The New Art of the Fifteenth Century:Faith and Art in Florence and the Netherlands
By Shirley Neilsen Blum
Abbeville Press/314 pages/$85
Reviewed by Ed Voves
The fifteen century was a revolutionary age, matching the many changes and discoveries of the twentieth. From Gutenberg's invention of the printing press to the "discovery" of the Americas, the 1400's reshaped the world into a form we can now recognize.
In an authoritative new book, The New Art of the Fifteenth Century. Shirley Neilsen Blum, explores the art of Europe during the 1400's. This momentous era witnessed the introduction of oil painting, the invention of linear perspective and a revival of life-like portraiture - after an intermission of nearly one thousand years.
Blum builds a case that these new techniques originated in two small, but dynamic, cultural centers: the Republic of Florence and in Flanders, ruled by the dukes of Burgundy.
There was one major difference in the art revolution of the 1400's from the one the took place during the early 1900's. People in Western Europe embraced and applauded the innovations of great artists like Donatello, van Eyck and Masaccio without the consternation that greeted the early works of Matisse, Braque and Picasso.
There was no "shock of the new" during the Quattrocento, as Italians call the 1400's.
Robert Campin, Mérode Altarpiece, c. 1427–1432
As Blum cogently shows, paintings like Robert Campin's Mérode Altarpiece depicted hallowed Christian themes while introducing Europe to a new naturalism in the visual arts. Both the Florentine and Netherlandish schools aimed to make "seeing into believing."
Art in the fifteenth century was notable for great painting, especially for the way that the rules of perspective were applied to create the appearance of three dimensions in a two-dimensional format. Blum however begins her study with works of sculpture.
Blum contrasts the sculptural group of Old Testament prophets called the Well of Moses with statues of New Testament saints by Donatello. The Well of Moses, located in a monastery in Dijon, France, was created by Claus Sluter for the dukes of Burgundy. Sluter carved six incredibly lifelike (and life-sized) statues of biblical prophets including Moses, Jeremiah and King David. These surrounded a monumental crucifixion scene which was smashed by French revolutionaries in 1791.
Sluter's Well of Moses was made to inspire monastic rather than public devotion. Given the urban orientation of religion during the 1400's, it may be questioned if this is indeed a Renaissance art work.
Such a question could never be asked about the sculptures of Donatello (c.1386-1466). Along with Lorenzo Ghiberti's "Doors of Paradise" on the Baptistry of Florence, Donatello's marble saints and apostles are the signature works of the birth of the Renaissance in Italy.
I had the opportunity recently to see several of these inspiring works in the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit at the Museum of Biblical History (MOBIA) in New York City. This rare display of Renaissance art in the United States was a perfect complement to Blum's book. Sadly, MOBIA closed its doors in in June, reducing the venues for such outstanding exhibits in the future.
Donatello, St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15
Even in the MOBIA exhibit setting, Donatello's first great statue, Saint John the Evangelist (1409-1411), exerted a powerful, almost living, presence. When it is remembered that Saint John the Evangelist once filled a niche on the facade of Florence' s Duomo, you realize that Donatello was not creating a symbolical work for a monastery cloister or aristocratic patrons. Rather, his sculptures made a bold statement of public virtue.
Donatello's statues were paid for by the guilds of Florence. The Wool Guild (the Arte della Lana) oversaw fund-raising for the completion of the Duomo. A select group, guild officials and clergy ,called the Opera del Duomo, hired Donatello and others to sculpt statues for the facade of the cathedral and its bell tower. It was on this latter building that Donatello's masterpiece, Prophet Habbakuk, called "Zuccone" or"Pumpkinhead," was displayed.
Saint John the Evangelist is an imposing, almost regal, portrait of saintliness while Habbakuk is a masterpiece of introspective soul-searing. Both were created to be constant examples of righteous living for the citizens of Florence. In this way, the mystical, devotional element of Medieval art was preserved and channeled into the urban life of the Renaissance.
Strange as this sounds, the acute naturalism of Donatello's sculptures aimed to draw viewers away from "this" world, into a union with God. The great French scholar of the early Renaissance, Jean Gerson (1363-1429) wrote, "We ought to learn to transcend with our minds from these visible things to the invisible, from the corporeal to the spiritual. For this is the purpose of the image."
While Donatello was creating sculptures to achieve this delicate balance of private piety with public expression of faith, Jan van Eyck in Flanders was preoccupied with the same task through painting with oils.
Jan van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, better known as the Ghent Altarpiece, was painted in collaboration with his brother, Hubert, and completed in 1432. It ranks among the greatest and most complex paintings in the whole of Christian art.
Jan van Eyck & Hubert van Eyck, Ghent Altarpiece - Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, 1432
The Ghent Altarpiece was commissioned by a wealthy civic leader of Ghent, Joos Vijd. He and his wife appear as worshipers on facing panels on the altarpiece.
Jan van Eyck, Rolin Madonna, 1436
So too, did Nicolas Rolin commission a devotional work by van Eyck. Rolin was a self-made man who became chancellor to Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy. Rolin, rather arrogantly, had van Eyck place him in the same room as the infant Jesus and the radiantly beautiful Virgin Mary. Yet, with Jesus blessing the kneeling Rolin the message could not be clearer: even the most powerful men in Christendom must bend their knees to God.
Van Eyck and other Netherlandish artists who painted with oils made a huge and almost immediately-felt impact on European art. Their work was highly esteemed in Italy, though few Florentine artists utilized oil paints, at least during this early stage of the Renaissance.
A highly influential Flemish work showing rugged, weather-beaten shepherds worshiping the new-born Jesus was brought to Florence by banker Tommaso Portinari in 1483. Painted by Hugo van der Goes, the Portinari Altarpiece directly influenced a similar work by Domenico del Ghirlandaio (1449-1494) for Francesco Sassetti, director of the Medici Bank.
One of the student assistants in Ghirlandaio's studio was the young Michelangelo. He evidently was more impressed with the work of an earlier Florentine painter, Masaccio. Michelangelo is known to have spent long periods in Florence's Brancacci Chapel. There he studied the cycle of paintings of the life of St.Peter left unfinished by Masaccio when he died, aged 27 in 1428. The frescoes were completed by Masaccio's colleague, Masolino.
Masaccio, Tribute Money (detail), c. 1425
Masaccio painted biblical themes, like the story of the Tribute Money from Matthew 17:23-26, with amazing vigor. In his tragically short life, Masaccio created "new and dynamic" versions of age-old Christian images "much more closely related to the world of the viewer."
Of Masaccio, Blum writes:
Masaccio's people, saints and sinners alike, are rooted in the earth.Their forms are solid, often ungainly, revealed rather than flattered by light... Masaccio's figures are separated from the viewer only by their historical relation to Christ. Very like Donatello's saints, they dwell in a world possible of imitation and thereby humanly attainable. The promise has been given not just by an unknowable God, but through his human agents.The highest of which man is capable may indeed win him a place next to the disciples, now so very much like him.
Masaccio, Tribute Money (detail), c. 1425
Robert Campin, Mérode Altarpiece (detail), c. 1427–1432
Campin's Mérode Altarpiece has a side panel showing a devout couple looking on the central scene of the Annunciation. They are neither aristocrats nor clergy - nor directors of the Medici bank. Campin's onlookers are simply God-fearing townsfolk, people of deep and abiding faith.
In her concluding remarks, Blum writes movingly of the way that the artists of the 1400's in Flanders and Florence drew beholders of all social strata "ever closer to the divine object of their devotion," in short to God.
"Christian art," Blum affirms, "had never dared so much nor rendered earth more sacred."
***Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images Courtesy of Abbeville Press, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, www.christusrex.org and and the Museum of Biblical History (MOBIA) in conjunction with the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit
Cover Image Courtesy of Abbeville Press
Robert Campin (ca. 1375–1444) and Workshop, Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), ca. 1427–1432 Oil paint on oak; Central panel 25 1/4 x 24 7/8 in. (64.1 x 63.2 cm); each wing 25 3/8 x 10 3/4 in. (64.5 x 27.3 cm)The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70) © Metropolitan Museum of Art
Donatello (c.1386-1466), St. John the Evangelist, 1408–15, Marble, 212 × 91 × 62 cm (83½ × 35¾ × 24½ in.) Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore, inv. no 2005/113 © Opera di Santa Maria del Fiore / Antonio Quattrone - in conjunction with the Sculpture in the Age of Donatello exhibit at the Museum of Biblical History
Jan van Eyck (c.1390-95-1441) Rolin Madonna, 1436 Oil on panel: 25 7/8 x 34 3/8 inches H. 0.66 m; W. 0.62 m Removed from Notre-Dame-du Châtel in Autun and sent to the Louvre, 1800, INV. 1271, Musee du Louvre
Masaccio (1401-1428) The Trubute Money, 1425 Fresco 247 cm × 597 cm (97.2 in × 235 in) Santa Maria del Carmine - Brancacci Chapel
Robert Campin Annunciation Triptych (Merode Altarpiece), ca. 1427–1432 (Detail - Left Panell) The Cloisters Collection, 1956 (56.70) © Metropolitan Museum of Art