Disrecognized Space

agressi sunt mare tenebrarum, quid in eo esset exploraturi

The Adoration of the Magi in Renaissance Art

The renaissance demonstrates a rebirth, particularly in the visual arts, first coming to fruition in fifteenth century Florence. The nature of this rebirth is shown by considering the different ways artists depicted the Adoration of the Magi. Four artists – Giotto, Gozzoli, Leonardo and Raphael – are considered in order to demonstrate the new way of painting.New movements in art are frequently created out of societal ferment. Often this ferment is the result of warfare (Kleiner 2009, passim), but sometimes it can also result as a congruence of various other forces (economic and cultural). Bronowski (1973, p. 177) puts the origin of the Renaissance in Spain at the school of translators there in the twelfth century, where the ‘lost’ works of the Greeks and Romans (lost to the West) were translated by Arab scholars at the frontier of the Moslem Empire with the West.

In 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks, driving Turkish scholars westward to an Italy consisting of city states and various struggling new social classes (Taylor 1954, p. 39). It was also in Italy that trade routes converged, and where ancient Roman ruins were most visible (Kehoe et al, 1997)

The Italian Renaissance was driven by a few scholars rather than being populist, and it was a period of transition between adherence to the views of the Church, and the new method of free thinking (Russell 1961, p. 488). It ‘established the dignity of man’ (Bronowski 1973, p. 186) and is marked by the practice of Humanism, though that is a later term (Hooker, 1996a), which developed out of movements originating in the middle ages.

The concept of a ‘Renaissance’ originated with Jakob Burckhardt in 1867, with more recent scholars arguing whether there was any rebirth at all, preferring terms such as ‘early modern’ (Hooker, 1996b). While the idea of an all-encompassing ‘rebirth’ is no longer accepted, it is still true of the arts and learning which deliberately distinguished themselves from the past (Mainzer 2002).

Renaissance painting was notable for interest in perspective and anatomy, placing figures within the space of the painting (Taylor 1954, p.42). Renaissance art also saw the invention of oil painting, along with a more naturalistic representation of figures and a greater use of shading and shadows. (Kehoe et al, 1997).

Perspective, while not unknown in the ancient world (Kleiner 2009, p. 248) was rediscovered in the Renaissance, notably by Brunelleschi (1415) (O’Connor & Robertson, 2002) and in De Pictura (1435) by Leon Battista Alberti, in which he describes the use of parallel lines and a vanishing point (costruzione legittima) to create a three dimensional space that mimics how we perceive objects (Gregory 1985, p. 1064; Kleiner 2009, p. 547). Whereas art had previously been relatively flat, Renaissance art sought to move out of the plane of the surface (Davies et al, cited in Art and Cultural Rebirth – The Cross-Cultural Origins of the Renaissance 2007).

In considering how Renaissance art is different from what had gone before, it is worthwhile to consider how artists have depicted one particular scene: the Adoration of the Magi. For Medieval artists it was more important to depict the religious significance of the event, rather than a human event.

vis1802
Figure 1: Page 25 of the St Alban’s Psalter (Page 25 Commentary, 2003)

In the St Alban’s Psalter, for example, there is no attempt at accurate perspective. Buildings are arbitrarily seen as if in x-ray, and one of the Magi floats above the ground line. Iconography trumps reality.

Giotto (1267/77–1337), recognised as the first Florentine Renaissance painter, depicts a new naturalism, providing reality and drama to his scenes (The Free Dictionary, 2009).

vis1803
Figure 2: Giotto. The Adoration of the Magi. 1304-1306. Fresco. Capella degli Scrovegni, Padua, Italy. (http://www.arthistoryarchive.com/arthistory/christian/images/Giotto-Adoration-of-the-Magi-1304-06.jpg)

Giotto is an artist in transition, using small spaces that are similar to Medieval art, but which utilise light more dramatically to create a greater depth (Davies et al, cited in Art and Cultural Rebirth – The Cross-Cultural Origins of the Renaissance 2007). His use of perspective is more accurate than that of Roman artists, but is still intuitive and not mathematically precise (The role of perspective in shaping the Renaissance n.d., p. 1), lacking a single vanishing point.

Giotto’s figures are clearly solid, real shapes, possessing gravity (in both senses of the word) while still retaining the previous formality. Perspective is basic in this panel (the manger is strictly orthogonal) and the action is still constrained to a tight plane, but the difference is dramatic and clear. In a further touch illustrating the new way of observing the world, it is thought that the star guiding the Magi is based on Halley’s Comet, and is an accurately foreshortened image that is considered unequalled in art until the 19th century (Olson & Pasachoff 1986, p. 210)

While Gozzoli (1420 – 1497) painted an Adoration with Fra Angelico, he is better known for his frescoes in the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi of the Procession of the Magi.

vis1804
Figure 3: Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Balthazar. Detail.1459-1461. Fresco. East wall of the chapel, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy. (Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Balthazar. Detail, n.d)

This is no simple procession however, but rather a triumphal parade celebrating the Medici wealth – Lorenzo the Magnificent is portrayed as a Magus in a depiction that earlier would have been condemned as blasphemy (The Reader’s Digest Association 1974, p. 228) – arrayed in finery and accompanied by servants and animals in a celebration of worldly pleasures.

On another panel, Gozzoli portrays a rider in an almost proto-Cubist manner. While Renaissance art attempts to show figures with form and substance, here the same rider is shown three times from slightly different angles, though their three horses together have only seven legs, two heads and one body.

vis1805
Figure 4: Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Melchior. Detail.1459-1461. Fresco. Soutern entrance wall, Palazzo Medici-Riccardi, Florence, Italy (Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Melchior. Detail n.d.)

vis1806
Figure 5: Leonardo da Vinci. Adoration of the Magi. 1481-1482. Oil on wood 258 x 243cm. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy. (Leonardo da Vinci. Adoration of the Magi, n.d.)

Leonardo (1452-1519) is the archetypical ‘Renaissance man’, driven by a desire to rationally understand the world, relying on observation and experience rather than received wisdom (Taylor 1954, p. 76). His Adoration is incomplete though Monti (1967, p. 31) argues that the use of monochrome represents a rejection of limitations and tradition of previous art. Here Jesus and Mary form a triangle (Adoration of the magi, n.d.), around which a semicircular chiaroscuro of twisting figures are placed, balanced by the figures of fighting horsemen and ruins in the background.

Raphael (1483-1520), a student of Leonardo, has been described as the ‘culmination and conclusion of a long tradition’ (Taylor 1954, p. 59). His art is marked by vibrant colours, compositions that are balanced, and single point perspective (Kehoe et al, 1997; The role of perspective in shaping the Renaissance n.d., p. 3).

vis1807
Figure 6: Raphael – The Adoration of the Magi (Oddi altar) 1502-03, Oil on canvas, 27 x 150 cm. Vaticano, Pinacoteca Apostolica Vaticano, Rome, Italy. (The Adoration of the Magi (Oddi altar) by RAFFAELLO Sanzio (n.d.).)

Raphael’s Adoration, originally for an altar, is full of colour: reds and greens and blues, though it is much more restrained than Gozzoli in its depiction of wealth. The figures, fully rounded, cascade in a long diagonal towards the infant Jesus who almost seems to levitate against the bright blue of his mother’s dress. There is movement in the image, but it is a gentle, rolling movement accentuated by the gestures of the arms and hands, stabilised by the level line through the bases of the figures. The perspective in this image is subtle, indicated by the roof of the manger, and leading to a vanishing point focussing on the magus in the centre of the picture. From him, other diagonals seem to radiate: to the right, through Joseph and Mary, ending up in the lamb (a symbol of Christ); following his gaze, through the infant to a kneeling shepherd; and through the line of heads to the left. There is obvious pleasure at depicting figures foreshortened (such as the animals), from behind, or in three-quarter view.

Though the Renaissance has roots in the past, it demonstrates a rebirth, particularly in the visual arts as can be seen by considering the different ways Giotto, Gozzoli, Leonardo and Raphael portrayed one particular Biblical scene. Unlike earlier art, perspective, weight and colour show an engagement with depicting real objects and spaces.

References
Adoration of the magi, n.d. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/leonardo/gallery/magi.shtml
Art and Cultural Rebirth – The Cross-Cultural Origins of the Renaissance , 2007. Retrieved March 28, 2009 from http://www.randomhistory.com/1-50/017renaissance.html
Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Balthazar. Detail. n.d. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from http://www.abcgallery.com/G/gozzoli/gozzoli53.html
Benozzo Gozzoli. Procession of the Magus Melchior. Detail. n.d. Retrieved March 29, 2009 from http://www.abcgallery.com/G/gozzoli/gozzoli58.html
Bronowski, J 1973, The ascent of man, BBC, London.
Gregory, C (ed) 1985, The great artists: Uccello, Marshall Cavendish Ltd, London.
Early paintings (up to 1504) (n.d.). Retrieved March 29, 2009 from http://www.wga.hu/html/r/raphael/1early/index.html
Hooker, R 1996a, Humanism. Retrieved March 26, 2009 from http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/REN/HUMANISM.HTM
Hooker, R 1996b, The idea of the Renaissance. Retrieved March 26, 2009 from http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/REN/IDEA.HTM
Kehoe, TJ, Damerow, HE & Duvall, JM 1997, Exploring Western Civilization to 1648: A Worktext for the Active Student. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://faculty.ucc.edu/egh-damerow/Renaissance.htm
Kleiner, F S 2009, Gardner’s art through the ages, 13th edn, Thomson Wadsworth, Boston.
Leonardo da Vinci. Adoration of the Magi n.d. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.abcgallery.com/L/leonardo/leonardo5.html
Mainzer, J 2002, Iconography: Italian Renaissance… Michelangelo part 1. Retrieved March 28, 2009 from http://www.academic.marist.edu/mainzer/notes15/avn15.htm
Monti, R 1967, Leonardo, Thames and Hudson, London.
O’Connor, JJ & Robertson, EF 2002, Filippo Brunelleschi, Retrieved April 11, 2009 from http://www-history.mcs.st-andrews.ac.uk/Printonly/Brunelleschi.html
Olson, RJM & Pasachoff, JM 1986, ‘New information on Comet Halley as depicted by Giotto di Bondone and other Western artists’, Proc. 20th ESLAB Symposium on the Exploration of Halley’s Comet, Heidelberg 27-32 October 1986, pp. 201-213. Retrieved April 12, 2009 from http://adsabs.harvard.edu/abs/1986ESASP.250c.201O
Page 25 commentary, n.d. Retrieved April 3, 2009 from http://www.abdn.ac.uk/stalbanspsalter/english/commentary/page025.shtml
Russell, B 1961, A history of western philosophy, 2nd edn, Unwin Paperbacks, London.
Taylor, F H 1954, Fifty centuries of art, Harper and Brothers, New York.
The Adoration of the Magi (Oddi altar) by RAFFAELLO Sanzio (n.d.). Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://www.wga.hu/html/r/raphael/1early/04oddi2.html
The Free Dictionary, 2009, Giotto. Retrieved March 30, 2009 from http://encyclopedia.farlex.com/Giotto
The Reader’s Digest Association 1974, The last two million years, revised, Reader’s Digest Association, London.
The role of perspective in shaping the Renaissance (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2009 from http://www.webexhibits.org/sciartperspective/perspective1.html

Bibliography
Adoration of the Magi c1479-81(2009). Retrieved March 28, 2009 from http://www.universalleonardo.org/work.php?id=342
Adoration of the Magi – Olga’s gallery (n.d.). Retrieved march 21, 2009 from http://www.abcgallery.com/religion/adorationmagi.html
Benozzo Gozzoli. Biography. n.d. Retrieved March 26, 2009 from http://www.abcgallery.com/G/gozzoli/gozzolibio.html
Biblical art on the WWW – The adoration of the Magi (2009). Retrieved March 21, 2009 from http://www.biblical-art.com/biblicalsubject.asp?id_biblicalsubject=689&pagenum=1

Benozzo Gozzoli, Fra Angelico and Benozzo Gozzoli. Adoration of the Magi. 2006. Retrieved April 8, 2009 from http://www.arts-oilpaintings.com/painting_detail-6300.html
Giotto and the comet, 2006. Retrieved April 12, 2009 from http://smashyourbrain.blogspot.com/2006/12/giotto-and-comet_30.html
Hooker, R 1996, Backgrounds to the Italian Renaissance. Retrieved March 26, 2009 from http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/REN/BACK.HTM Mar 21 2009
Murray, P & Murray, L 1976, The beginnings of the High Renaissance, Chapter 10 in The art of the Renaissance, Thames and Hudson. Retrieved from VIS18 CD ROM Reader.
Leclerc, P 2004, Pico della Mirandola-Prismatic perception of the Renaissance-CCRI. Retrieved March 28, 2009 from http://faculty.ccri.edu/paleclerc/prismatic_perception/pico_della_mirandola.shtml
Life of Brunelleschi n.d. Retrieved April 11, 2009 from http://easyweb.easynet.co.uk/giorgio.vasari/brunell/brunell.htm
Medici Chapel, n.d. Retrieved April 4, 2009 from http://www.abcgallery.com/G/gozzoli/Medici_chapel.html
Olson, RJM 1994, ‘Much ado about Giotto’s’ Comet, Q. J. R. astr Soc. (1994) 35, pp. 145-148. Retrieved April 12, 2009 from http://adsabs.harvard.edu/full/1994QJRAS..35..145O
The rise of Renaissance perspective (n.d.). Retrieved April 3, 2009 from http://www.webexhibits.org/sciartperspective/raphaelperspective1.html
Vasari, G 1550, Giotto. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.efn.org/~acd/vite/VasariGiotto.html
Vasari, G 1550, Leonardo da Vinci. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.efn.org/~acd/vite/VasariLeo.html
Vasari, G 1550, Michael Angelo. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.efn.org/~acd/vite/VasariMA.html

Advertisements

Comments are closed.