Rebirth: 1 Was there art before the Renaissance?

Cimabué (1240–1302), Santa Trinita Maestà (1280-90), tempera on panel, 385 x 223 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Like all the arts, painting undergoes constant change. But there are two periods in particular which I find the most fascinating: the Renaissance, and the nineteenth century. In this new series of articles, I’m going to look at how painting changed during the Renaissance in Italy, centred largely on Florence, the greenhouse in which many of those changes germinated and grew into seedlings.

There are perhaps hundreds of books, and tens of thousands of learned papers, on the history of painting during the Renaissance. I’m not only going to look at key paintings, but to relate them to changes in society, politics, science, and the world as a whole. As with much of French painting during the nineteenth century, it’s only when you look at that whole that you can understand and appreciate what you’re seeing.

In this introduction, I consider where the Renaissance came from, painting in the Middle Ages and the arrival of the ‘Gothic’ style around 1200.

Most accounts of the history of painting leave something of a gap between the decline of Roman art, as its empire collapsed, and the Gothic. The tragedy of this isn’t that there was little painting over that period of more than half a millenium, but that it has almost all been destroyed, much as happened to every single painting of Greek civilisation. This is typified in our word for wanton destruction, vandal, which comes from tribes who were believed (rightly or wrongly) to have destroyed much of what remained of Roman art.

More shocking is that it wasn’t just the Vandals and other invaders who did this. The oldest known panel painting altarpiece in England, the Westminster Retable, was progressively broken up and used as wood for furniture between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries; it was only in 1827 that it was recognised as being anything worth conserving. Several important works, including ancient frescoes, were severely damaged or destroyed completely during the Second World War, particularly in the allied bombing of Padua.

What remains has also been relatively poorly studied.

Overlooking these difficulties, paintings of this period are very different from those which preceded, or which followed, at least until the twentieth century. It’s all too easy to dismiss them with condescension, as being ‘primitive’ or ‘crude’. I hope that the examples here will dispel any such feelings.

The oldest surviving paintings which remain in good condition tend to be the ‘miniatures’ incorporated into religious manuscripts. Among the first is The Vienna Genesis from the first half of the sixth century, which was created on vellum which had been dyed purple. It probably originated in Syria, and has illustrations to accompany its texts from the Old Testament book of Genesis.

Artist not known, Rebecca and Eliezer, page in The Vienna Genesis (c 525 CE), tempera, gold, and silver paint on purple-dyed vellum, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Wikimedia Commons.

The story of Rebecca and Eliezer, shown here, comes from Genesis chapter 24. Abraham wanted to find a wife for his son Isaac, so sent his servant Eliezer back to the homeland of Mesopotamia to look for one. Eliezer reached the city of Nahor, where he stopped to water his camels and rest from his long journey. He pulled up at a well outside the city, where a young woman, Rebecca, had just drawn water. She offered him her water, and he recognised her as the chosen bride for Isaac, so presented her with the betrothal gifts which he had brought with him.

This exquisitely painted miniature uses ‘continuous’ or multiplex narrative to good effect. In the background is a symbolic representation of Nahor. Rebecca is shown at the left, having walked out of the city with her pitcher on her shoulder, along a colonnade. In front of her is a pagan water nymph, presumably the spirit of that well. Rebeccah is shown a second time, giving Eliezer her pitcher to slake his thirst. His train of camels is also taking water.

Artist not known, Healing of the Blind Man, page in Purpureus Rossanensis (The Rossano Gospels) (c 550 CE), media not known, 30 x 25 cm, Diocesan Museum, Rossano Cathedral, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

The miniature above, showing the miracle of the Healing of the Blind Man, is a folio from another slightly later religious book, Purpureus Rossanensis (The Rossano Gospels) (c 550 CE). This is thought to be the oldest surviving illustrated manuscript of the New Testament.

In the story of the healing of the blind man, Christ comes across a man who had been blind from birth. He mixes his saliva with some mud, and applies it to the blind man’s eyelids, telling him to go and wash his eyes. He does so in the section at the right, and finds that he can see at last.

Duccio (1260–1319), Healing of the Man Born Blind (1308-11), egg tempera on wood, 45.1 x 46.7 cm, The National Gallery, London. Wikimedia Commons.

Over seven hundred years later – the same gap in time as between this painting and the present – Duccio di Buoninsegna painted the same story using the demanding medium of egg tempera on wood. Although oil paints were in use at this time in northern Europe, they weren’t introduced to Italy until around 1470. Duccio was born and died in the Republic of Siena, to the south of Florence and north of Rome, in central Italy.

Three centuries after The Rossano Gospels, in the late ninth century, a complete bible was made at Reims, in north-eastern France, on purple-dyed parchment, for Charles the Bald to present to Pope John the eighth on 25 December 875, the day of Charles’ coronation as emperor. Its surviving 334 folios contain 24 full-page paintings. The work has been attributed to Ingobertus, and has remained in the Benedictine Abbey of San Paolo fuori le Mura, Rome, since the coronation.

Ingobertus, folio 188 verso (Proverbs) from the Bible of Charles the Bald (or Bible of San Paolo fuori le Mura) (c 870), tempera, gold, and silver paint on purple-dyed vellum, 44.8 x 34.5 cm, San Paolo fuori le mura, Rome. Wikimedia Commons.

The painting for the book of Proverbs shows scenes relating to Solomon, to whom they are attributed. In the centre, Solomon sits in judgement. Below that is a clear depiction of the Judgement of Solomon over the two women who both claimed a living baby was theirs. At the top are other scenes of his life and reign.

Artist not known, The Adoration of the Magi, page in the Menologion of Basil II (c 985 CE), media not known, dimensions not known, Vatican Library, Vatican City. Wikimedia Commons.

The Menologion of Basil II is an illuminated church calendar and service book compiled for the Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who ruled between 976 and 1025. It contains about 430 miniatures painted by eight different artists, each of whom is named. My example folio from this book shows the Adoration of the Magi, a simple part of the story of the birth of Christ, in which three ‘wise men’ (Magi) observed a comet, interpreted it as a sign of a great birth, and travelled to Bethlehem to offer gifts to the infant Christ.

Unlike later versions, this painting is sparse, and omits distracting detail such as the animals associated with the shed in Bethlehem, which later became almost obligatory. The infant Christ is sat on the Virgin Mary’s knee, and an angel brings the three wise men to present their gifts and pay their respects.

In around 1080, an unknown artist painted much of the interior of the church of Sant’Angelo in Formis, in Capua, southern Italy.

Artist not known, Christ in Majesty (c 1080), fresco, Sant’Angelo in Formis, Capua, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Christ in Majesty is the centrepiece of these frescoes, tragically disfigured by its age, but still telling the magnitude of this achievement, and the artist’s vivid imagination, with a winged and horned bull, for instance.

Thankfully the situation changes radically once we consider works completed between 1100 CE and the early Renaissance after 1300: there are many wall and panel paintings to study.

Bonaventura Berlinghieri, Saint Francis of Assisi and scenes of his life (1235), tempera on wood, 160 × 123 cm, San Francesco, Pescia, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Bonaventura Berlinghieri’s panel painting of Saint Francis of Assisi and Scenes of His Life (1235), from the altar in Pescia, near Florence, must be one of the most beautiful objects created before the Renaissance. Around the central figure of Saint Francis are six scenes. Reading from the top left they represent him kneeling in the wilderness, where he had his vision and received the stigmata (marks of crucifixion on the hands and feet, as shown in the central figure). Below that is the episode in his life which is perhaps remembered by most, when he preached to the birds, then at the bottom a miracle in which he healed a girl with a dislocated neck.

On the right are three of the miracles attributed to him: that at the top is the ‘miracle of the pear’ in which Saint Francis coaxed a crippled boy to stand by holding out a pear, as well as a leper who is waiting to be healed. Below that is the healing of a cripple in the waters of a bath, and at the bottom is the casting out of demons.

This pattern of showing key scenes from the life of a saint was to become an established approach for many altarpieces and other polyptychs through the Renaissance.

Cimabué (1240–1302), Santa Trinita Maestà (1280-90), tempera on panel, 385 x 223 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence, Italy. Wikimedia Commons.

Cimabué’s Maestà for the main altar of the church of Santa Trinita in Florence, which was painted in egg tempera between 1280-90, is another masterpiece by the standards of any period. It served its task for nearly two centuries before being moved into a side chapel long after the start of the Renaissance.

Giotto di Bondone (1266–1337), The Adoration of the Magi (c 1305), fresco, approx 200 x 185 cm, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua. Wikimedia Commons.

Giotto’s frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel at Padua, Italy, show a more elaborate depiction of The Adoration of the Magi (c 1305). The infant Christ rests on the Virgin Mary’s knee; she was originally clad in her signature ultramarine blue, but that has worn away with the years. Mary is accompanied by Joseph and an angel, and the Holy Family is within a wooden shed. The three ‘wise men’ pay their respects and present their gifts, but are now accompanied by camels and at least two attendants. The comet which attracted their attention is shown as a fireball crossing the sky.

The story of Lazarus is one of the more popular miracles in the New Testament, although it is only contained in the Gospel of Saint John (chapter 11, verses 1-44).

Christ is told that Lazarus has fallen ill, and his two sisters seek his help. However, Jesus tells his disciples that he intends waiting for Lazarus to die, so that God can be glorified. He then delays for two days before returning to Bethany, by which time Lazarus has been dead and buried for four days. His sisters and the village are still in grief and mourning, so Jesus asks for the stone covering Lazarus’ tomb to be removed. Jesus them commanded Lazarus to come out of his tomb, and Lazarus emerges, still covered in the linen cloths used for burial. Jesus tells the people to remove those cloths and let him go.

Duccio di Buoninsegna (c 1255–1318), The Raising of Lazarus (1310–11), tempera and gold on panel, 43.5 x 46.4 cm, Kimbell Art Museum, Fort Worth, TX. Wikimedia Commons.

Duccio tells this in his marvellous panel painting of The Raising of Lazarus (1310–11). Lazarus’ two sisters are shown pleading with Christ, reminding the viewer of the start of the story, but at the right the stone has been removed from the tomb, and Lazarus appears alive again.

Although Duccio has painted some wonderfully realistic faces, there is barely a glimmer of any expression on them: they are frozen in serious mode, even that of the sisters and Lazarus. However he starts to show some body language, with hands held out, and one bystander holding his cloak to his nose in case the opened tomb stinks.

Far from being a gap in the history of painting, the period between the collapse of the Roman Empire and the start of the ‘Gothic’ was marked by great works of art, and considerable change. In the next article, I’ll look at the fertile ground from which grew the Renaissance, what’s generally referred to as Gothic painting.