 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

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