"St. Francis Altarpiece" 1235
tempera on wood 60' x 42' (approx. 5" x 3.5)
Byzantine Style (maniera greca) painted during the Gothic Period
This altarpiece is painted in tempera on wood. At five feet, the representation of St. Francis is depicted as nearly life-size. Art of the Byzantine period largely influenced Italian Gothic art. There is no depth to St. Francis. He is two-dimensional and at the front of the picture plane. His feet are not standing on the ground but seem to be floating just above it.
Written by Annette Abbott
Context continued: Many paintings like this have
a rather Byzantine flavor or style to how they are painted. This
formulaic attempts to emulate Greek icons is what Vasari (an art hsitorian
from the late 16th C) called the maniera greca in Italy.
Context and Critical points of view: The previous section is a a biography of St. Francis's life however, Francis represents a pivotal figure that represents the transition in thinking between the Gothic period and the Renaissance.from Francis Of Assisi, Saint
The Franciscan rule of life.
Although he was a layman, Francis began to preach to the townspeople. Disciples were attracted to him, and he composed a simple rule of life for them. In 1209, when the group of friars (as the mendicant disciples were called) numbered 12, they went to Rome to seek the approval of Pope Innocent III, who, although hesitant at first, gave his oral approbation to their rule of life. This event, which according to tradition occurred on April 16, marked the official founding of the Franciscan order. The friars, who were actually street preachers with no possessions of any kind and with only the Porziuncola as a center, preached and worked first in Umbria and then, as their numbers grew, in the rest of Italy.
The early Franciscan rule of life, which has not survived, set as the aim of the new life, "To follow the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." Probably no one in history has ever set himself so seriously as did Francis to imitate the life of Christ and to carry out so literally Christ's work in Christ's own way. This is the key to the character and spirit of St. Francis. To neglect this point is to show an unbalanced portrait of the saint as a lover of nature, a social worker, an itinerant preacher, and a lover of poverty.
Certainly the love of poverty is part of his spirit, and his contemporaries celebrated poverty either as his "lady," in the allegorical Sacrum Commercium (Eng. trans., Francis and His Lady Poverty, 1964), or as his "bride," in the fresco of Giotto in the lower church of S. Francesco at Assisi. It was not, however, mere external poverty he sought but the total denial of self (as in Letter of Paul to the Philippians 2:7).
He considered all nature as the mirror of God and as so many steps to God. He called all creatures his "brothers" and "sisters," and in his "Canticle of the Creatures" (less properly called by such names as the "Praises of Creatures" or the "Canticle of the Sun") he referred to "Brother Sun" and "Sister Moon," the wind and water, and even "Sister Death." His long and painful illnesses were nicknamed his sisters, and he begged pardon of "Brother Ass the body" for having unduly burdened him with his penances. Above all, his deep sense of brotherhood under God embraced his fellow men, for "he considered himself no friend of Christ if he did not cherish those for whom Christ died."
"The Franciscan rule of life.." Britannica 2001 Standard Edition CD-ROM. Copyright © 1994-2001 Britannica.com Inc. November 16, 2002.
Previous to the life of St. Francis, the Catholic Church was the sole source of information about God for the layman (every day non-clergy). The Church interpreted, interceded and imposed a very clear point of view about God's teachings and was the sole source of biblical interpretation. In fact, laymen were not even allowed to own a Bible, not that they could afford one since they were hand written and very expensive. This point of view and religious/political system meant that everyday people could not actually "know" God for themselves and supported and maintained a point of view that one was born to a place on this earth that was unchangeable.
Francis's point of view that "To follow the teachings
of our Lord Jesus Christ and to walk in his footsteps." Breaks with this
tradition and demonstrates the beginning of a point of view in which the
lay person could not only have a direct experience of God but also alter
their behavior in accordance with their knowledge without needing to consult
the Church for interpretation. This is important and interesting
because aside form the ideas exhibited in the teachings of Thomas Aquinas,
this represents the beginning of a change in the way of thinking and the
stirrings of individual critical thought. The art that follows, after
the Byzantine period and in the late Gothic and Early Renaissance exhibits
a new and critical point of view of the world.
Virgin and Child,
from the Auvergne region, France. c1150-1200
Oak with polychromy, height 31",
Metropolitan Museum of Art
|Form: This sculpture is both naturalistic and stylized.
The rendering of the face and hands was an attempt by the sculptor to represent
convincing human forms however, the faces show no real expression and the
bodies are completely covered with stylized drapery that conceals both
figures bodies. The child Jesus is not rendered as a child buy rather
a stiff looking miniature adult. The poses of both figures are stiff
and fairly wooden but in the case of Mary, this is appropriate if you look
at her role in terms of the work's iconography.
Iconography: This image of Mary is significant in it's iconography because it is a perfect example of the Gothic depiction of Mary as the "Throne of Wisdom." Here she not only serves as a mother but as a platform or throne for her child. Stokstad discusses her pose as regal and that her throne like posture is symbolic of the old testament references to the Lion Throne of King Solomon who is known as a wise and fair ruler and judge. See Stokstad for a more complete discussion of the iconography.
Context: Smaller and more portable works like this served as portable symbols of the faith. The iconography associated with such symbols and the creation of smaller and more portable objects grows over time and has a strong influence on the creation of altars and other religious items in the Renaissance. The works of such late Gothic/Early Renaissance artists such as Giotto and his teacher Cimabue are most certainly a product of this era although as we'll see they changed the schema considerably.
from the Church of Santa Trinita, Florence
c 1280. Tempera and gold on wood, 12' 7"x7'4"
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Byzantine Style (maniera greca)
painted during the Gothic Period
|Form: The overall composition of this work is symmetrical.
The largest figures of Mary and Jesus are at the center of the composition
and they are flanked by two rows of angels overlapped as if they are standing
on bleachers. Beneath the structure of the throne are several representations
of older men with halos. In order to create space, Cimabue uses the
same convention of vertical perspective we saw in Pisano's pulpit.
The figures that are highest up in the picture plane are furthest back.
This painting was rendered with tempera paint and gold leaf. Tempera is a medium which is made from egg (sometimes just the yolk sometimes the whites) glue and ground up minerals that serve as pigment or colorant. The egg actually glues or binds the pigments to the surface. The paint is applied in small distinct brush strokes that show the brushwork when looked at closely.
According to the Brittanica,
Tempera originally came from the verb temper--that is, "to bring to a desired consistency"; dry pigments are made usable by "tempering" them with a binding and adhesive vehicle. Such painting was distinguished from fresco painting, the colours for which contained no binder. Eventually, after the rise of oil painting, the word gained its present meaning.
Make sure you read in Stokstad Technique: Cenini on PaintingThe rendering of color and value in this painting is fairly limited. There is no distinct source of light and very little tonal variation on the faces or drapery of the individual figures and there are no real differences of character or appearance from one face to the next.
Cimabue's rendition of the Virgin is very similar to the one from Auvergne. This painting, like the sculpture, is both naturalistic and stylized. Again the rendering of the face and hands was an attempt by the sculptor to represent convincing human forms however, the faces show no real expression and the bodies are completely covered with an almost Byzantine style of drapery that almost completely conceals both figures' bodies. The child Jesus is not rendered as a child buy rather a stiff looking miniature adult. The poses of both figures are stiff and fairly wooden but in the case of Mary, this is appropriate if you look at her role in terms of the work's iconography.
Iconography: As in the French Gothic sculpture Mary is depicted as the "Throne of Wisdom." The arrangement of the composition places Mary at the center of the image and in the most important location. So the use of symmetry and the placement of figures can indicate their status. Notice that Mary is framed and as such "backed up" by the angels. The less important figures of the prophets are literally beneath her and Jesus.
Color and the gold leaf used also serve as iconographic reminders of Mary and Jesus' status. Gold leaf and red and blue pigments were made from precious stones and materials and are symbols of there status.
Context: Stokstad relates that this work probably set the standard for monumental panel paintings. Cimabue was one of the best known and sought after artists of his day and although he stuck to the old Byzantine conventions of depicting the human figure in a caricaturish manner he was still innovative in his illusionistic techniques. He was also an artist of the times and the production and patronage concerning such works of art was going through a bit of a change at the end of the Gothic era.
Artist's during the late Gothic and early Renaissance periods were reliant on three major groups for patronage, the church, the aristocracy and the new wealthy merchant class. Wealthy merchants, such as the Enrico Scrovegni, often would contribute frescoes and altar paintings to churches as a form of indulgence. Often these merchants were wealthy enough to and commission artists to decorate a private altar for their own homes.
During the Gothic period, artists and fine furniture makers were on the same social and economic level. Each group belonged to guilds that one paid dues to and were governed by certain rules. A master who would often have a group of assistants and apprentices working for them ran these shops. Apprentices were children anywhere between the ages of 11-20 years old. Sometimes the parents of a child would pay the master of a shop a monthly or yearly fee in order for the master to teach the child a trade. The child was expected to do work in the shop and when they had earned enough respect or mastery of skills, the master would then advance them on to more complex tasks. After learning these skills for a long enough time, an exceptional child might learn enough to open their own shop; however, some apprentices, as adults remained as an assistant in their master's shop.
How Paintings were commissioned and bought.
The patron and artist negotiate the price. The cost is established by how many figures are present in the painting, the size, the amount of gold leaf and the colors that are used.
The artist orders a wood panel from a furniture maker. It is very important that the wood is "gassed out." This means the older the wood, the more petrified, the better. This can be the most expensive part.
Panel is prepared by apprentices or an assistant by coating it with gesso. Gesso is a mixture of chalk or calcium carbonate (marble dust) mixed with rabbit skin glue.
Now the paint is made. For tempera, egg yolk is mixed with ground-up minerals (sometimes even semiprecious stones) to make a very durable paint.
When all this is done and the painting is complete, there is a procession from the artist's studio to the church.
At this time the altarpiece for the high altar was finished and the picture which was called the "Madonna with the large eyes" or Our Lady of Grace, that now hangs over the altar of St. Boniface, was taken down. Now this Our Lady was she who had hearkened to the people of Siena when the Florentines were routed at Monte Aperto, and her place was changed because the new one was made, which is far more beautiful and devout and larger, and is painted on the back with the stories of the Old and New Testaments. And on the day that it was carried to the Duomo the shops were shut, and the bishop conducted a great and devout company of priests and friars in solemn procession, accompanied by the nine signiors, and all the officers of the commune, and all the people, and one after another the worthiest with lighted candles in their hands took places near the picture, and behind came the women and children with great devotion. And they accompanied the said picture up to the Duomo, making the procession around the Campo, as is the custom, all the bells ringing joyously, out of reverence for so noble a picture as this. And this picture Duccio di Niccolò the painter made, and it was made in the house of the Muciatti outside the gate a Stalloreggi . And all that day persons, praying God and His Mother, who is our advocate, to defend us by their infinite mercy from every adversity and all evil, and keep us from the hands of traitors and of the enemies of Siena.
This account reminds us how we should remember the integral role of a major work like this in the civic life of the city. Notice also how the adoration devoted to this new image is comparable to that shown the relics of a patron saint of a community. It is important to remember that the Virgin was the patron saint of Siena, and as such she was the center of the civic and religious life of the city. Kneeling beside the throne of the Virgin are the other patron saints of Siena: Ansanus, Sabinus, Crescentius, and Victor. The order of the altarpiece and the privileged position given to the Sienese saints, especially the Virgin, would have been clearly understood to reflect the ideal order of the city of Siena which would stand before it in the Duomo. The civic implications are further brought out by the original inscription: HOLY MOTHER OF GOD BESTOW PEACE ON SIENA AND SALVATION ON DUCCIO WHO PAINTED THEE.
The reference in the account above to the Madonna with the Large Eyes , or in Italian --Madonna degli Occhi Grossi-- relates to a painting done about 1200:
This work was seen to be a miracle working image. The Sienese appeals to this image of their patron saint were believed to have lead to the salvation of the city from the Florentines in the Battle of Montaperti in 1260. Why do you think the Sienese would have wanted to have replaced such a revered image with the Duccio altarpiece?
quoted directly from:
Giotto di Bondone, Virgin and Child Enthroned,
(Ognissanti Altar,) c 1310.
Tempera and gold on wood, 10'8"x6'8"
Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence
Late Gothic or Early Renaissance
Form: Giotto's painting of the Virgin child shows some marked formal differences. Giotto is a kind of special effects master. His paintings are more three dimensional. He also uses more contrasts of light and shadow. This is called chiaroscuro. He also uses overlapping of the figures to create a sense of space. Compare to Duccio or Cimabue's paintings in which the figures that accompany Mary seem to be standing on bleachers as if for a class photo. Giotto also uses more life like gestures. The figures interact and tend to regard one another. Notice the tilted heads in adoration of the Virgin. The figure of Mary is more life like and even dresses more in the Italian style. Notice her hair is slightly uncovered and her clothing reveals the anatomy beneath almost like the wet drapery style of the ancient Greeks. The throne is also more convincingly rendered it looks looks like an actual architectural structure.
Iconography: In an overt description of the iconography Giotto's rendition of this then seems identical to Cimabue's but on closer inspection, the naturalism and illusionism of the work is symbolic of some of the fundamental changes that were occurring during the late Gothic to Renaissance periods.
The naturalism relates to the study and pursuit of humanism. The ideas of Christian and Catholic though go through a radical change with the canonization of St. Francis. The idea that one should and could emulate the life and behavior of Christ meant that art needed to relate more to the individual and strike a chord of compassion. The heightened realism of such images were designed to create a sense of sympathy or empathy with the religious characters they portrayed.
Context: Giotto was the student of Cimabue and considered a genius by Michelangelo and other later Renaissance painters. Make sure you read about his life in "Liaisons."
Gesso according to the Brittanica,Tempera
A tempera medium is dry pigment tempered with an emulsion and thinned with water. It is a very ancient medium, having been in constant use in most world cultures, until in Europe it was gradually superseded, during the Renaissance, by oil paints. Tempera was the original mural medium in the ancient dynasties of Egypt, Babylonia, Mycenean Greece, and China and was used to decorate the early Christian catacombs. It was employed on a variety of supports, from the stone stelae (or commemorative pillars), mummy cases, and papyrus rolls of ancient Egypt to the wood panels of Byzantine icons and altarpieces and the vellum leaves of medieval illuminated manuscripts.
True tempera is made by mixture with the yolk of fresh eggs, although manuscript illuminators often used egg white and some easel painters added the whole egg. Other emulsions have been used, such as casein glue with linseed oil, egg yolk with gum and linseed oil, and egg white with linseed or poppy oil. Individual painters have experimented with other recipes, but few of these have proved successful; all but William Blake's later tempera paintings on copper sheets, for instance, have darkened and decayed, and it is thought that he mixed his pigment with carpenter's glue.
Distemper is a crude form of tempera made by mixing dry pigment into a paste with water, which is thinned with heated glue in working or by adding pigment to whiting, a mixture of fine-ground chalk and size. It is used for stage scenery and full-size preparatory cartoons for murals and tapestries. When dry, its colours have the pale, mat, powdery quality of pastels, with a similar tendency to smudge. Indeed, damaged cartoons have been retouched with pastel chalks.
Egg tempera is the most durable form of the medium, being generally unaffected by humidity and temperature. It dries quickly to form a tough film that acts as a protective skin to the support. In handling, in its diversity of transparent and opaque effects, and in the satin sheen of its finish, it resembles the modern acrylic resin emulsion paints.
Traditional tempera painting is a lengthy process. Its supports are smooth surfaces, such as planed wood, fine set plaster, stone, paper, vellum, canvas, and modern composition boards of compressed wood or paper. Linen is generally glued to the surface of panel supports, additional strips masking the seams between braced wood planks. Gesso, a mixture of plaster of paris (or gypsum) with size, is the traditional ground. The first layer is of gesso grosso, a mixture of coarse, unslaked plaster and size. This provides a rough, absorbent surface for ten or more thin coats of gesso sotile, a smooth mixture of size and fine plaster previously slaked in water to retard drying. This laborious preparation results, however, in an opaque, brilliant white, light-reflecting surface, similar in texture to hard, flat icing sugar.
The design for a large tempera painting traditionally was executed in distemper on a thick paper cartoon. The outlines were pricked with a perforating wheel so that when the cartoon was laid on the surface of the support, the linear pattern was transferred by dabbing, or "pouncing," the perforations with a muslin bag of powdered charcoal. The dotted contours traced through were then fixed in paint. Medieval tempera painters of panels and manuscripts made lavish use of gold leaf on backgrounds and for symbolic features, such as haloes and beams of heavenly light. Areas of the pounced design intended for gilding were first built up into low relief with gesso duro, the harder, less absorbent gesso compound used also for elaborate frame moldings. Background fields were often textured by impressing the gesso duro, before it set, with small, carved, intaglio wood blocks to create raised, pimpled, and quilted repeat patterns that glittered when gilded. Leaves of finely beaten gold were pressed onto a tacky mordant (adhesive compound) or over wet bole (reddish-brown earth pigment) that gave greater warmth and depth when the gilded areas were burnished.
Colours were applied with sable brushes in successive broad sweeps or washes of semitransparent tempera. These dried quickly, preventing the subtle tonal gradations possible with watercolour washes or oil paint; effects of shaded modelling had therefore to be obtained by a crosshatching technique of fine brush strokes. According to the Italian painter Cennino Cennini, the early Renaissance tempera painters laid the colour washes across a fully modelled monochrome underpainting in terre vert (olive-green pigment), a method developed later into the mixed mediums technique of tempera underpainting followed by transparent oil glazes.
The luminous gesso base of a tempera painting, combined with the accumulative effect of overlaid colour washes, produces a unique depth and intensity of colour. Tempera paints dry lighter in value, but their original tonality can be restored by subsequent waxing or varnishing. Other characteristic qualities of a tempera painting, resulting from its fast drying property and disciplined technique, are its steely lines and crisp edges, its meticulous detail and rich linear textures, and its overall emphasis upon a decorative flat pattern of bold colour masses.
The great Byzantine tradition of tempera painting was developed in Italy in the 13th and 14th centuries by Duccio di Buoninsegna and Giotto. Their flattened picture space, generously enriched by fields and textures of gold leaf, was extended by the Renaissance depth perspectives in the paintings of Giovanni Bellini, Piero della Francesca, Carlo Crivelli, Sandro Botticelli, and Vittore Carpaccio. By that time, oil painting was already challenging the primacy of tempera, Botticelli and some of his contemporaries apparently adding oil to the tempera emulsion or overglazing it in oil colour.
Following the supremacy of the oil medium during succeeding periods of Western painting, the 20th century saw a revival of tempera techniques by such U.S. artists as Ben Shahn, Andrew Wyeth, and George McNeil and by the British painter Edward Wadsworth. It would probably have been the medium also of the later hard-edge abstract painters had the new acrylic resin paints not proved more easily and quickly.
(Italian: "gypsum," or "chalk"), fluid, white coating composed of plaster of paris, chalk, gypsum, or other whiting mixed with glue, applied to smooth surfaces such as wood panels, plaster, stone, or canvas to provide the ground for tempera and oil painting or for gilding and painting carved furniture and picture frames. In Medieval and Renaissance tempera painting, the surface was covered first with a layer of gesso grosso (rough gesso) made with coarse, unslaked plaster, then with a series of layers of gesso sottile (finishing gesso) made with fine plaster slaked in water, which produced an opaque, white, reflective surface.
In the 14th century, Giotto, the notable Italian painter, used a finishing gesso of parchment glue and slaked plaster of paris. In medieval tempera painting, background areas intended for gilding were built up into low relief with gesso duro (hard gesso), a less absorbent composition also used for frame moldings, with patterns often pressed into the gesso with small carved woodblocks. Modern gesso is made of chalk mixed with glue obtained from the skins of rabbits or calves.