Throughout the Renaissance and Baroque periods, a multitude of themes have appeared that constantly interact with each other. Art reflected the power struggle between the wealthy and average, the rationalism that came with education, and the appeal to emotions to keep people in the church.
The courtly aesthetic, first seen in the Gothic period, can be seen in many pieces of art throughout the Northern European renaissance. With the rise of the French and English monarchy, the art at the time reflected the difference between the wealth and status of the elite and the average citizen. Art was created by the elite, to remind average citizens of the glory and power of the court.
Religious figures were often seen associated with the rich and elite. One example of this can be seen in The Madonna and Child, created by Jan van Eyck in 1434. The image of Virgin Mary sitting on a throne with the Christ child on her lap, surrounded by saints and angels, is a very common depiction of the courtly aesthetic. In these types of portraits, specifically this one, the Virgin Mary sits on a decorated throne with an ornate carpet, in what appears to be a castle. She is adorned in a lavish red and gold robe, and in other Madonna pieces, she can often be seen wearing an ornate crown. Saint George is wearing a jeweled crown and an extravagant blue and gold robe. The depiction of biblical figures that seem to be a part of the monarchy was used to tell average citizens that the monarchy was almost godly in a sense.
Many art pieces also had donor portraits, which showed who commissioned the piece. Because the church in Italy did not spread its wealth, private citizens often commissioned the most public and significant paintings in the city, such as altarpieces. The Merode Altarpiece, created by Robert Campin in 1427, and the Ghent Altarpiece, created by Jan van Eyck in 1432, both show donor portraits. In these types of portraits, the donor is often seen witnessing the biblical event. These donor portraits serve as a reminder to the citizens who created it, and the wealth and status of the donor.
Illuminated manuscripts were highly produced, and because only the wealthy could read, average citizens were left out of the experience. Precious stones on the cover, along with gold and silver ink, and expensive pigments such as Lapis Lazuli, also separated the luxurious book from the commoner’s book. The pictures inside the book showed figures that were considered more elegant and decorative than the art meant for the general population. The Book of Hours of the Queen of France (1325), was worn as a piece of precious jewelry.
By using decorative and flashy art, the wealthy upper-class could physically show their power over the common man.
The return of Greco-Roman influence was one of the biggest thematic shifts in art. It fit in perfectly with the rationalism that came after the flashy, decorative Gothic period.
The nave of the Church of San Lorenzo, created in 1421 by Brunelleschi and Michelozzo di Bartolommeo, lacks the flashiness of the Northern European Renaissance artworks. Instead, it showcases the Italian Renaissance rationalism, which was meant to appeal to the mind. There weren’t many distractions, and the focus was on the altar. The colors were neutral, and they utilized one point linear perspective to draw the eye to the most important location.
The statue of David, created by Michelangelo in 1501, is a perfect example of Greco-Roman inspiration. The body of David has human proportions, and is shown in idealized form. He stands in the classical pose known as contrapposto. This piece was intended to go on the top of the Florence Cathedral. Instead of showing the power of the wealthy upper-class, this statue represented the struggle against the Medici family, who had ruled powerfully over Florence for a long time.
The School of Athens fresco, created by Raphael in 1509 in the Italian High Renaissance, was commissioned by Julius II. The piece of symmetrical, with lines of perspective used instead off the hierarchy of scale seen in older paintings to show who is important. Humanism was a big part of this piece, as it features pagan gods and philosophers. This conflict of interests was because Julius II wanted to be inspired in his decisions. This showcases how the Greco-Roman way of art and thinking was popular for education and rationalism.
The re-emergence of the Greco-Roman influence was used to appeal to the rational mind and humanism, and led to an educated society.
After the protestant reformation, the church had to think of ways to bring people back. This resulted in a religious art that appealed to the human emotions, rather than superstitious propaganda used to scare the non-educated.
Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, created by Annibale Carraci in 1604, was commissioned for a private gallery by the elite. This painting showed the “human” side of the story of the Flight into Egypt. The viewer didn’t see the Virgin Mary as someone “divine” and better than them, since there was no symbolism, and the figures were not enthroned. Carraci painted a scene in which the viewer felt human emotions, and simply saw a mother running for her life with her baby. The educated did not need to be tricked, so appealing to one’s human emotions rather than showing someone with a higher status than them.
The Isenheim Altarpiece, created by Niclaus of Haguenau and Matthias Grünewald in 1512, was another creation used to manipulate the viewer’s emotions. This altarpiece was located in a chapel next to a hospital that dealt with skin problems. The altarpiece depicts Jesus with decomposing, ripped skin. This spoke to patients who visited the chapel, because they would see he shared the same afflictions as them. By using empathy, patients would stay faithful to the Church, hoping that they would be saved.
Ecstasy of Saint Teresa, created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1647 for the Cornaro Private Chapel, depicts Teresa of Ávila, in what she described as religious ecstasy. This appealed to the human emotion of wanting ecstasy, and created excitement for the viewer. The person who commissioned the sculpture is in the audience, which is sculpted to look like they’re watching the scene. By looking at this piece, the viewer can relate to a basic human emotion.
By appealing to the viewer’s humanistic emotions, art could potentially bring people back to the Catholic church.
I have learned that history repeats itself, especially in art. There are recurring themes that art has shown, such as highlighting wealth and status, religious propaganda, and bringing back people to the church. All of these themes are woven in, and are prevalent in each time period.
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