Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 7)

Giovanni Arnolfini was a rich Italian merchant who lived in Flanders and made a living off selling silk; he may have also been a banker.  In 1434 he found an artist (Jan van Eyck) to paint his wedding, and the resulting work of art, one of the most famous in art history, was the Arnolfini Wedding Portrait.
The painting shows two people standing side by side in a well-furnished room.  The man dressed in black is Giovanni Arnolfini, and the woman in green is his bride.  There is an extensive list of symbols in the painting, each meticulously painted with unparalleled precision (unparalleled then and unparalleled now).  Giovanni raises his right hand as if he is saying an oath (perhaps this is the moment when the couple are making their marriage vows).  The bride places her right hand in his left.  Giovanni's expensive fur coat demonstrates his wealth (so part of how they wanted to be remembered was as being rich).  The couple have removed their sandals as a sign that a holy event is taking place (they are also very contrite and devout).  There are prayer beads hanging on the wall behind them.  The man is next to the window (implying that his place is out in the working world); the woman is next to the bed (implying that her place is in the home).  The broom hanging in the back implies that it will be a tidy household.  The bride's "ruffled" dress (I know she looks pregnant, but it's supposed to just be ruffled) implies they will have a "fruitful" marriage.  (By the way, notice that this marriage is taking place in a bedroom?)  On the bedpost is a carving of St. Margaret, the patron saint of childbirth.  And the dog between the two is a symbol of loyalty (dogs are usually a symbol of loyalty).  On the wall we see a Latin inscription that reads "Jan van Eyck was here."  Haha, no he wasn't tagging his own painting—it was to signify that the artist was a witness to the marriage vows.  Below the inscription is a mirror, which shows the reflection of the room, the backs of Giovanni and his bride, and two people standing in the doorway.  These two people face the bride and groom as they exchange their vows.  One is the priest marrying them; the other person is you, the viewer (want to look at yourself? haha).
This is a close up of just the mirror.  Now do you see how detailed this painter was?  Around the mirror are tiny pictures of Christ's life.  Incredibly, Van Eyck was able to use such microscopic brushstrokes to add such detail to his paintings.  Lastly, a single burning candle on the chandelier overhead is the symbol of God's presence at the wedding.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 6)

Van Eyck's painting of the Adoration of the Lamb displays the artist's ability to paint detail.  It contains angels, saints, and earthly worshippers moving through a green valley toward a sacrificial altar.
The lamb on the altar is a symbol for Christ (the Lamb of God), and the chalice collecting the Lamb's blood represents the Holy Grail.  The fountain in the foreground is the fountain of life.  The painting's symbolism conveys the meaning that the fountain of life (eternal life) is possible through Christ's sacrifice on the cross.  The Lamb is the obvious center of interest.  All the groups in the painting are angled and facing toward the Lamb, and some even move toward Him.  The artist took the time to paint each face—lots of detail.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 5)

The artist credited with inventing the techniques of oil painting was the Flemish master Jan van Eyck.
Above is van Eyck's oil painting of Saint Jerome in His Study.  Van Eyck far surpassed both Campin and Bosch in attention to detail.  The deep green color of the tablecloth, the deep red color of the cloak, and the deep blue color of the drapery all complement each other.  Look at the detail in the paper, wool, leather, and glass.
Here is the prime example of how patrons made not-so-subtle appearances in artwork around this time.
This is another work by Jan van Eyck.  The man on the left is the patron, Chancellor Rolin, who is bowing humbly before a Bible, with his hands folded in worship.  On the right are Mary (wearing red…again) and the baby Jesus sitting on her lap.  Jesus sits upright and pronounces blessing on the chancellor (a gesture with the index and middle fingers) while Mary is being crowned as the Queen of Heaven by an angel overhead.  But they are not in Heaven.  They are actually in the chancellor's house.  Fine place for Mary to be crowned Queen of Heaven, in the private residence of some guy in Flanders, but this is what the patron commissioned.  By the way, look at the fabulously designed tiles, the lines of which all help in creating the illusion of one-point perspective.
There is something a little more sinister in this painting, depending on how you look at it.  Remember the relief of Nike Adjusting Her Sandal back in Ancient Greece?  It took one of the Greek gods and lowered her to being construed as clumsy and quite human.  Now look at this painting again and notice that the Virgin Mary is alone with the chancellor in his private home, in what appears to be an upper room (usually the more intimate of rooms).  It begs the question: what is the Virgin doing there?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 4)

A huge artist of the Northern European Renaissance was the Flemish painter Hieronymus Bosch.  His attention to detail was equally impressive.  Here is his painting entitled Death and the Miser, painted around 1485-1490.
There is a lot going on in this painting.  First of all, if you don't know what the word "miser" means, go look it up; it's a great word.  The miser lies on his deathbed here, torn between good and evil.  Death, the skeleton entering in through the door, ready to strike with his sharp arrow, indicates that his time is almost up.  The angel next to him urges him to place his trust in Christ, pointing to the crucifix in the window.  The miser is about to look at the crucifix but is also reaching for the money being offered him by a demon.  Indeed, there are a lot of little demons running around in this picture, signifying that this man is well on his way to joining the rest of the demons in Hell because of his wicked lifestyle.  We see some of his wicked lifestyle played out for us.  At the foot of the miser's bed is a scene from his past.  We see the miser himself, dressed in green (the color of greed), holding onto a crucifix with one hand and, with the other, reaching for a bag of money (again being handed to him by a demon, implying that he is getting the money through immoral means).  One of the demons is even holding up a papal indulgence (payment made to the church in order to acquire salvation).  Ah! the greed and corruption of many of those who claim to be so humbly devout in their religion!  Bosch was onto something here; this was painted before the Reformation, when Luther attacked the idea of papal indulgences.
We see demons, a greedy miser, and Death himself in this painting, but the presence of the angel is meant to show that no matter how evil a man has been during his life, he can be saved if he asks for forgiveness before dying.  But which do you think the miser will choose?  His room already communicates the air of the Lake of Fire with its color scheme—a fiery orange bed and a red ceiling.  Bleak?  Actually Bosch hints at satirical humor.  The whole painting has the hint of a comic edge to it with all those cartoonish-looking demons—it's making fun of those greedy religious leaders (here, namely the Catholics) who are really nothing but money-loving swindlers who will come to their own demise because they can't refuse a bag of money even when it's offered by the devil.
Bosch's most famous triptych, The Creation, consists of a left panel for Earthly Paradise (the Garden of Eden), a right panel for Hell, and a very curious center panel for what is called the Garden of Earthly Delights, wherein a lot of really strange things are going on.  That's a really weird one; I won't post it here.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Northern European Renaissance (pt. 3)

Campin's Merode Altarpiece is not only an example of a fine oil painting but is also a definitive painting of the Northern European Renaissance.  It is a triptych, which is a painting on three hinged panels that can be folded together.  The three panels of Campin's altarpiece show three images: the donors of the work kneeling in a garden, the Annunciation, and Joseph working in his carpentry shop.
First off on the left panel we see the patrons who commissioned Campin to paint this.  They are kneeling humbly and the woman is holding prayer beads, so it's safe to say these patrons wanted to be remembered for their religious devotion.  The man has even removed his hat.
On the right panel is Joseph the carpenter seen with woodworking tools of the time.  Campin took time to paint the realistic wood shavings, nails, and lines—stunning attention to detail.  The tools at the bottom of the picture serve as hidden symbolism, something Campin mastered.  The saw, axe, and rod all refer to Isaiah 10:15.
The center panel, the Annunciation, contains lots of symbolism, so take another look.
This is the moment when the angel Gabriel comes to Mary to announce her pregnancy with the Messiah.  The angel is of course wearing white, signaling his purity, and Mary is wearing a red dress once again, symbolic of Christ's blood to be shed.  By the way, Campin's precision with detail here again shown: look at all the creases and folds of her dress.  It also makes her appear a lot larger than she really is.  She is sitting calmly, reading her Bible.  The white linen towels hanging on the wall behind her further proclaim her purity—white linen is symbolic of purity.  The empty pot next to those denotes that Mary is "a clean vessel to be filled."  (I'm not making this up.)  On the table we see an open book, the pages of which are turning (perhaps the angel entered with a gust of wind that caused the pages to turn—at any rate it doesn't faze Mary from her devotion to the Word).  There is a candle on the table—remember that candles and light are a symbol of God's presence.  But this candle is extinguished—there is a lit one above the fireplace, though—foreshadowing Christ's death.  There are three flowers in the vase, representing the Trinity, one of which has not bloomed yet (the Messiah, who actually makes an appearance in this painting).  Lastly, the embryo (I guess?) of our Lord, carrying His own miniature cross, comes down from Heaven, enters through the window, and is seen heading straight for Mary's belly.