Monday, August 20, 2012

Medievalism versus Renaissance

The painting above is by Fra Fillippo Lippi, an Italian Renaissance painting done in the late 1400's.  It makes a good reference for explaining the differences between The Italian Renaissance and the mindset of Medieval art.  For further reading I highly recommend Robert Browning's dramatic monologue (long poem), "Fra Lippo Lippi", which very artfully explains this whole thing, as opposed to the artless and pedantic way in which I am about to explain it here.

First of all, we need to understand and remember that both of the terms "Middle Ages" and "Renaissance" originated from the late Renaissance writer and teacher Giorgio Vasari.  He intended "Renaissance" to be the breathtaking and complementary term that it has become, and he intended "Middle Ages" to be the pejorative and dismissive term that it has become.  In this way Vasari was a resounding success at coining terms.  "Renaissance" means rebirth, and Vasari defined the period from the mid-1300's through 1500's as a rebirth of everything Greek, which consequently dismissed everything between A.D. 300 and 1350 as merely "in the middle" between the Greco-Roman (Hellene) age and its rebirth, as if nothing else mattered.

The criticism seems to work because several things fell to disuse or abuse in "the middle ages":  observation of nature, natural proportions, compositional rules, perspective, and anything else that would seem to relate to the scientific study and conscience of humanity and nature.  This can be summed up in the words "sacred and profane".  To the medieval mind there were things which were sacred -- meaning that you could take them to the altar in church, like sacraments -- and everything else was profane, meaning that it belonged outside the church.  "Profane" more or less described all of nature, human interaction and the human condition.  Since people are sinful and thus "profane" then they can't be trusted to pose for sacred figures such as saints and thus portraiture, a vain contemplation of the Romans, fell to disuse.  Human proportions were lost in the Byzantine iconography that dominated European and Asian art.  Given our scientific proclivity to study what we see and meditate on it without fear of contamination from the natural world it prejudices us to think that people of the Middle Ages were stupid.

Au Contraire, they were as learned and intelligent as any age, and quite scientific.  Just look at the Great Cathedrals, or Gothic cathedrals, they are marvels of science, math and engineering.  It's just that the sculptures of people look like boneless drinking straws because artists relied on copying images inside and outside churches instead of looking at the people who were scurrying around the profane world with them.  This led to ages of distancing images of people away from normal natural observation and distorting them via endless copying.

The Renaissance artists brought back what could be called Humanism.  This simply meant that human models were acceptable as human models.  In turn it mean that a human being could be used as a model for Mary, since she was also human, and even as the Christ child since He, too, was human.  It is strange that in an age where creeds defined Jesus as "very human of very human" it became unacceptable within the church to use humans as models for humans.  To the Greeks, Humanism meant an embrace of and fascination with human achievement and a curiosity about the limits and scope of human achievement.  Ironically, it was the building of the cathedrals and the establishment of seminaries, universities, and libraries that brought Humanism back within the church, and by 1400 in both the North and in Italy and Spain in the South of Europe it was comfortably acceptable.

Along with Humanism came a return of natural observation and an acceptance of what the Greeks had discovered and recorded about nature.  This meant a return or rediscovery of the following things:
-  Linear subjective perspective
-  Rules of human physical proportions
-  The Golden Section
-  Compositional rules and formats
-  Contrapposto poses in sculpture and painting
-  Portraiture and the use of human models
-  Study of drapery
-  Neo-Platonism or the use of Platonic ideal forms to substitute as "sacred"
-  Nudity in art as a means of Neo-Platonic symbolism; in other words, as the Greeks had used
    nudity to represent truth, ideals and purity, the Renaissance artists used nudity to represent

The Renaissance represents the birth of an age of cognazanti, people in the know who enjoy being in the know, and that was largely due to a shared knowledge and excitement over Greek forms and usage of them, and the ability to see and grasp what was going on via the presentation of Greek forms.

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