Pompeii frescoes suggest that a similar theatrical approach to painting, perhaps inspired by real theatre, may have existed during classical antiquity. It was brought to life in the Renaissance, a period that was billed as a revival of Greek and Roman culture.

The National Gallery, London, has staged an exhibition that examines this aspect of the role of a painter as a designer. The show, Building the Picture, focuses on Italian Renaissance paintings that incorporate architectural elements in their settings – such as entrances and archways, churches, palaces, and sometimes even entire townscapes.

This exhibition opened simultaneously with two major National Gallery exhibits on Veronese painting and German Renaissance paintings, which are still running. The museum’s blockbuster shows will likely attract visitors, but they should also take some time to explore this smaller themed display in the Sunley Room located at the center of the gallery. It’s a good idea to treat this as an appetizer rather than a dessert. The exhibition is too small and limited in scope to compete with the grander and more glamorous cousins.

Domenico Veneziano: The Virgin and Child Enthroned, c. 1435-1443. The National Gallery

Curators have arranged and selected a wide range of paintings, mostly from the National Gallery. They are grouped according to themes. A small grouping of drawings shows that architectural settings weren’t just a picture afterthought. They were an important part of the planning for paintings. The sketches selected do not show that a Renaissance painter would first design the architectural stage and then fill it with actors.

Carnesecchi Tabernacle by Domenico Veneziano is a good example of a painting that was not as much a fictitious architectural work but rather a part of an actual building. It was a fresco depicting the Virgin and Child that had been detached from the exterior wall of a Florence house.

We can see how artists used architectural elements to enhance figures in paintings and how certain scenes were set in carefully constructed interiors. In the following rooms, we can see how real buildings, such as the Doge’s Palace in Venice, could appear in paintings for propaganda purposes. We can also learn how artists imagined iconic pieces of past architecture, notably Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. Architectural set design can be used to frame multiple episodes of the same story in a single picture.

Carlo Crivelli The Annunciation with Saint Emidius 1486. The National Gallery

Carlo Crivelli’s 1486 Annunciation with Saint Emidius is, without a doubt, the star of the show. Crivelli’s composition shows the Virgin kneeling alone in the interior of the townhouse, which is visible through the open door. Archangel Gabriel, who is here to announce Christ’s birth, stands outside of the Virgin’s home with St. Emidius, the patron saint for the town of Ascoli, where the painting was created. Gabriel, who is usually shown standing in the same place as the Virgin to deliver the sacred message, does so through a grate window. The hole in the wall is drilled to allow a divine ray of light to pass through. This allows the Holy Spirit to enter the Virgin’s womb.

This exhibition does not cover the entire subject of Renaissance architecture. The importance of mathematical perspectives, which dramatically altered what painters were able to do with their stage floor and the background of their architectural settings in the Renaissance period, is understated.

Vincenzo Catena, Saint Jerome in his Study, c. 1510. The National Gallery

You can also question some of the allegorical interpretations presented. Is it more than just a subjective interpretation that St Jerome’s Study in Vincenzo Catena’s painting is warm and welcoming and represents the way St Jerome’s translation of Scripture into Latin made Christianity more accessible?

Sunley Room is a worthwhile visit for anyone who wants to see a side of the National Gallery’s Renaissance collection that they might otherwise have missed.