This is an exquisite little exhibition of exquisite little objects. Fourteenth-century Rimini was a place of real artistic invention: the great Giotto worked there and his Pentecost is this show’s most luminous work. But it’s here to provide context for the display’s protagonist, Giovanni da Rimini. We don’t know when Giovanni was born but it’s thought he died before 1338. Fragments of frescoes survive in the Church of Sant’Agostino in Rimini, but only three panel paintings remain. All three feature here, and one, the masterpiece of the title, was recently acquired by the National.
Giovanni worked within a defined pictorial language and narrative structure, with Eastern origins, as revealed in two beautiful Byzantine ivory works. But as with all the best painters, flashes of technical and iconographic inspiration mark him out as a major artist: the delicacy in his use of paint and gold leaf, a richness of colour and lovely human touches in his storytelling.
One scene portrays the apotheosis of Saint John the Evangelist: aged 99, in an Ephesian church, he laid in a sepulchre and was called to the Lord. A book and candles remain in the sepulchre, observed by incredulous onlookers, but, charmingly, one child tugs at his mother’s clothing and gestures to look up to John, flanked by Christ and Mary in heaven. Meanwhile, in a painting of the Virgin and Child, Giovanni adjusts a Byzantine style with Jesus as a playing child, making him palpably like a wriggling infant, clasping his mother’s thumb.
Such details make this show a delight: it’s just one room and 10 works, but it’s quietly enthralling.
Until Oct 8 (020 7747 2885, nationalgallery.org.uk)