Monday, October 3, 2016

Late Gothic Early Renaissance Painting in Italy


Some of the images you will encounter in this section you have already looked at.  The purpose of this next section is to teach you how the iconography that began in earlier periods is used but also transformed over time.  At the end of this essay you will be presented with a work of art that you will have to interpret according to the rules that you have learned.

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For this reason, the sections concerning each works formal aspects will be deemphasized.
There are two terms you will need to understand in depth for this next section, nativity and annunciation.
According to the Brittanica,
a nativity is a theme in Christian art depicting the newborn Jesus with the Virgin Mary and other figures, following descriptions of Christ's birth in the Gospels and Apocrypha. An old and popular subject with a complicated iconography, the Nativity was first represented in the 4th century, carved on Early Christian Roman sarcophagi, and was later included with other scenes from Christ's life in monumental decoration of Early Christian basilicas. It was a very important subject for Early Christian art from the 5th century because it emphasized the reality of the incarnation of Christ and the validity of the Virgin's newly established (431) title of Theotokos (Mother of God). The Early Christian version of the Nativity shows the Virgin seated, to emphasize that the birth was painless, and the Child, in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. The two, along with an ox and an ass, are under the roof of a barnlike stable. Usually one or two shepherds, who symbolize the revelation of Christ to the Jews, and often also the Magi--Wise Men from the East who symbolize his revelation to the Gentiles--appear in the scene. By the 6th century another version of the Nativity appeared in Syria, becoming universal in the East throughout the Middle Ages, and in Italy until the late 14th century. It differs from the earlier version, which was retained with some modifications in northwestern Europe, mainly in that it shows the Virgin lying on a mattress, thus ignoring the concept of the painless birth. The Child is again in swaddling clothes in a manger, and the ox and ass are retained, but the stable is located not in a barn but in a cave, as was the custom in Palestine. Angels usually hover above the cave, and Joseph sits outside it. The Magi and the shepherds are often present. The announcement of the miraculous birth to the shepherds by an angel and the journey of the Magi may be depicted simultaneously in the background. Another simultaneous representation--the bathing of the Child by two midwives in the foreground--became standard in Eastern Nativities. It probably derives from classical scenes of the birth of the god Dionysus and is a prefiguration of Christ's Baptism. As the emblem of a major feast day, this version of the Nativity figured prominently, usually in its most complicated form, in the liturgical iconography of Byzantine church decoration.
In the late 14th century an abrupt transformation of the iconography of the Nativity occurred throughout western Europe, including Italy, and a second major version came into being. This was essentially an adoration; the most important change is that the Virgin is depicted no longer in the aftermath of childbirth but kneeling before the Child, who is now nude and luminous and lies not in a manger but on the ground on a pile of straw or a fold of the Virgin's mantle. Often Joseph, too, kneels in adoration. Most of the other details, except the ox and ass, are omitted, especially in earlier works. This version, which seems to have spread from Italy, follows in detail--and in fact almost certainly originates with--an account of a vision by St. Bridget of Sweden, an influential 14th-century mystic. Universally adopted in western Europe by the 15th century, this version is widely depicted in altarpieces and other devotional works.
In the Renaissance, angels reappeared, and the scene was often combined with the adoration of the shepherds, which had recently developed as a separate theme. The midwives were still included occasionally. In the 16th century the Council of Trent outlawed the midwives, the ox and ass, and the bathing of Christ as ignoble, apocryphal, and theologically unsound (the bathing of the Child is inconsistent with the doctrine of a pure and supernatural birth).
In the 17th century a more prosaic representation reappeared, with the Virgin again reclining and holding the Child. After the 17th century, despite the decline of Christian religious art in general, the Nativity remained an important theme in the popular arts.
"Nativity."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc.   November 17, 2002.
According to the Brittanica,
the Annunciation in Christianity, the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive a Son of the Holy Spirit to be called Jesus (Luke 1:26-38). The Feast of the Annunciation, one of the principal feasts of the Christian church, is celebrated on March 25 (Lady Day). The first authentic allusions to the feast (apart from the Gelasian and Gregorian sacramentaries, in both of which it is mentioned) are in acts of the Council of Toledo (656) and of the Trullan Council (692).
Because its significance is much more than narrative, the Annunciation had a particularly important place in the arts and church decoration of the early Christian and medieval periods and in the devotional art of the Renaissance and Baroque. Moreover, because, in Christian doctrine, the event coincides with the Incarnation of Christ, it also represents a prelude to the redemption of the world.
 "Annunciation."   Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM.   Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc.   November 17, 2002.

 



Nicola Pisano. Nativity, 
detail of Baptistery Pulpit panel: Annunciation, 
Nativity and Annunciation to Shepherds 1259-60
Italian Gothic,
Form:  This is a relief carving.  The relief varies greatly in the height and or depth of each of the figures and objects.  In general the composition is fairly symmetrical yet it is very crowded and almost seems disorganized.  Most of the figures are placed in the foreground of the picture plane and the space created is not very illusionistic.  Space is created by placing the figures in the foreground lower in the picture plane.  In order to show the recession of space, the figures are layered and the placed in a vertical perspective.  The rendering of each of the figures is fairly naturalistic and the clothing, drapery and poses are somewhat reminiscent of carvings such as the this one from the Parthenon's pediment.  Several of the figures, such as the main one which depicts Mary and the child (Jesus) are repeated because several scenes are simultaneously being represented.  This kind of continuous narrative is common in Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art. 
Iconography:  This is a nativity scene that at first appears to take place in a manger but it also contains the baptism of Christ as well as the annunciation by the angel Gabriel.  The scenes are as follows, far left the angel Gabriel confronts Mary with his annunciation of the birth of Jesus. Mary pulls away towards the center of the scene.  In the upper right hand corner is a manger scene in which Jesus lies in his crib, at the far right are two of the wise men who are missing their heads.  The center of the scene Mary reclines in a pose very reminiscent of the Goddesses from Parthenon.  In the lower left foreground of the image is the baptism of Christ (note he's missing his head too.)

Duccio di Buoninsegna, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, 1308/1311
This panel in the National Gallery, Washington DC
Form: The rendering of each of the figures is fairly naturalistic and the clothing, drapery and poses are somewhat reminiscent of Nicola Pisano's Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit panel and carvings such from the Parthenon's pediment.  Several of the figures, such as the main one which depicts Mary and the child (Jesus) are repeated because several scenes are simultaneously being represented.  This kind of continuous narrative is common in Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance art.  Iconography:  This is a nativity scene that at first appears to take place in a manger but it also contains the baptism of Christ as well.  The center of the scene Mary reclines in a pose very reminiscent of the Goddesses from Parthenon.  In the lower left foreground of the image is the baptism of Christ.
 
 
The figures that flank the main scene serve as a kind of framing device that also update the image and provide transitional figures that bridge the gap between Mary, Jesus and us.  The image of the saint in Catholic art and religious practice is one that symbolizes our possibilities.  The saints were normal people, who in their emulation of Christlike qualities show us what every person is capable of attaining.  When Catholics pray to them they are asking for the saint to intercede with God.  Basically ask God for a favor for us. Context:  It is easy to guess that Duccio probably used, almost directly Nicola Pisano's Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit panel as his schema.  This was not considered plagiarism by the Gothic artists but rather a compliment and a continuation of a time honored Byzantine tradition.  Her pose and drapery almost exactly mimic Nicola Pisano's Nativity, from the Baptistery Pulpit panel but the drapery is somewhat less lifelike.  This also demonstrates the desire to continue older visual traditions and to not always have a revolutionary and innovative stylistic break with earlier traditions.
 

Duccio di Buoninsegna, Annunciation 1308-11
Tempera on wood, 43 x 44 cm 
National Gallery, London
predella Maesta Altar
Form: Duccio's Annunciation scene shares some of the same formal devices that the other works we've looked at.  There is no deep space but there is an attempt to relate the figures to the architectural environment they reside in.  There is a consistent sense of chiaroscuro that unifies the picture plane.  The drapery of the figures is beginning to demonstrate a shift of light and shadow (chiaroscuro) that we see in Giotto's work and the drapery begins to actually feel as if the anatomy beneath is revealed in how the drapery hangs on the figures.  The composition is still symmetrical but there is an out door in door feeling to the image.  Mary is framed within an arch like structure. Iconography:  The increased illusionism of the image is symbolic of some of the growing humanistic trends in the Catholic faith that is further evidenced by the philosophies of St. Francis.
Both Mary and Gabriel are dressed in a cross between Byzantine clothing and Roman style togas indicating a  historicism about them.  The colors used for the clothing are expensive and so is the gold leaf in  the background.  Both the figures heads are adorned with halos that are ornamneted with punchwork.
Mary is holding either a book of hours or a Bible.  Brittanica describes a book of hours as a,
devotional book widely popular in the later Middle Ages. The book of hours began to appear in the 13th century, containing prayers to be said at the canonical hours in honour of the Virgin Mary. The growing demand for smaller such books for family and individual use created a prayerbook style enormously popular among the wealthy. The demand for the books was crucial to the development of Gothic illumination. These lavishly decorated texts, of small dimensions, varied in content according to their patrons' desires.
She pulls away slightly from Gabriel as he announces that she will be having the son of god demonstrating a very human response and therefore humanistic perspective.  Above her head flying in through the combination Gothic/Triumphal arch is the holy spirit which is represented as a dove.  This is also a reference to the story of Noah as a typology.  The architectural structure is designed to look like both a Church and a triumphal arch.  This is representative of Mary's house as the house of God and a place of worship.  The scepter Gabriel holds represents triumph. Between the two figures is a vessel filled with lilies.  The vessel refers to Mary's role as the "vessel of God" and the white flowers refer to her purity.  In fact there is a whole iconographic system devoted to flowers and Mary.


Simone Martini, Annunciation, 1333 10'x8' 
(central panel)  Lippo Memmi, (Wings)
Frame 19th C Anonymous
Florence Uffizi
Italian Late Gothic/Early Renaissance
Form: Martini's Annunciation scene shares some of the same formal devices that the other works we've looked at too.  There is no deep space whatsoever in this image because of the use of gold leaf for the background.  The drapery of the figures is beginning to demonstrate chiaroscuro and anatomical structure but in some ways less so then some of the other images.  The composition is perfectly symmetrical and the figures are placed beneath each of the three pointed Gothic style arches. Iconography:  As in the other works the  increased illusionism of the image is symbolic of some of the growing humanistic trends in the Catholic faith that is further evidenced by the philosophies of St. Francis.
Both Mary and Gabriel are dressed in a cross between Byzantine clothing and Roman style togas indicating a  historicism about them.  The colors used for the clothing are expensive and so is the gold leaf in  the background.  Both the figures heads are adorned with halos that are ornamneted with punchwork.  However, there is a bit more in terms of their ornamnetation.  The checked pattern on Gabriel's gown may actually be a reference to either a popular style of fabric design or a type of fabric produced by the patron.  In this way it is a form of "product placement."  Mary is holding a book of hours and like Duccio's painting she pulls away slightly from Gabriel as he makes his announcement. 
A possible reference to the literacy of the wealthy may be the words inscribed in the gold leaf which emenate from Gabriel's mouth, "Hail favored one!  The Lord is with you."
Plant forms figure powerfully into this kind of image.  Between the two figures is a vessel filled with lilies.  The vessel refers to Mary's role as the "vessel of God" and the white flowers refer to her purity.  In fact there is a whole iconographic system devoted to flowers and Mary.  The olive branch is a reference to the story of Noah in which the dove brings an olive branch back to the ark and this is a symbol of God's renewed covenant with Noah.  The wreath of olives around Gabriel's head is a similar refernce both also refers to the Greek and Roman traditions of honoring heroes and athletes with the laurel wreaths on there head as an impromptu crown.  It may also be a reference to Christ's crwon of thorns. The central panel of the altar is in a tripartite division (three part).  This is possibly a reference to the holy trinity which is "in Christian doctrine, the unity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three persons in one Godhead," according to the Brittanica.  It also designed to look like the arches in a Gothic church.  In the central bay of the image is an image of the holy spirit surrounded by a series of cherubim in the form of sparrows.  The sparrow comes up quite a bit as a symbol of the word of God and as cherubim.

 

 
Pietro Lorenzetti, The Birth of the Virgin, from Siena Cathedral, 1342.
Tempera and gold on wood, frame partially replaced
6'x5' Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena
Synthesis:  This image represents the birth of Mary.  On the next worksheet you will be asked to pull together all the main ideas that you have learned in the section above and explain how the iconography and form are descended from the images above. Make sure you read Stokstad's analysis of this image!