Thursday, February 28, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 2)

Before moving on, a quick word about the paints.  The Italians, you will recall, primarily specialized in frescos, and it was the Northerners who developed oil artwork.  Tempera was a paint made of dry pigments, or colors, which were mixed with a binding material.  Fra Angelico's Annunciation was painted with tempera onto a wood canvas.  Gesso was a mixture of glue and a white pigment such as plaster, chalk, or white clay.  Oil paints, on the other hand, consisted of a mixture of dry pigments with oils, turpentine, and sometimes varnish.  The artists took these mixtures and made transparent, smooth glazes or thick, richly textured surfaces.  Oil paints were used as glazes over the originals, but eventually the artists just used the oil mixture alone to paint.  An added benefit of oil paints was that their drying time was much longer than that of other paints, allowing artists more time to work.  The oil also added a brilliant glazy appearance to the finished work.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 1)

And that was just the Italian Renaissance.
In Northern Europe the Dukes of Burgundy were the most powerful rulers for most of the 15th century.  The major seaport at Bruges was the commercial center of Northern Europe and the rival of Italian city-states like Florence, Milan, and Venice.  Flanders was the center of art during the Northern European Renaissance—it was comprised of modern-day Belgium, the Southern Netherlands, parts of Germany, and Northern France.
In the North something sprang up called the New Art Market wherein we can see the rise of the middle class.  More and more people could afford to commission art works, and with the expansion of buyers and sellers the nature of art changed.  Art became a popular status symbol instead of just religious devotions.  Patrons could control how they would be immortalized (pious, wealthy, beautiful, powerful…); it was buying your own propaganda.  Masaccio's Holy Trinity, remember, featured patrons at the foot of the cross, a demonstration to all viewers of how religious those people were.  Not all art was patron portraits of course, but this is where it first appears.
Early Northern European Renaissance art was much like Italian Renaissance art.
Here we see Mary and Jesus again, this time taking a Rest on the Flight Into Egypt (the painting's title).  Mary hasn't changed her style: red dress and blue outer robes.  The baby Jesus picks at grapes from a vine with a downcast expression on His face ("Man of Sorrows," no?).  Notice the buildings in the backdrop?  This is not realism or an attempt at biblical accuracy; the buildings in the back are Medieval style.  But the most dazzling feature of the painting is Mary's dress, the folds and creases of which add to its three-dimensional illusion.  Her dress takes up a noticeable portion of the painting's space, and its bold blue color jumps from the canvas.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 27)

In 1516, a group of cardinals conspire to assassinate the pope in the Vatican.  Pope Leo X (a Medici, remember) was disliked for living an excessively lavish lifestyle, throwing money left and right towards whatever ends he desired.  The Catholic church's own leaders are dissatisfied with the institution and, most of all, with their pope.  Before the conspirators can execute their plan, however, the pope learns of their treachery, and in a very short time frame each conspirator dies of "food poisoning."  The pope, it would seem, cannot be stopped.
The following year, 1517, Martin Luther publishes his 95 Theses—another attempt to dethrone the pope, this one much more successful—wherein he attacks the idea of papal indulgences (or the economic sale of salvation from sins).  The new printing press helps Luther to spread his ideas like wildfire, and the church splits in two.  The schism is called the Protestant Reformation.
Although the Catholic church would greatly feel the effects of the Protestant Reformation, the Medici themselves will only acquire more power.  Giulio de Medici becomes the next pope, Pope Clement VII and Catherine de Medici, after marrying the French king, becomes Queen of France.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 26)

Donatello was a sculptor, like Michelangelo, and, also like Michelangelo, he sculpted a David.  Donatello's David, however, is considerably different from that of Michelangelo.  First of all, whereas Michelangelo takes up the scene before the action (his David is glaring ahead at Goliath, with the sling over his shoulder, preparing to slay him), Donatello picks up the scene after the action has taken place (this David is standing on Goliath's dismembered head).  As for appearance's sake, Donatello's is smaller and made of bronze.  The character of David himself is vastly different.  Donatello's David looks far younger than Michelangelo's (probably more accurate, in that area, to the real biblical story), and he looks much more effeminate.  This David has flowing hair that spills out of a wreathed hat, and his pose fails to be masculine.  One additional feature, the feather from Goliath's hat, more or less confirms the sexual connotation of the statue.  Florence, like Rome before it, did practice a degree of homosexuality, and inasmuch as Michelangelo's David was a celebration of the Florentine people as relating to their triumph over the Medici, Donatello's David was a celebration of the Florentine people as relating their…hm, carefree living, shall we say?  Scholars agree this is a blatantly sensual statue, and if you ask me, I say it's definitely suggestive enough.
Donatello's statue of St. Mark is an obvious reference back to Greco-Roman art.  St. Mark is standing in contrapposto, like Polyclitus's Spear Bearer.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 25)

As far as being able to paint the most beautiful and realistic human figures, Titian is famous for being the artist of the human body.  One of his most famous works is the Venus of Urbino, which I won't post.  But that is an important painting in art history—part of the line of "Venuses" that represent what feminine beauty is supposed to be (remember the Venus of Willendorf?).  It is a nude portrait of the Duke of Urbino's mistress, painted especially for the Duke.  By titling it Venus, it became a reference to Greco-Roman ideals, and so it was acceptable even though it carries undeniable sexual undertones.
This painting is sometimes attributed to Titian and other times to an artist named Giorgione (who was one of the first painters to place importance on landscapes rather than the figures therein).  It's called The Concert.
We see an aristocrat of some sort with a lyre, seated in a most pastoral landscape, facing a shepherd on his left.  Neither man seems to notice the two nude women in front of them, one with a flute and the other pouring a pitcher of water into some type of stone casket.  Do you like the painting?  It's rather mysterious; it's supposed to communicate the air of a dream, with surreal lighting and mythical nymphs walking among the two unsuspecting men.  The title, The Concert, furthermore gives us the feeling that this is meant to be a poetic expression, musical, artistic, perhaps without a clear meaning (opposite of Byzantine art) but purely meant for enjoyment or to provoke thought.  I don't know.  Of a painting like this one C. S. Lewis wrote in his Experiment in Criticism, "To one such spectator [a painting] may be merely an assistance in prurient imagination; he has used it as pornography.  To another, it may be the starting-point for a meditation on Greek myth, which, in its own right, is of value."  I don't think that The Concert is pornographic, but from here on out it becomes sort of a fine line, unfortunately.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 24)

Realism continued to develop during the Renaissance, and along the way you get works like this on by Andrea Mantegna, the Lamentation Over the Dead Christ.
Doesn't Christ's body seem to extend from the painting, as if we could reach out and actually touch His feet—realism to an almost uncanny level.  And of course the patrons are seen on the left.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 23)

Sofonisba Anguissola was the first Italian woman to gain worldwide reputation as an artist.  Her painting, A Game of Chess, is not a religious image or even an image of any real importance; instead, it's a picture of an everyday recreational activity.
Each character has a different expression on her face, making them all unique personalities; each is in movement, making them dynamic beings; each is a different age; the list goes on.  In short, it is very realistic.  In art, especially in portraiture, it is almost a rule that as importance decreases (such as rank), formality is relaxed and realism is increased.  The event occurring here (a game of chess) is of lesser importance; therefore we see the heightened realism.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 22)

The masterwork of Raphael is probably his School of Athens, which, even though it is steeped heavily in Greco-Roman thought, is ironically located in the Vatican.
In the center are Plato (left) and Aristotle (right).  Plato points up, as he is concerned with the spirit and the universe.  Aristotle is more practical and points down to the ground, with earthly concerns.  Raphael further describes these two different idealists with the Greek statues in the niches.  To Plato's left is Apollo (patron of poetry), and on Aristotle's right is Athena (goddess of wisdom and reason…among other things).  Do you think Raphael is "leaning" to one side, as it were—to Plato or to Aristotle's worldview?  Well, Raphael's supreme use of one-point perspective gives us the answer.  On the horizon line of the painting, the vanishing point (the center of the painting) is positioned exactly between the two, suggesting that the observant viewer will see both sides to the argument and will settle somewhere in between.
Other contemporary characters appear on the two sides to further demonstrate the relevance of the Ancient Greek philosophers' debates to their own time.  On the steps is an aged Leonardo da Vinci, seen as a sort of Plato.  On the left with his elbow on a box is Michelangelo, who is writing (he's on Plato's side, and therefore here presented as a philosopher, not a scientist).  On the far right is the young profile of the artist himself: Raphael.  He put himself among a group of mathematicians to make a statement about his art combining with math.  This is also one of the first instances of a long line of artists adding themselves in the paintings as a sort of supplement to their signature.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 21)

Raphael Sanzio was another man without whom the Renaissance would not have been complete.  Raphael made several frescos of the Virgin Mary with Child.  His Alba Madonna reflects the typical aura of these images.
We see, from left to right, John the Baptist, Jesus Christ, and the Virgin Mary.  All three characters look at the cross.  Raphael's paintings of Madonna and Child are almost all poignant reflections on the care of a mother for her infant boy when the looming cross foreshadows Christ's death.  The same three characters are in this earlier oil painting, the Madonna del prato.
The magnificent Small Cowper Madonna, painted around the same time as the one above, features Mary wearing similar attire (a red dress and blue robe—red is seen on Mary often, as a color of both love and a foreshadowing the bloodshed to occur at the cross).  This painting shows Mary staring ahead blankly and dolefully, lost in thought.  The baby Jesus, too, looks ahead, but His gaze is downward (perhaps foreshadowing that He will be buried in the earth).
An excellent painting, no?  It has an air of sadness to it, doesn't it?  I like this one and even had the privilege of seeing it in person once.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 20)

Another fantastic piece by Michelangelo, sculpted before the David, is his Pietà.  A pietà is any representation of Mary mourning over the dead body of Christ.  Michelangelo's was made in 1499, out of marble, and remains in the Vatican today.
Something about art: Christ is, more often than not, shown either being crucified or already dead.  It was probably the most human phenomenon which He ever experienced—the ultimate display of His mortality—that He suffered, that He bled, and that He died.  Ignoring the Resurrection, when our Lord proved His deity by coming back to life and ascending to Heaven in glory, artists, for whatever reason, tend to find the crucifixion and burial of Christ the most interesting.  Perhaps it's due to the idea that showing Christ dead shows Christ as weak.
At any rate, Christ looks very weak here, and puny.  Mary, on the other hand, is massive, and not tiny or delicate.  The folds of Mary's garment indicate there is a huge, strong body underneath, and Mary's pose of lifting Christ's body is physically impossible.  Michelangelo did not here focus on the physical struggle of Mary to support the weight of the body, but rather on the religious meaning.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 19)

Thirty years later, Michelangelo got one wall in the Sistine Chapel to paint, and that became his massive, 48-foot high Last Judgment fresco.  Michelangelo was not at all loyal to the Medici (as evinced by his symbolic statue of David), and so, stylistically, one cannot but help see some of the artists expression of disapproving sentiments towards the Medici—perhaps an embittered reminder to the ruling family that they, too, like every other person, will one day be judged.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 18)

Arguably the most famous of the images depicted on the ceiling is that of the Creation of Adam, where God, swooping down from Heaven, all the while being dissuaded by a host of angels, stretches out His arm and reaches for Adam's hand.  Adam, seated comfortably back on a grassy hilltop, extends his arm lazily and barely lifts his hand to meet God's.  Their hands do not touch.
The tiny space between their two index fingers is meant to make us uneasy.  I heard an explanation that the human mind functions in such a way that it needs to have tiny gaps filled in—(the example of this is the optical illusion of all the boxes on the white backdrop, and you think you can see shadows at the corners of the boxes, but really it is only white, empty space that our mind is wanting to fill in).  Also ideologically, we desire the connection of God and Man (at least, the people back then did—I'm not sure society today cares much for meeting with God on any level).  So, the gap left is unnerving, and the blame goes to Adam, who could easily touch God's outstretched finger by a mere lift of his own by about a fraction of an inch.  But no.  Adam does not make the extra effort.  What would you say, then, was Michelangelo's view on religion and on humanism?  Whereas the Renaissance brings out the celebration of mankind and the rise of humanism, this is one of the few (if not the only) good depiction of humanism as a bad thing: humans thinking they are too self-important and not needing God.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 17)

To paint the 1,000 square meters of the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo built a scaffold up to the 68-foot tall ceiling and there lay on his back, refusing the aid of assistants, for four years, only ever coming down to sleep.  Michelangelo also never removed his boots, and so when the leather eventually fell off, thick layers of dead skin went with it.  (The artist was not keen on hygiene.)
The astounding end result was the most decorative ceiling in all the world, containing 145 individual pictures and more than 300 figures, all detailing the biblical story (with additions of Greco-Roman mythology) of humanity from the Creation to the Flood.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Italian Renaissance (pt. 16)

I give you a very fine example of what I mean by saying that Michelangelo considered himself a sculptor.  Here is one of the images which he painted on the Sistine Chapel.
This is the Lybian Sibyl, a priestess who was also the daughter of Zeus (remember, the Renaissance is back to Greco-Roman ideals).  It's a marvelous rendering, but don't you notice that that does not look very much like a woman's back?  It's way too muscular and wide.  This is so for two reasons, the first and most obvious being that women were not allowed in studios at that time, not even as models, so Michelangelo had to do his best looking only at men.  The other reason for the overly-muscular appearance of this figure comes from Michelangelo's identity as a sculptor, using light and shadow also in his paintings to make the image look three-dimensional and alive.  Here was his study for the above fresco.
Only a sculptor makes such precise body parts.