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Renaissance Art

The beginning of the fifteenth century marked a new era for humankind. Especially in Italy, the city-states became focus points of wealth generated by trade. The epidemics of the plague were less virulent than in the previous century and the Hundred-Year Wars between France and England were in their last stage. Man became more aware of his own capabilities, instead of being a mere playball of fate. According to Neo-Platonist views, man was a sparkle of the deity brought down to the earth. This spiritual origin of man was emphasised and brought to the forefront in art. Man was born anew, and hence the word of Renaissance or re-birth was found appropriate for the young, promising period. Theorists also saw this period as the re-birth of the significant and elegant Roman art of the first centuries, of the art that was increasingly being re-discovered in sculptures in Rome. Renaissance art had its core in Florence and Tuscany. This art form developed first in Italy and then slowly gained northern regions. When Italy and Tuscany in particular could be in Renaissance period already in the beginning of the fifteenth century, it took in many instances until the beginning or the middle of the sixteenth century until the full impact of the Renaissance art was noticed and used by northern painters.

Lines and directions were still mostly vertical in Renaissance art. This indicated the dignity of the Renaissance period. But graceful gestures broke the rigidity of International Gothic. Florentine artists emphasised the design of the compositions, as much as the lines around figures and objects. Venetian art emphasised somewhat more the colour areas and the power of colour in paintings. Curved flowing positions came to break Gothic rigidity ultimately, as for instance in Sandro Botticelli's pictures.

Composition was often based on the stage area of composition. Balanced and symmetrical shapes were the rule. The Tuscan artists emphasised rules of fine design based on the observation of the natural rules of nature, which were in the Renaissance mostly centred on man and his urban environment. Pyramid compositions were used for portraits in later periods. Portraits were painted at first in profile, later in front and still later in more free poses.

Mostly very pure hues were used, although certain artists started to experiment with other hues and harmony of analogue colours. Examples of this are in the portraits of Piero Pollaiuolo. Symmetries in colours and balance in complementary colours were the rule.
Emphasis for the Florentine artists was on line instead of on colour, so that well-delineated areas were painted in one colour each; but in Venice the importance of colour was emphasised.

The Renaissance art was still mostly devotional, but since knowledge of classic antiquity and its art and philosophies obtained full attention, also many themes of classic antiquity were used. One of the earliest examples of an artist who painted many classic themes was Sandro Botticelli.
Italian Renaissance art was characterised by imitation of nature in intricate detail, grace, elegant design, realistic space, and spiritual representations. Portraiture and classic scenes slowly gained more importance. Religious scenes came to be more humanised than before. The Renaissance also introduced the first use of the nude for glorification of the human body.

The compositions of structure of the Renaissance were made entirely according to the rules of linear perspective, and often followed strict geometrical patterns. The rules to obtain realistic space and depth were discovered, and the Golden Mean concept for harmony received full attention. Chiaroscuro was also well known and used. Aerial perspective was applied mainly in northern landscape paintings.

Some of the painters of this period were Masaccio, Masolino, Filippo Lippi, Sandro Botticelli, Giovanni Bellini, Andrea Mantegna, Pietro Perugino, Piero Pollaiuolo, Piero della Francesca, and Andrea Verrochio in Italy. German painters were Albrecht Altdorfer, Albrecht Dürer, and Adam Elsheimer, among many others. Flemish and Dutch painters were for instance Quinten Massys, and Henry Blès.

The Renaissance added to International Gothic full knowledge of perspective, knowledge of detailed chiaroscuro, and of still more realistic mimesis of nature. In the Renaissance, more complex compositions were devised, and themes fro mancient mythology were added to the many religious themes. Most pictures remained of a devotional character, but mainly due to the invention of oil painting, panels could be made more easily for rooms and palaces. Narrative had made place for the contemplative qualities of beauty. This was also only an evolution of the spirit of the society of the Late Middle Ages, since a longing for sophisticated beauty became engrained completely during this period of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Renaissance added to this trend, and embellished it with themes and subjects of classical antiquity.

The Madonna of the Magnificat

Sandro Botticelli (ca. 1445-1510). Galleria degli Uffizi. Florence. Painted around 1487.

The temptation to show a picture of Sandro Botticelli as an example of Renaissance painting is irresistible. But many of his paintings, such as the "Birth of Venus", are so well known that we prefer to show an equally marvellous but lesser admired picture, his "Madonna of the Magnificat".

As a contrast with Gothic examples, Botticelli’s Madonna could not be better chosen. We see a tondo, a round panel, a form almost never used by Gothic painters, even though the most marvellous expressions of Gothic art are the round coloured windows in the cathedrals. A first impression of Botticelli’s painting induces sweet, agreeable feelings of soft and gentle love as accentuated by the more than wonderful colours which dazzle us with their brightness, yet are so harmoniously interacting as to be a miracle. And we cannot but immediately notice the richness of detail and the extraordinary skill of this painter in the delicate ornaments of the golden crown. The overall composition is in symmetry with two balanced masses of figures on either side of the tondo.

The colours are really splendid in the painting. Botticelli used a dark blue on the maphorion, Mary’s traditional cloak, to enhance the nice red of the robe. Where the red should border on the blue Botticelli added a golden lining to the blue cloak. Thus, the blue is enhanced by its complementary colour, yellow, whereas the red of darker tone since lower on the body than the cloak, is enforced by the yellow-gold. In other places Botticelli darkened the red. He mainly used the three painterly primary colours: red, blue and yellow. These colours had an additional meaning in the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance, since they were the colours of the Trinity. Yellow was the colour of God the Father, and blue the colour of the Holy Spirit. These colours were sometimes inverted, yellow being associated with the Father and blue with the Spirit. But red was always associated with the Son. In Botticelli’s picture, Jesus is dressed in white linen, but he is seated against the red cloak of Mary. This red is close to purple, the old imperial colour of the Tyrian purple. Red and purple were often still considered much the same colour in Botticelli’s times. Red clothes were also among the most expensive of the Renaissance, and Jesus is seated on such a cloak. Black and green are absent from the painting. White, the hue of cleanliness, purity, is very present however. It is fair to assume that the hues Botticelli used have religious meaning.

One could not find a better example of the principles of the law of simultaneous contrast of Michel-Eugène Chevreul in this picture. In the foreground, on Mary’s left arm, the bright light plays marvellously on the colour, and it brightens the red sleeve to an entirely other colour. Beneath, the blue cloak continues and flows into a lighter blue hue of the youth on the left. Yellow is the complementary colour of blue, so Botticelli could enhance the blue hue by giving the colour yellow to another youth’s robe, on the left towards the middle. And Jesus, the baby, is also painted in broken hues of white and yellow. The white veil behind Jesus forms the transition between the red of Mary’s robe and the bright colour. This white also serves as a transition between the two so different hues that are the blue and the broken white of Jesus and the red and this same soft colour. Thus, neither the blue nor the red is hurt, and the colour of Jesus’ flesh is somewhat more pronounced. Botticelli did not know Chevreul’s discoveries on the simultaneous contrast of adjacent colour areas, but he had an exquisite painterly eye, and feeling for colour combinations.

A harmonious painting needs symmetry, also in colours. So, the red of Mary’s robe is answered on the left by another red patch, here in the youth on the left. There are some bluish undertones in this colour, especially in the youth’s sleeve, as it is in contact with lighter blue. Again the colours seem to blend, to be in agreement with each other. Botticelli must have known that contrasts of blue and red are dangerous, so he added colour patches that blend the two and bring them in agreement. There are yellow, golden stars on the sleeve of the youth on the left, and that is the complementary colour of the blue of the young man lower down. But the red and yellow of the sleeve never touch the blue. These colours are separated from the blue areas by the pale hand and by the golden locks of the young man in blue. Finally, when there is the dark blue cloak of Mary down below, Botticelli brought symmetry to that mass of colour in the dark blue circles of the cosmos above. This cosmos was the realm of the divine symbol that sends its golden rays down at Mary again. Remark the full aerial perspective over the landscape of the background. Botticelli thus brought much balance of colours in his picture.

The most remarkable aspect of the use of colours in Botticelli’s magnificent "Magnificat" is the incredible correct intuition of the artist for the value of hues. Michel-Eugène Chevreul was the first to note the contrasts of hues and to propose to separate non-complementary colours by white or black. He wrote on the strengthening of hues of juxtaposed complementary colours. That was in the middle of the nineteenth century. Botticelli worked in the fifteenth century! It cannot be a coincidence that he separated all vivid colours from each other the way we have remarked in his "Madonna of the Magnificat". Botticelli must have felt that to reach absolute harmony colours had to be isolated or that a transitory colour had to be inserted between contrasting hues. That enriched each colour to the crisp splendour that has remained unequalled.

Botticelli’s frame is a tondo, a round form in which composition is always difficult. Botticelli solved this here by forcing two masses of figures symmetrically to the outer borders. That left open space in the middle, the equivalent of the open V. In this open space, even though there is not much place in a tondo, Botticelli succeeded in creating a wide and far landscape. He used some form of linear perspective even, for a river winds just next to Mary, and that river narrows as it flows to the far. Furthermore, the painter set the horizon quite low, so that our feelings of elation are enhanced, since the picture shows Mary higher against the earth, the landscape. The upper part of the composition was thus free, and here Botticelli could place the heavenly crown over Mary, held by two hands and arms enveloped in delicate white linen. So high in the air Botticelli had to continue with a light image. He could not have forced a heavy, massive object here. So remark the grace of the light crown, consisting only of fine golden threads, and the fine, delicate, long hands that hold the crown. The bands of almost invisible, fluffy silk that hang down from the crown, and that like a web or veils of spirituality descend over the Virgin, also enhance the feeling of airiness.

Botticelli's Madonna is all beauty of colours and composition. What strikes most in this picture, however, is its grace. We see curved lines everywhere. There are no static, solemn lines of Gothic anymore in Botticelli’s picture. We only see organic forms, warm and loving. The figures are not hard and elongated but round and soft. The baby Jesus is well in flesh, and also the faces of the Virgin are round. The angels are slender but full. We see nice round cheeks, full red lips, golden curls that flow. We are far from the long, thin figures of Van Eyck, far away from the strict vertical or oblique poises of the Flemish Primitives, and well into graceful figures inclining to each other, holding each other in loving embraces, instead of seeing the calculated poises of a Ducal Burgundian court. We sense that society must have changed much to engender new feelings in it of becoming a better place in which people are more cared for, and in which is cared for emotions. Emotions could now be shown openly, and were not necessarily considered a weakness anymore and given more attention to, as compared to dignity and honour.

Botticelli added symbols in his painting, as was the habit in the late Middle Ages so that a few forceful elements of style of those times continued to be used in the Renaissance. The baby Jesus holds a pomegranate. That was a fruit of paradise filled with small red, juicy fruit balls. A soft core with the red colour for blood, the blood left by the Christ during his Passion, was the symbol of Jesus.
The Virgin Mary writes in a book, and the open pages show a few phrases in which we can read "Magnificat anima mea". These were the words that the pregnant Elisabeth said to the equally pregnant Mary in the mountains, when Mary visited her. This Visitation theme was also a very frequently painted scene of the Virgin’s life, and Botticelli nicely referred to that in his picture. Mary had travelled to Elisabeth to find her pregnant of John the Baptist. Elisabeth touched Mary and recognised God inside the Virgin. She then said the words that have been retained in the lines of the "Hail Mary", the most widely spoken little prayer of Christianity.
The open book is also an old symbol, because Mary was often shown in paintings of the Annunciation scene before a book. The book denotes the Book of Wisdom out of which Mary’s mother, Anne, instructed the Virgin. Moreover this Book of Wisdom was always associated with King Solomon, who was supposed to have written this book as well as the Song of Songs, a long Bible poem out of which many symbols were taken for the Virgin.
We can notice in the lower right the elements of a chair. Botticelli painted the Virgin seated, holding the baby, as in many Maestà pictures of his predecessors. But in the traditional Maestà’s the Virgin was shown in front. Botticelli broke of course with the tradition and showed Mary more to the side.
The pictures of the Throned Virgin go back to early Byzantine icons. In these, Mary was always seated on a throne with the baby Jesus on her knees. With the Book of Wisdom, this image was sometimes called a "Sedes Sapientiae" or the Seat of Wisdom.
The curves of the chair are in the form of a sun, which is in symmetry with the sun above. Botticelli may thereby have hinted at the divine aspect of Mary and the Neo-Platonic idea of the divine in humans.
Finally, also Jesus points to the book. In many pictures Jesus holds a scroll in his hands, referring to what he once told in the New Testament that all was written by God before his life was lived.

There are many more details to discover in Botticelli’s painting. Remark for instance the red-blue veil around Mary’s neck, which continues on her head. This colour matches the colour of the sleeve of the left angel, and thus renders justification to that colour for its own sake, even when we know that the colour was a transitional one. Look also at the golden star of God, the sun, which sends its long rays over the scene. Discover the dark green far landscape. Look at the golden curls on the angels, marvellously painted. Look at the golden linings of Mary’s cloak, at the delicacy of the veils. Discover the well-detailed chiaroscuro in the folds of the linens of Jesus or in the robe of the white angel on the right side. Find more symmetry in the colours of the red-blue sleeve of the left and the veil around Mary’s shoulders. Discover other symmetries in the angels. The number of these angels is three, as in the number of the manifestations of God in the Trinity.
Marvellous also is the play of the eyes in the figures. The three angels of the left look at each other but two of them look at the third, to the one dressed in blue. That one looks at Mary, of course dressed in a blue cloak, so that our sight would not be disturbed by what Chevreul called the successive contrast, since the colours continue. Our sight is led to the Virgin and Mary looks to Jesus in a soft gaze of loving care that the baby returns. So all the eyes stay confined on each other and within the picture. Intimacy is thus preserved. No figure of the scene stares out at the viewer. The viewer is not really invited into the picture. This is distant, intimate grace. We are allowed to look at the scene, but we are not invited to participate in the heavenly family.

The greatest difference between this picture of Botticelli and Gothic art lies in the grace, the elegance and the sweetness of the lines. Moreover, Botticelli placed his figures close to the viewer, so those only parts of their busts are seen. This closeness, inviting the viewer to look at the intimacy of a family scene broke with Gothic. In keeping the viewer at a distance by a few painterly elements, Botticelli conformed to International Gothic art. One can see the evolution away from Gothic, and yet also how this painter retained an unbroken line with his tradition and culture, as we remarked already in Botticelli’s use of Marian symbols. The closeness to the human form was new in art. From now on the painters would involve the viewer. But the dignity of Gothic was preserved.

So both our phases of first Impression and of Discovery leave us with feelings of the highest admiration. Who was the Botticelli? The painter Giorgio Vasari investigated on his life and wrote about him not too long after Botticelli’s death. Botticelli lived from around 1445 to 1510. The "Madonna of the Magnificat" was made in 1487. Vasari was born in 1511, so he could not have known Botticelli, but he might have heard other painters and Botticelli's family talk of the painter of the "Magnificat". And indeed, Giorgio Vasari told a few nice anecdotes from Botticelli's life.
Vasari's "Lives of the Artists" was published in 1550, dedicated to Cosimo de Medici. Vasari and Botticelli were both Florentines. Vasari told that Botticelli was a student with Filippo Lippi. His true name was Alessandro di Mariano Filipepi, Mariano Filipepi being the name of his father. Botticell iwas first apprenticed to a goldsmith called Botticelli, and Sandro got his own name from that artisan and artist. Sandro seemed to have been a joyous and gentle person, but also one who could not hold on to money. He was rapidly very famous in Florence and Italy. He was even called on by the Pope Sixtus IV to paint in the Sistine Chapel. Botticelli became in his later years a follower of Savonarola, who preached a very strict religious life in Florence, and who even caused a rebellion in the town directed against the Medici family. The Signoria of Florence ultimately burned Savonarola as a heretic. Botticelli was an obstinate member of Savonarola’s piagnoni followers and Vasari wrote that Botticelli abandoned his work so that the artist grew very poor as an old man. That must have been just in the years after the "Madonna of the Magnificat", since that painting was made in 1487 whereas Savonarola was executed in 1498.

Giorgio Vasari told of a tondo, a very highly regarded work that was to be found in the church of San Francesco outside the Porta a San Miniato of Florence. Vasari only wrote that this was a circular picture with a Madonna and some angels, all life-size. It could be that the "Madonna of the Magnificat" was this picture, of which we thus have an account of the sixteenth century.

Sandro Botticelli was a very devote man in his later years. The spirituality and elevation of mind shows in his painting. So here was a painter who could also be admired for the way he lived and thought about his works. Botticelli was the perfection of an evolution that passed from Romanesque over Gothic to the Renaissance. If perfection was reached, only a revolutionary new art in lines, forms, colours and presentation of content could create further energy and advance in art. That would be Mannerism and Baroque art.

Copyright: René Dewil Back to the navigation screen (if that screen has been closed) Last updated: May 2010
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