Mr. Fornale's Fine Arts Page
The Nutshell Version of Western Art and Its Concepts
Renaissance means "rebirth." After
the long Medieval period, many of the old Classical ideas were reborn
in art. More realistic aspects of shadow, contours, and
perspective came back to art, but this time with a new twist. We
now enter the era of true individualism, when artists become
celebrities, and they impart their own unique styles to their
work. Consider some of the famous names from the era that are
still household names today: Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo,
Donatello, and Raphael. OK, so they're also the names of the
Ninja Turtles, but they're famous for a reason.
can be divided by time (Early Renaissance, High Renaissance, Late
Renaissance) or by geography. I chose the latter division, and I
will provide samples of Renaissance art from Northern Europe, from
Florence, from Rome, and from Venice.
I. The Florentine Renaissance
A. The Medici
B. Leonardo da Vinci
1. The Mona Lisa
2. The Last Supper
C. Sandro Botticelli
1. The Birth of Venus
2. La Primavera
1. The Prophet
2. Mary Magdalene
II. The Roman Renaissance
1. The Pieta
3. The Sistine Chapel
1. The School of Athens
2. The Sistine Madonna
III. The Venetian Renaissance
A. Titian's Bacchus and Ariadne B. Tintoretto's The Last Supper
C. Paolo Veronese's Feast in the House of Levi
IV. The Northern Renaissance A. Jan Van Eyck--The Arnolfini Wedding B. Hieronymus Bosch--The Garden of Earthly Delights C. Hans Holbein--Henry VIII D. Pieter Breugel the Elder 1. The Harvesters 2. Hunters in the Snow
Although the Medici were not artists, they were extremely important in the art world. The Medici were an extremely powerful family in Florence, and they rose to prominence as wool traders and bankers. During the late medieval period, they exerted their political influence primarily behind the scenes. By the late Renaissance, however, they were titled aristocrats, and their family members had married into several royal families.
(Cosimo de Medici)
So why were the Medici important to the art world? The answer is that every artist needs a patron; that is, someone who buys art. Many members of the Medici family were among the wealthiest patrons in the world. Beyond that, everyone wanted to have fancy art like the Medici had. This helped artists even if they did not have rich patrons like the Medici.
Because of the Medici, art came to have a meaning beyond its own subject matter. Art was about taste and power, prestige and education. And if it were not for the Medici, many of the names you see below would not be as famous as they are today.
The Florentine Renaissance
By the early Renaissance, Florence was a major economic and cultural center in Europe. Remember, Italy was not a unified nation at that point, so as a city-state, Florence was almost like a country unto itself. Its currency, the Florin, was accepted throughout Europe, enhancing the prestige of the city--and its ruling family, the Medici.
Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)
A high-profile city will naturally have high-profile artists. Leonardo da Vinci was certainly one of them. Let's start with what is perhaps the most recognizable portrait in art.
Mona Lisa (1506)
Oh, the stories and theories floating around about this one! The woman, Lisa di Antonio Gherardini, was the wife of Francesco del Giocondo, a rich Florentine. It appears that Giocondo commissioned the portrait from Leonardo but never received it. Leonardo kept in in his studio and used the painting as a study of ideal beauty.
To many modern viewers, the subject does not appear beautiful. Her features, however, transcend fashion trends. She is not wearing makeup, so we are struck by her simple elegance. (According to many sources, the portrait originally had eyebrows, but they were accidentally wiped off during an early restoration of the painting.) Note also the soft shadows. Leonardo preferred this style to harsh contrasts, and he called his technique sfumato, or "smoky."
The subject's smile is the subject of a great deal of discussion. One theory suggested that the subject was nude as she posed, but x-rays yielded no evidence of this. Some people have proposed that it is a self-portrait of Leonardo as a young man in drag, but this seems implausible. Still other people believe that the subject is flirting with the artist. All of these possibilities would explain the kind of smile we observe, but perhaps the best explanation is the one we cannot receive. Mystery in and of itself is very seductive. Some people simply prefer to leave it at that.
The landscape in the background also gets people talking. Note that on each side of the subject's head, the landscape is different. Was Leonardo experimenting to see which was better? Does the uneven background cause the subject's lips to look like they are moving, as some viewers claim? It's all in the eye of the beholder.
There is much more to say about this painting, but it is time to move on to another famous Da Vinci work.
The Last Supper (1498)
This painting in what was once the dining hall of a Dominican convent in Milan represents an experiment for Leonardo. Rather than painting it as a fresco, using egg whites in the paint and applying it to wet plaster, he used tempera (with egg yolks in the paint) and worked on dry plaster. This experiment was not a success, as the painting began to deteriorate within a few decades, and things went downhill from there. The most recent restoration, however, has been hailed as a great success, and we have a better idea of its original glory.
To keep things authoritative, I would like to set aside the things people have been reading in The Da Vinci Code and other books about the dark secrets hidden in this painting. While such assertions may or may not be true, they come with a great deal of baggage that interferes with a more meaningful appreciation of Leonardo's work.
Apart from the obvious beauty and symmetry present in this work of art--both qualities taking their inspiration from Classical ideas--I like to point out the numerology present in The Last Supper. Twelve is a biblically significant number. Think of the twelve apostles, the twelve tribes of Israel, and the twelve gates of Jerusalem. In a more secular sense, twelve is the number of months in a year and hours on the clock. Leonardo pictorially represents this number while factoring it out into fours and threes. Note the four groups of three apostles. Notice the four tapestries on each wall and the three windows in the background.
What attention should any of this merit? Consider the four gospels, the four seasons, and the four directions on a compass. Recall also the Holy Trinity and the three physical dimensions. As deeply meaningful a moment as this painting depicts in the drama of Christianity's early days, the conceptual collage that we see here adds another dimension of significance.
One last thing I always like to point out involves perspective. To Renaissance artists, this was quite a new convention: objects at increasing distances should appear smaller and smaller, and the degree of their reduced size should correspond to a mathematical formula. Anyone who has drawn a picture of a desert road that disappears as it meets the horizon instinctively understands the concept of a vanishing point. Upon further thought, however, is there more to read into this? Does the vanishing point represent nothingness? Infinity? The mystical implications of this are not lost on the more spiritual viewers of this work of art. Note that if you were to draw the lines of perspective over the image above, the vanishing point would be precisely where Christ's head appears in the second window. This would have tremendous significance for any learned and pious viewers of Da Vinci's time.
There are volumes yet to write on this work, but we must move on.
Sandro Botticelli (1445-1510)
The Birth of Venus (1486)
Housed in the Ufifizi Gallery in Florence, this painting is easily Botticelli's most recognizable. He painted it from a description he read in an ancient treatise of a Roman fresco. Depicted here is Venus, born from the sea, fully grown, and attended on one side by Hora, one of the Classical hours once believed to be present at every birth. Hora is dressed to represent springtime birth, over which she presides. The flowers adorning her represent more than just springtime, as Botticelli, painting in Florence, would be eager to allude to the "city of flowers" in his work.
On the left we see Chloris, goddess of the spring, carried by the west wind, Zephyr, whose wind gently blows Venus to shore. It is important to note that in this painting especially, realism takes a back seat to the stylization and symbolism that Botticelli is emphasizing. The sea-shell is a common artistic attribute of Venus, but it is not plausible to find one that big or for Venus to use it as a mode of transportation.
For other artistic treatments of this topic, look at paintings with the same title by Bouguerau and Cabanel.
La Primavera (1482)
La Primavera, or The Allegory of Spring, is another painting with a story to tell. Do you remember Chloris from the last painting? This time appears at the right with a personified South Wind, whose spring breeze brings the warm air that gives rise to flowers and fertility. As he blows on her, she is transformed to the pregnant Flora, goddess of flowers, appearing just to the left. Venus is again pictured at center, with her son Cupid hovering above, aiming an arrow at Chastitas, one of the three Graces at the lower left, who dances with her sisters, Pulchritudas and Voluptas. Their guardian, the god Mercury, is at the extreme left tapping a branch to cause the trees to bear fruit. This painting, like The Birth of Venus, is on display at the Uffizi Gallery.
Donatello was the premier sculptor of his day, and his most famous works are probably The Prophet (also called Lo Zuccone, or "Pumpkin Head"), David, and Mary Magdalene.
The Prophet(1425) Mary Magdalene (1453)
If you look at the dates, these sculptures are far ahead of their time. The postures, the facial expressions, and the overall realism of the works recall the Hellenistic style, but the honest portrayals we see here would not become a common feature of art again for another four centuries. The first sculpture, believed to be the Hebrew prophet Habakuk, is often called Lo Zuccone, or the Pumpkinhead. Mary Magdalene is dressed in a hairshirt, a garment worn by people atoning for their sins. Both sculptures represent the gritty reality that prophets, artists, and anyone who reveals the truth may not always be revealing something we can at first accept as beautiful.
Yes, it's a boy (look closely), but very effeminate in his posture and his look. More than the Donatello sculptures above, this is what we would expect to see from the Renaissance in terms of contours and stylization, and it shows Donatello's versatility. It is important to understand the meaning behind this work of art. This skinny boy hardly looks like the type to slay the most fearsome warrior in the Philistine army. Could Donatello be trying to show us the power that can infused into a biblical figure by God? By an artist? By both?
Just below, we will contrast this sculpture with Michelangelo's version of David. Before we do, however, I'd like to point out if you do not already know, that all four of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are named after Renaissance artists, and all of these artists earned their initial fame in Florence. The most famous art of Michelangelo and of Raphael, however, was created in Rome.
The Roman Renaissance
If the Medici were the most prestigious patrons in Florence, in Rome it was the Pope. Two famous artists who flourished under papal patronage were Michelangelo and Raphael. For an interesting depiction of the relationship between an artist like Michelangelo and a patron like the ambitious and warlike Pope Julius II, watch the 1964 film, The Agony and the Ecstasy. While it takes some license with historical facts, it is very informative.
I must also specify here that both Michelangelo and Raphael got their start in Florence. Since much of their defining work was produced in Rome, however, I classify them here as artists of the Roman Renaissance.
Now, some art from the Roman Renaissance.
Michelangelo Buonarotti considered himself primarily to be a sculptor. Here are two works of which he was very proud.
If you compare Michelangelo's David to Donatello's, there are a number of obvious differences. The one we viewed by Donatello was done in bronze (though he also sculpted one in marble), but Michelangelo's marble David is obviously older, more masculine, and more athletic. If you recall the proportions we discussed in connection to the ancient sculptures of Polyclitus, you will see that the same size relationships do not exist between different parts of the figure's body. David's head is quite large, and his shoulders, though muscular, are not as broad as those of a full-grown man. This suggests interesting things about how Donatello and Michelangelo were expressing the conflated ideas of power and beauty.
The word pieta means "pity" in Italian, and it generically refers to any depiction of Mary with the dead body of Christ. This powerful work by Michelangelo shows a mother's grief and tenderness, but it also shows her strength. We see a strong woman who can support the body of a grown man the way she does here, and it is a skilled artist who can make it look graceful. Of course, Michelangelo cheats a little. If you have ever had a toddler in your lap, you know how much space the child takes up. Again, Michelangelo modifies proportions a bit to accommodate the subject. Mary's thighs are probably so long that she would be about seven feet tall if she were to stand up. Taken as a whole, however, this work of art does not immediately betray its little white lies, and it serves a more profound and spiritual truth.
Another stunning characteristic of this work is difficult to illustrate here. The delicate features and intricate details of Michelangelo's technique make the Pieta a wonder to view up close. Christ's eyelids, the individual hairs in his eyebrows and beard, the indentations that Mary's hands make in his flesh, and even the veins showing in the countours of their skin make it easy to forget that this work is sculpted in marble.
The Sistine Chapel (1512)
When Michelangelo was approached by the Pope to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, he resisted. Though he was an accomplished painter, he was not interested in pursuing it further. Pope Julius insisted, however, and in anger Michelangelo signed his work contract, "Michelangelo the Sculptor."
Michelangelo did, however, put his entire being into this project, and he was extremely demanding of himself and his patron. The project took four years--three years longer than planned, and it ran wildly overbudget. Today we certainly enjoy more than the Pope's money's worth. The entire work is a fresco that is approximately the size of a basketball court.
By way of explanation, "Sistine" is the adjective form of Sixtus, the pope for whom the chapel is named. Pope Sixtus IV was actually an uncle of Julius II.
Here is the complete ceiling.
And here is one of the most famous scenes.
The Creation of Adam
This is rather self-explanatory, but I like to draw students' attention to the Creator and his action of touching Adam's finger to impart life. Has the touch occurred yet? Is it about to occur? Did this inspire the healing, glowing finger of E.T.? We will see when we cover Baroque art that Adam's hand was on the mind of at least one other prominent artist.
From a very young age, Raphael enjoyed papal patronage, and a high level of success. The first painting below was completed when Raphael was 21 years of age.
The School of Athens(1511)
This fresco is painted on the wall of the Stanza della Segnatura in the Vatican complex. At the center of the painting, Aristotle and Plato debate where to seek enlightenment.
Plato points up, signifying the abstract world of ideas. Aristotle gestures downward, indicating the physical realm in which we live. The vanishing point is between them, perhaps suggesting that neither one is entirely right or wrong.
This fresco is almost a who's who of philosophy, academics, and even Renaissance art. Leonardo da Vinci appears as Plato. Michelangelo, sitting near the bottom with his head resting on his fist, is Heraclitus. Raphael peers at us from the far right-hand side of the fresco. Follow this link to Mark Harden’s Artchive to get a better look at the entire painting. See if you can identify some of the other famous figures pictured: Alexander, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy, Zoroaster, and Diogenes. There are many others, but this should keep the ambitious busy for a while.
The Sistine Madonna (1513)
This is the first of many oil paintings we will look at as we progress through the eras. Raphael painted this work as a tribute to Pope Sixtus IV. As mentioned above, the adjectival form of "Sixtus" is "Sistine," hence the title--and, for that matter, the name of the famous chapel Pope Sixtus commissioned.
The fact that the Pope points not to Mary and the infant Jesus has generated a great deal of discussion. He appears to point to us, and neither Jesus nor Mary appears terribly happy with what they see. Perhaps, then, the picture indicates the disappointing and sinful reality of human life.
A more intriguing theory suggests that Raphael painted this work knowing that an altar crucifix would be placed in front of it. This would place the infant Christ in a position to see his fate clearly. This might explain the look on his face.
That concept, of course, is entirely lost on most of us. We're too fascinated with the famous cherubs at the bottom. Now you know where they come from.
The Venetian Renaissance
Bacchus and Ariadne (1523)
The story this painting relates is quite interesting to young people today. Ariadne has been abandoned by her lover Theseus (the killer of the Minotaur). As any lovelorn young woman would do, she goes walking half-naked through the woods. A strange entourage is passing through--that of Bacchus, the god of wine and revelry. He is on his way home from India, and he is immediately taken with the beautiful Ariadne. He leaps from his chariot, and we see him in midair.
Of course, it doesn't look as if Bacchus will land gracefully. Remember, he's the god of wine and revelry. Look at the rest of his posse. At the far right is a man wearing little more than a grass skirt and carrying a donkey's severed leg. In the far background behind him, you see the famous potbellied satyr Selenus. Just to the left in the foreground is Laocoon. Do you remember him from the classical statue? Here, he is entangled with snakes but still partying on. Not one to travel without women in his company, Baccchus is attended by two nymphs behind Laocoon. In the foreground, a youthful satyr drags a donkey's head behind him. Anyone who has watched Animal House can relate to the idea being conveyed here: partiers like this travel with destruction in their wake.
Let's also note one thing about Bacchus's ride. His chariot is not drawn by horses; that would not give him the rush he's looking for. A horse-drawn chariot might reach 30 miles per hour. Instead, Bacchus has cheetahs. With that kind of speed possible, someone should tell him not to drink and drive.
Many of us would think that this is all Ariadne needs: another testosterone-poisoned boyfriend. After being supportive and loving toward Theseus, Ariadne was coldly discarded. Is she an emotional doormat? Will Bacchus walk all over her?
Actually, Ariadne whips Bacchus into shape. She puts her foot down, tames him, teaches him manners, and insists that he bathe at least once a week. They later marry, and their union ultimately gives rise to the city of Venice, where Titian earned his fame as a painter. How is that for a happy ending?
The Last Supper (1594)
Tintoretto's Last Supper is much different from Leonardo's. Let's start with perspective. Leonardo's painting is structured entirely around the vanishing point, whereas Tintoretto's painting places Christ at its center but leads the eye off to the upper left. Leonardo's clear posing of the figures is contrasted here by a more candid atmosphere including servants, women, and even ethereal beings. This painting is darker and drearier in some respects, yet the darkness allows the light that is present to stand out more by contrast. This has profound meaning to both artists and mystics.
Paolo Veronese (1528-1588)
Feast in the House of Levi (1573)
It's quite amusing to know that Veronese originally entitled this painting, The Last Supper. He was hauled before a church inquisition, however, and grilled with questions. Church officials were concerned about the appearance of buffoons (possibly trivializing a deeply spiritual scene), dwarves (believed to be unnatural--perhaps tainted by Satan), Germans (representing the Protestant reformation), and a cat. A cat? Yes, it seems a cat can be taken to represent duplicity and cunning.
Veronese stood his ground, however. He neither destroyed nor changed his masterpiece--except for the title.
The Northern Renaissance
Northern Europe was during the Renaissance, as today, a very different place from Italy. The climate of the North favored deep, rich oil paintings over frescoes. The culture emphasized modesty and temperance over grandiosity. You will see this in the paintings below.
Jan Van Eyck (1390-1441)
Perhaps the top painter of his generation, Van Eyck is most famous for his masterpiece, The Marriage of Giovanni Arnolfini and Giovanna Cenami. The work goes by many abbreviated titles; perhaps The Arnolfini Wedding is as good as any.
The first thing I should mention about the painting below is that there is an ongoing debate (quite pointless, really) about whether or not Mrs. Arnolfini is pregnant. Let me put it succinctly: she ain't.
Perhaps you ought to look at the painting before I go on.
The Arnolfini Wedding(1434)
Giovanna is holding a portion of her dress up toward her stomach, and the high beltline reminds us of more modern maternity fashions. The contours we see and the concept of marriage imply that she may be with child. Look carefully, however, at the pleats entering the top of her beltline. Now look at the pleats coming out beneath. The pleats continue down, not out, as they would if her stomach were protruding as a result of pregnancy. The portion of her dress that is pulled up merely creates the illusion that she may be pregnant. I can tell that some readers are not satisfied.
Fine. Consider that Giovanni Arnolfini was a rich businessman--an associate of the Medici, in fact. Since artists value their patrons, particularly rich ones, would Jan Van Eyck really want to jeopardize any future commisions by showing Arnolfini's bride in a scandalous condition? I think not.
Still not convinced? All right. How about the fact that Giovanna Cenami never gave birth in real life. Would that satisfy you?
What's that? Van Eyck, you say, could be fattening her up as a symbol of fertility? This could, you suggest, be an implicit wish for a fruitful marriage? Very well, I suppose that is possible. I do insist, however, that if you enter any discussion on the topic, you absolutely must mention the facts above. I'm tired of dispelling the rumors myself.
The rest of the painting is far more meaningful, anyway. The colors are rich and vibrant, but also significant. Green symbolizes fertility; red, passion and warmth; white, purity. Even some of the objects pictured carry meaning. The broom represents domesticity, and the sandals signify the comfort of being at home. See the dog? He represents faithfulness. Consider the name Fido. It comes from the Latin, fides, meaning "faithful." The chandelier, by the way, has only one candle. It is said by many to represent the all-seeing eye of God.
There is also a convex mirror on the back wall. Get a good look at the reflection. It's pretty wild. The ten medalions carved into the mirror's frame are ten of the fourteen stations of the Cross. There is also an inscription on the wall: Johannes Van Eyck fuit hic, or "Jan Van Eyck was here." It sounds like graffitti, but some theorists suggest that because this was painted before the days when priests were first required for weddings, that this painting may actually be a marriage document with Van Eyck signing as a witness. Intriguing? Yes. Plausible? Well, that's up for debate.
One additional note: my students over the years have consistently agreed that Giovanni Arnolfini is perhaps the ugliest subject ever depicted in a painting. Consider that Van Eyck probably painted him in a flattering manner in order to butter up his patron, and you can imagine that Giovanni was probably even more hideous.
This would explain the less-than-enthusiastic look on his wife's face.
Hieronymus Bosch (1450-1516)
Bosch is known for some bizarre art, and The Garden of Earthly Delights is a great example of it. It is painted as a tryptich, or three-paneled altarpiece. You needn't look too closely to know that it was unlikely that any church would have this work of art on display.
The Garden of Earthly Delights(1510)
The panel on the left represents Heaven, Eden, or any idealized local for spiritual purity and harmony. The imagery is unmistakeable: a Christlike figure with two people that most people would readily identify as Adam and Eve. The ideal, however, is, as we all know, hardly what we experience in the real world.
The large center panel represents our physical world, and most of the figures depicted are caught up in their physical being. Enough said--this is a family site.
The right panel is obviously Hell. This is where we end up if we allow our physical passions to consume us. Notice the distorted and ghastly depictions. It is quite explicit and graphic--even more so than in the center panel.
Bosch is said to have included moral messages in his work. We should see a moral in this work as well. Our world is placed in the center, and we can go either left or right based on the pursuits we choose. One needn't be religious in order to understand this. Once we set aside the baggage of what organized religion tells us, we can understand that though we live in the physical world, our most meaningful experiences come not necessarily in the satisfaction of our appetites, but in the pursuits of our interests and relationships.
Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543)
Hans Holbein was one of the premier painters of portraits in his day. He painted philosophers, kings, and diplomats--among others. Perhaps his most famous portrait is this one of King Henry VIII of England.
Henry was known for being larger-than-life, particularly in his amorous adventures and his appetites. Here he is shown dressed in his royal finery, and the inscription, in Latin, states that he is 48 years of age.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525-1569)
Bruegel is important because he is an early painter who takes up common people and informal scenes as subjects for his work. These would not be prominent elements in art until the Romantic Period nearly three centuries later. He also has a distinctive style that has endeared him to art lovers.
Here is a common Bruegel favorite:
The Peasant Wedding(1568)
These people are not aristocrats, nor is their feast held in a palace. These are common people in a barn celebrating the marriage of the woman sitting in the place of honor. Note that her seat is indicated by a horse blanket suspended on the wall behind her. Not the plates being carried on a large tray that is actually a door taken off its hinges. The man serving the soup is said to be the groom. Look to the right, and note the well dressed man. That is Bruegel himself.
Another famous painting by Bruegel is this one:
It's about midday, and the scene shows some harvesters at work, some eating, and one enjoying a post-meal nap. You'll notice that this painting has detail at the lower right, then it opens up to a landscape before leading out to the horizon. Bruegel uses this motif often.