Rebirth: The rise of narrative painting

Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497), The Dance of Salome (1461-62), tempera on panel, 23.8 x 34.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

From the dawn of painting, humans have used images to tell stories. This article shows how the Renaissance in Florence and Italy took narrative painting to new levels of sophistication, as well as changing the stories being told.

The simplest way to tell a story in pictures is to use more than one image. Once the viewer can see two scenes side by side, they can connect events to form a narrative. In one form or another, linked images have been used in this way throughout history from cave paintings to the modern graphic novel. A greater challenge to the artist, and perhaps the viewer too, is to integrate two or more scenes from one story into a single image, what’s conventionally termed continuous narrative. Because that term doesn’t match its properties and often confuses, I prefer to refer to it as multiplex narrative, as two or more scenes are multiplexed into its single image.

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Unknown, Perseus and Andromeda (soon after 11 BCE), from Boscotrecase, Italy, moved to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY. By Yann Forget, via Wikimedia Commons.

This Roman painting from Boscotrecase, near the coast at Pompeii, dates from soon after 11 BCE, and is a fine example of multiplex narrative at work. It shows two distinct scenes from the myth in which Perseus rescues Andromeda from the jaws of the sea monster Cetus. Andromeda is shown in the centre, on a small pedestal cut into the rock. Below it and to the left is the gaping mouth of Cetus, as Perseus flies down from the left to rescue Andromeda, kill the sea-monster, and later marry Andromeda in reward, as shown in the upper right.

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Duccio (fl 1278-1319), The Healing of the Man born Blind (Maestà Predella Panels) (1307/8-11), egg tempera on wood, 45.1 x 46.7 cm, The National Gallery (Bought, 1883), London. Courtesy of and © The National Gallery, London.

Duccio’s The Healing of the Man born Blind, from his Maestà Predella Panels of about 1310, is an excellent example of a narrative painting as art emerged from the Middle Ages. Much of the panel is taken up by the first scene, in which Christ is healing a man we know – from the Gospel story – is blind. Back to back with him being healed as a blind man, he is shown healed and sighted to the right.

Duccio made that panel at a time before modern perspective projection was understood, and his efforts at architectural perspective now look strange. Some have supposed that there is some inherent contradiction between the adoption of modern ‘correct’ projections and multiplex narrative. Nothing could be further from the truth: Masaccio, one of the earliest adopters of modern perspective, through his collaboration with Brunelleschi, the architect who first discovered it, was also an enthusiastic narrator using multiplex technique.

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Masaccio (1401–1428), The Tribute Money (1425-8), fresco, 247 x 597 cm, Brancacci Chapel, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Among several superb examples of both techniques in the same painting, Masaccio’s Tribute Money (1425-8) is perhaps the most famous. One of his marvellous frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence, he packs three separate scenes into its non-linear arrangement.

In the centre, a tax collector asks Christ for temple tax. At the far left, as directed by Christ and Peter’s arms, Peter (shown a second time) takes a coin from the mouth of a fish. At the right, Peter (a third time) pays the tax collector (shown a second time) with that coin. And he had not the slightest difficulty in setting these three scenes in single-point perspective with its vanishing point at the head of Christ.

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Paintings on the walls of the Brancacci Chapel. The upper half shows the left wall, the lower the right wall. Adapted from the Wikipedia entry for the Brancacci Chapel.

This is but one of a large series of paintings in the chapel, which together tell the overall story of the Christian ministry of Saint Peter, with a particular emphasis on healing and redemption for the poor. Although this was the chapel for a rich and powerful family, the church of Santa Maria del Carmine was situated in what was, at that time, a very poor area of Florence. The episodes in Saint Peter’s life which are included appear to offer hope for those poor, that a good Christian life would be met with rewards for the spirit, if not in material existence.

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Zanobi Strozzi (1412–1468), Susanna and the Elders (c 1450), tempera and gold on poplar wood, 41 x 168 cm, Musée du Petit Palais, Avignon, France. Wikimedia Commons.

Zanobi Strozzi’s account of the story of Susanna and the Elders from about 1450 consists of four scenes which are only gently integrated into the whole. In the central two scenes, Susanna enters her garden, and gets into the bath there, with the two elders physically grappling with her in their attempted rape. To the left of them are the two heads of the elders when they were earlier spying on Susanna.

The scenes at the left and right tell parts of the later story, but it is not entirely clear which. That on the left appears to be a trial, possibly the second trial of the two elders in which Daniel has intervened. That at the right may show the two elders taken out of town to be executed.

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Benozzo Gozzoli (1420–1497), The Dance of Salome (1461-62), tempera on panel, 23.8 x 34.3 cm, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Wikimedia Commons.

Benozzo Gozzoli’s The Dance of Salome (1461-62) tells the story of Salome’s dance before King Herod, and the presentation to her of the head of John the Baptist. Salome is shown twice in the single frame: once dancing in front of Herod, and again giving Herodias the head of John at the back of the room. The middle event in the chain, the beheading of John, is shown in a side-room at the left.

Here, it’s possible to deduce the story without already knowing it. There must be at least two scenes included, as one actor appears twice. This allows the viewer to establish the three scenes, but not the order in which to read them. Knowing that the man at the left is about to be beheaded, and that his head appears on a plate at the back of the view, places those two in order, and it’s then not hard to guess that the scene of Salome dancing must have preceded those.

The story of Salome is already starting to stray from earlier religious painting. Although drawn from the Gospels, much of the detail relied on later sources embellished by legend. By the late fifteenth century, with the rise in classical scholarship, viewers were ready to read completely secular stories in paintings.

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Jacopo da Sellaio (1441/1442–1493), Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus (1475-80), oil on panel, 60 × 175 cm, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam, The Netherlands. Wikimedia Commons.

This superb panel by Jacopo da Sellaio tells much of the classical tragedy of Orpheus and Euridyce, played across an integrated fantasy landscape. Orpheus, Eurydice and Aristaeus dates from 1475-80, and is one panel of a series, now sadly dispersed across continents.

The start of the story is at the left, where Orpheus is tending a flock of sheep. To the right of that, his bride Euridyce is bitten by a snake very shortly after their wedding. At the far right, Orpheus, with the assistance of Aristaeus, puts the dead body of Eurydice in a rock tomb.

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Sandro Botticelli (1445–1510), The Story of Lucretia (1500-01), tempera on panel, 83.5 x 180 cm, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, MA. Wikimedia Commons.

Sandro Botticelli’s textbook demonstration of both perspective projection and multiplex narrative is in one of his lesser-known works, The Story of Lucretia, painted in 1500-01.

This tells its story in three scenes which are integrated into its single architectural whole. At the left, Lucretia is raped at knifepoint by Sextus Tarquinius. She then commits suicide in shame, and anger erupts through Rome. Her body is carried from her house (right) and placed in the Forum. There, her husband and his friends swear to overthrow the king (centre), and this brings about the new constitution for the city of Rome.

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Fra Bartolomeo (1472–1517), The Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. John the Baptist (c 1509), oil on panel, 129.5 x 106.7 cm, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, CA. Wikimedia Commons.

Fra Bartolomeo was one of the first artists to use an asymmetric variant of multiplex narrative which is more subtle, and may have been seen at the time as being progressive. In his Rest on the Flight into Egypt with St. John the Baptist, from about 1509, Joseph and Mary are shown in the dominant scene with the two infants. In the distance at the right is a couple, dressed identically, undertaking the same journey. They too are Mary and Joseph, and remind the viewer of the familiar underlying story.

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Piero di Cosimo (1462–1521), Andromeda freed by Perseus (c 1510-15), oil on panel, 70 x 123 cm, Galleria degli Uffizi, Florence. Wikimedia Commons.

Piero di Cosimo wasn’t in the least shy of being thoroughly multiplex in his Andromeda Freed by Perseus (c 1510-15). Centred on the great bulk of Cetus, Perseus stands on its back and is about to hack at its neck with his curved sword. At the upper right, Perseus is shown a few moments earlier, as he was flying past in his winged sandals. To the left of Cetus, Andromeda is still secured to the rock by red fabric bindings (not chains), and is bare to her waist.

He also shows scenes which are more peripheral to the story. In the foreground in front of Cetus are Andromeda’s parents stricken in grief. Near them is a group of courtiers with ornate head-dress. But in the right foreground the concluding marriage of Andromeda and Perseus is already in full swing, complete with musicians and dancers.

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Agnolo Bronzino (Agnolo di Cosimo) (1503–1572), The Flaying of Marsyas (1531-32), oil on canvas, transferred from panel, 48 × 119 cm, Hermitage Museum Государственный Эрмитаж, Saint Petersburg, Russia. Wikimedia Commons.

Agnolo Bronzino turned to classical mythology in The Flaying of Marsyas in 1531-32, giving a detailed summary of this complex tragedy. At the right, the musical contest between Marsyas and Apollo is taking place, with a very human Marsyas playing a wind instrument resembling a clarinet. In the left distance, Apollo subdues the defeated Marsyas and binds him. In the centre, Apollo is flaying the satyr, with Olympus in the left foreground expressing his grief.

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Annibale Carracci (1560–1609) (and Agostino, Ludovico Carracci), Jason and Medea (one painting from 18) (c 1583-84), fresco, dimensions not known, Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava, Bologna, Italy. Image by Sailko, via Wikimedia Commons.

When the Carraccis painted their frescoes of the story of Jason and Medea in the Palazzo Ghisilardi Fava in Bologna, in about 1583-84, several of their eighteen separate images used elaborate multiplex technique. In this example, two of the fire-breathing bulls are still yoked, in front of King Aeëtes, at the left, from the first of his tasks for the king. The army sprung up from the dragon’s teeth appear behind the wall, armed still with spears but no longer fighting, referring to the second of Jason’s tasks.

In the foreground, in the final task to acquire the Golden Fleece, Jason has put the dragon to sleep using Medea’s magic concoction, and is unhitching the Fleece while he can. At the right, two of the Argonauts offer to help Jason (shown a second time) carry the fleece away.

The frescoes of the Carraccis heralded the transition from Renaissance painting to the Baroque, in which painters like Nicolas Poussin specialised in highly sophisticated multiplex narrative. By the end of the seventeenth century, though, it had fallen out of favour again.