Gabriele Finaldi talks of the National Gallery as if it were a cathedral. Its doors are open, all are welcome, no fee is charged. The galleries – long naves of paintings – instil a change in visitors. “They become quieter,” he says. “They spend time looking. They perhaps don’t spend quite so much time talking. Things begin to go on in their heads, their imaginations, as they look. I think this happens in all galleries, but where there is great art, I suspect it happens more easily.”

It’s true. Before I meet Finaldi in his office above the north terrace of Trafalgar Square, I visit the Sainsbury Wing where there is a contemplative hush. These galleries of medieval and Renaissance art are a sanctuary from the tourists, buskers, pavement artists, protesters and floating Yodas of the square outside.

Finaldi has been director of the National Gallery since 2015. Tall, urbane, bearishly broad-shouldered, he would have been a man for Giovanni Battista Moroni to paint – Moroni’s The Tailor in the National Gallery’s collection could be Finaldi’s younger brother. Moroni was born in Albino, near Bergamo in 1520; Finaldi in Barnet, near Wembley in 1965. He grew up in Catford, a south London suburb, with his Italian father, half-Polish mother and seven siblings. He discovered painting at the Dulwich Picture Gallery and read history of art at the Courtauld, where he wrote his doctorate on the 17th-century Spanish Baroque painter Jusepe de Ribera (son of a Valencian shoemaker, he painted in Caravaggist style, was often on the run from his creditors, a rags to riches story). Before joining the National Gallery, Finaldi was deputy director at the Prado in Madrid.

He has since returned to Catford, and he and his six children are practising Catholics. They are a musical, harmonious bunch. When Finaldi moved into the director’s office at the Gallery, he brought a piano with him. But he found he never had time to play and the piano is now in Catford. He says music is a way of calming the mind, putting aside the demands of the gallery. “Ding, ding, ding!” chimes his computer as email after email arrives. “Playing music changes the tempo of your day. It takes you to a quite different place. It puts you in tune with different emotions. It also brings me together with members of my family.” Finaldi plays; his children sing.

Finaldi’s scholarship is underpinned by faith. When he talks about religious painting it is not in the sceptical, abstract terms of some curators – “some people believed this once …” – but with inspired insight. He has given intense thought to what an altarpiece, a gilded martyrdom, a bloodied Crucifixion, would have meant to the devout. What they mean now.

Is something lost when a painting is removed from a church or a private chapel? Can you still have a profound, prayerful, religious experience even in a crowded gallery? “Oh, I don’t have the slightest doubt that it’s possible,” says Finaldi. “I do think, though, that much has been lost.” Many of the paintings in the Sainsbury Wing, for example, “come from a church environment, or, anyway, a devotional or faith context of some sort. A place where people would have looked upon these images as if looking on the divine. They would have looked on a painting of the Virgin Mary and appealed to her for their sick family members and asked for her graces to be given.

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