Sunday, 2 December 2012

Advent series: How to look at a religious painting. Part 1: Context.

© Fitzwilliam Museum.  Source: Fitzwilliam Museum.

Do I have to be religious to like religious art?

It's the first Sunday of advent today, and this time of waiting for the Christian festival of Christmas made me think about Christian art.

People can tend to feel that they need to know something about art before they can enjoy it, especially if it's Old Master art and seems to be full of enigmatic symbols.  Or people feel a little odd about enjoying Christian art when they are not themselves practising Christians.

The fact is that art has been religious for most of its history.  It is only in the past 200 years or so that non-religious themes have come to dominate.  Sure, there were portraits and genre scenes of everyday life.  But religion was arguably at the heart of much of the art.


Advent series

Here are my own suggestions on how to look at a religious painting.  I have chosen four Italian Renaissance paintings, on display in Cambridge, and I will look at these over the course of the next four advent Sundays.  Each week I will focus on one particular aspect. 

My aim is not to give you lots of information but to invite you to look at these pictures with an open mind and without feeling that you need to know a lot before you can start to get something out of looking at them.  Of course, if you wish to go on and find out more for yourself -- all the better!


Today's painting

Today's painting is Andrea di Vanni's Virgin and Child, produced in Siena around 1400.  And today's focus is context.


Art in the gallery

This painting hangs in Gallery 6 of the Fitzwilliam Museum, among other Italian paintings.  It hangs on its own wall space, with a label giving the name of the artist, title and date.  The gallery is well-lit so that we can see the pictures in detail.  The walls are a neutral colour so that nothing distracts us.

©  Fitzwilliam Museum.  Source:  Fitzwilliam Museum.

Visitors wander through the gallery.  Sometimes they stop and look at a label or a picture.  More often than not, they spend more time looking at the label than they do at the picture.  People talk in quiet voices; nobody shouts, run or sings.  Lighting fires is not permitted nor is touching the pictures.

Art in church

Imagine how different this gallery setting is from the painting's original context!  14th-century altarpieces were placed in churches which were often dark.  An altarpiece vies with other sensory inputs for attention:

Candles played across the surfaces, causing the gold backgrounds to glitter. There was the smell of candle wax and incense.  There may also have been the sound of singing, of praying, of preaching, and of people responding in unison as part of the Catholic mass.  The visitor was confronted with other paintings, with stained-glass windows, with carved statues and pilasters, with mosaic floors and marbled walls.

Nun praying in St Peter's, Rome. ©  Holly Hayes.  Source:  Sacred Destinations
And of course, the visitor wasn't really a 'visitor' but a devotee.  People approached religious paintings not as art but as cult objects to be venerated.

Art in the home

Andrea di Vanni's painting is quite small (94.9 x 52.7 cm) so it was probably not used as an altarpiece.  It's more likely to have been used in a more intimate context, for example, in somebody's home or as part of a monk's cell.  But, just like larger altarpieces, this is an object that invites devotion.

palazzo davanzati
Palazzo Davanzati, Florence.
Source:  lifebeyondtourism

How Virgin and Child invites devotion

•  the faces
They are shown frontally and gazing evenly outwards; their gazes don't quite hit the viewers but look beyond, into some transcendental distance:  they are not of our world.

•  the splendid gold background
Gold was expensive and it is used here to show how precious the subject of the picture is:  the baby Jesus Christ and his mother.

•  the blue of the Virgin's gown.
This was made from lapis lazuli, the most expensive pigment during the Renaissance.

•  the glorious haloes
They are made using gold leaf and then incised with what is called a punch: a metal tool for scratching intricate patterns into the wooden panel.

© Fitzwilliam Museum.  Source: Fitzwilliam Museum. 

•  the architectural frame
This too is covered in gold and moulded gesso to give it relief; it removes the depicted figures from their banal everyday surroundings.

•  the symbolic bird held by the Christ child
This is a goldfinch which can refer to the Resurrection or to the Passion or be a protector against the plague.  

•  the importance of the Virgin
Increasingly, during the 14th and 15th centuries, Mary the mother of God became important, almost as important as Christ himself; she was seen as the primary saint who could intercede between God and humans.

How Renaissance people used religious images

Here is how the 14th-century Florentine Giovanni Morelli used a religious image, the picture of a Crucifixion, to deal with the death of his young son:

"I knelt with bare knees before the figure of the crucified son of God ... I was in my nightgown, with nothing on my head, and wore a halter around the neck.  Gazing upon Him, I began my prayer by first picturing and looking at my sins ... My hear and all my senses heightened to the greatest tenderness..."

Source:  British Library.

Morelli prayed while "gazing continually at the image" until he finally stood up and "took hold of the painting with devotion and kissed it..."
(Morelli is quoted in Evelyn Welch's Art in Renaissance Italy, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.309.)

This intriguing testimony gives a small insight into how 14th-century Italians used these religious images, with what passion, devotion and physical interaction.  How different from the modern gallery-goer!

More on the context of Italian altarpieces in this National Gallery video.

So do you have to be religious...?

I don't think you do.  And if you are religious, you will (probably) not be religious in a 14th-century way.  None of us today kisses and prays to pictures in the gallery (although some of us do leave devotional objects to sculptures...)  So go forth and be undaunted!

The picture comes to us from history (and we can imagine ourselves into the historical viewer and user).  But the picture is also right there in front of our eyes.  That's the beauty of art:  both then and now, both here and far, far away.

Oh, and I'd already finished this post when I came across this interesting article in The Guardian:  Do we need faith to see religious art?

Have a lovely advent Sunday, whatever your creed may be!

What and where
Andrea di Vanni (Sienese artist), Virgin and Child, c. 1400, egg tempera  and gold on a wooden panel, 94.9 x 52.7 cm.  Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, UK, Gallery 6.

© Fitzwilliam Museum.  Source: Fitzwilliam Museum.

If you enjoyed this post you may like Part 2 even better:

Advent series.  How to look at a religious painting:  Simone Martini's altarpiece with saints.


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