Insight! Sensitivity! Genius! Our critic picks the top five masterpieces in the National Gallery

<span>Six hundred years of wonders … the five works.</span><span>Composite: The National Gallery, London</span>
Six hundred years of wonders … the five works.Composite: The National Gallery, London

The National Gallery in London is 200 years old on Friday, but what makes it so special? Founded in 1824 when public museums of fine art were in their infancy, it was different from rivals such as the Louvre (founded 1793) and the Prado (1819) because they inherited royal collections. By contrast, the National started from scratch and has intentionally built up the world’s most systematic corpus of European paintings. In that same thoughtful spirit, the gallery and the Guardian have charted a timeline of 20 of its masterpieces. Here are five of those to take you on a trip through 600 years of insight, sensitivity and genius.

Rogier van der Weyden, The Magdalen Reading (about 1435)

A young woman sits on a cushion on the floor, her back against a chest, head in a book. Every detail is so matter-of-fact, from the silk and fur of her clothes to the way her lidded eyes focus exclusively on the illuminated manuscript. She could be studying in a cafe, eyes narrowed against the blaring modern world. But this was painted nearly 600 years ago in a medieval Europe with little in the way of science, technology or geography. Christianity shaped that Europe and is the heartbeat of this painting.

Of course, it is the Bible she is reading. And she is not just an ordinary woman but Mary Magdalene, who was imagined in the middle ages as a reformed sex worker who followed Christ and was among his mourners. Beside her is the pot of ointment with which she anointed his feet. This character, who is both worldly and spiritual, helped the medieval church appeal to ordinary people, especially women. And Van der Weyden’s realism increases that immediacy. The technical skill with which he paints the visible world was unheard of just a few years earlier. Suddenly, in the 1430s, Flemish artists began creating mirror-like oil paintings of real people in real space.

You might think he’d be happy just to show off his miraculous skills. Instead he uses them to get at the invisible and inward. Reading religious texts was a way to cultivate private devotion in 15th century Europe. Communities of religious-minded laywomen, called Beguines, grew up in northern towns and were sometimes thought suspect. Van der Weyden lets us see this woman’s eyes moving over the words, but her thoughts are a secret between her and God.

Leonardo da Vinci, The Virgin and Child With Saint Anne and John the Baptist (The Burlington Cartoon) (about 1499-1500)

The 16th-century art chronicler Giorgio Vasari tells how people queued outside a church in Florence to see an unfinished work by Leonardo da Vinci even though it was just a “cartoon”, a full-sized sketch on joined-up sheets of cartone paper. Typically, he never did finish the painting. This may be what they saw. It is Leonardo’s only surviving cartoon, and the only drawing on permanent view among the National Gallery’s 2,600-plus paintings.

Could it be a portal into his psychological secrets? Sigmund Freud thought the two women resembled a conjoined double mother. Born in Vinci, Tuscany, in 1452, Leonardo grew up with a stepmother and it’s hard to tell whether he even knew his unmarried birth mother, Caterina di Meo Lippi. Whatever you think of Freud, he is right that there is an uncanny quality to the interfolded forms of Mary and her mother, Anne, whose head seems to sprout from Mary’s shoulder.

It is strange, too, that Anne has deep hollow eyes like a death’s head. That could be interpreted theologically, as foreknowledge of the infant Christ’s mortal fate. Yet in a closely related Leonardo painting in the Louvre, Anne smiles benevolently. Would Leonardo have softened her if he had finished this painting? It is typical of the greater freedom he takes in his drawings, where he can experiment with wild ideas. The sense of his imagination freely flowing in every soft smoky line makes this one of the most hypnotic masterpieces in the National Gallery – or anywhere on Earth.

Giovanni Bellini, Doge Leonardo Loredan (about 1501-02)

We are used to the idea of royal portraits. But the republic of Venice, a city-state that lasted more than a millennium, had no monarchs. Instead, it had an elected doge who was supposed to symbolise the community as Leonardo Loredan does so superbly here. He is Venice. This enduring polity liked to call itself “La Serenissima” and features don’t come much more serene than Loredan’s.

The subtlest of smiles enlivens his gold flesh, warmed by the sun from an open window, as he holds his bright eyes still for Bellini to observe: you get a powerful sense here of someone posing even though Loredan’s stance is so still and undramatic. He seems absolutely at peace with himself inside his delicately aged skin. Bellini includes every wrinkle: age in such a senior political figure is portrayed here as a strength, betokening mature wisdom.

It’s a shame that Joe Biden can’t hire Bellini. While modern US presidents rarely manage to unite the whole nation, Loredan merges with Venice and its commercial dominance of the Mediterranean world. He wears a shimmering top whose flowery pattern is recognisably influenced by the Ottoman empire. Loredan’s clothes, including his curvy doge’s hat, show off the luxury Venice had got from its eastern trade for centuries. The wealth and stability of La Serenissima will go on, this portrait assumes, for millennia.

Eva Gonzalès, The Full-Length Mirror (La Psyché) (about 1869-70)

A woman contemplates herself in a tall mirror – in French poetically called a psyché. Is she looking into her psyche? Or is she judging the social facade she must present to the world? In the watery pool of her reflected face we see the gap between a 19th-century woman’s true self and the discipline of her public image. As the novelist George Eliot put it at the time this was painted, “so much subtler is a human mind than the outside tissues which make a sort of blazonry or clock-face for it”.

This is one of the National Gallery’s newest acquisitions, bought this year as part of its anniversary celebrations. Yet this is not the first appearance here by Eva Gonzalès, who also stars in a portrait by her teacher Edouard Manet bequeathed in 1917 (jointly owned with the Hugh Lane Gallery, Dublin).

Gonzalès goes for a bluntness of fact in this quietly provocative painting. One thing she seems to have shared with Manet is a passion for the 17th-century Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, whose ironic realism they both emulate. Gonzalès is squaring up to Velázquez here. As French art tried to capture the ambiguities of modern life in the later 1800s, painters were entranced by the cool, complex way this master had summed up the entire social world of imperial Spain. If you want to see the connection you can do so at the National Gallery, for this woman studying herself in the mirror has the same fractured selfhood as Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus, who gloomily gazes into a looking glass.

Vincent van Gogh, Sunflowers (1888)

Modern art started, arguably, with this bunch of flowers. In 1888 Vincent van Gogh, an unemployed, self-taught artist in his mid 30s, got off a train at Arles in France. He was enraptured. The intensity of the Provençal sunlight and brilliance of its fruits and blossoms infused him with joy and hope. He rented a small house and believed it could be a commune for artists to work together in harmony and shared social faith. But faith in what? Art, God, utopia? These sunflowers express his ideal, in all its immensity and desperation.

Van Gogh painted a series of Sunflowers to decorate The Yellow House while waiting for Paul Gauguin, the first – and only – fellow artist he persuaded to join him there. The National Gallery has the greatest. It’s the ecstatic release of a person who feels he has finally found purpose. The boldness of his intimate first-name signature Vincent in blue on the rustic vase expresses a total identification with this painting, his sense of finally putting his innermost self on canvas. It is impossible to separate Vincent’s emotions from his brushstrokes. Objective reality does not matter here: the precise rendition of the material world that dominated European art from Rogier van der Weyden’s room to Eva Gonzalès’s mirror has given way to a fervent merging of self and world.

Of course, sunflowers look like this, don’t they? No, they are not made of paint, as Van Gogh’s flowers flamboyantly are. Deeply dug, rawly built up furrows and ridges and tufts of colour make every yellow and brown detail a statement of artistic freedom and autonomy. I am these sunflowers, these sunflowers are me. Knowing how he ended, we can’t help noticing that the flowers are not quite fresh. Their wilting curls in the Mediterranean heat seem foreboding ; the big tawny centres are melancholic signs that Jerusalem will not be built here after all.