Mimenta for Visual Arts


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Page 3Art HistoryPre- Renaissance

The Renaissance was truly a period of rebirth. To understand the Renaissance you need to understand the events that led up to it. It was more than just a great time in art.

For 1200 years the populace had been suppressed by the Roman Catholic Church's pathological fear of knowledge. Great libraries were ransacked and their priceless books used for fuel for heating baths. Scholars were murdered in the most gruesome ways, publicly to discourage any students, who had escaped accusations, from following their teachers.

Destruction of knowledge

Millions died of plagues because the Roman Catholic Church refused to promote hygiene, claiming it was a distraction from worship. This was in direct defiance to the writings in the book of Leviticus. Illness was the supposed to be the result of sin. Records indicate that up to a third of the population of Europe died of the plague but 50% of the clergy died too. (The fact that more clergy died is testament to their attempts to offer solace to their infected parishioners, this increased their exposure to disease). This was very embarrassing for the church.


14th Century drawing of a plague burial
In most European Cities a third of the population died of the plague,
largely due to poor hygiene, a practice the Roman Catholic Church
claimed was a distraction from prayer.

The clergy were particularly hard hit by plague. When St. Thomas à Becket was prepared for burial in England in 1170, he was found to be wearing (from the outside in) (i) a large brown mantle, (ii) a white surplice, (iii) a coat of lambs' wool, (iv) a woollen pelisse, (v) another woollen pelisse, (vi) the black robe of the Benedictine order, (vii) a shirt, and (viii) a tight-fitting suit of coarse hair-cloth covered on the exterior with linen. During preparation for burial the cold English air stimulated so many of the critters occupying his hair suit that it "boiled over with them like water in a simmering cauldron."


A clergy gives last rites to a plage victim
The Roman Catholic Church claimed the plague was
a punishment for sins but it's clergy succumbed to the
plague in greater numbers than the general populace.

The Order, Brethren of the Cross, (initially active in the late 1200s) was re-formed in Germany in 1348 and initially blessed by the pope. It forbade its members from bathing, washing their heads, shaving, sleeping in a bed, or having any contact with the opposite sex. The effect of the plague and other diseases on the clergy, fuelled by bad hygiene left many orders of the church so depleted in numbers that their Abbeys and Monasteries could no longer function and amalgamated with other abbeys.

The only art allowed was for the Glorification of the Roman Catholic Church (and of course the praise and edification of its officials). This was to become known as the Gothic era, not because the Goths invented it, but it was based on the downfall of the Roman style.

The Ottomans had claimed Constantinople and the Roman Catholic Church fled and was now administered from France and Rome. The Goths and the Vandals had swept through the Roman Empire and destroyed anything that was Roman (hence the word vandalism today means to destroy or deface). This left an architectural vaccuum. It was time for a new style. Because the Church had stepped into the role of ruler and lawmaker there was room for new designs and influence in architecture but they would only develop if used for the glorification of God. The Roman massive walls with small windows made cathedrals and churches dark. Glass was now easily obtainable, adding not just colour but entire scenes to be depicted in the windows. A new style emerged - something lighter and less massive.

Roman Basilica InteriorRoman Basilica Interior
Two views of typical Roman Basilica interiors, showing the lightest area in the church, the altars

Gothic Cathedral interior
Compare this with the wall of light in this Gothic Cathedral
and the feel of towering height from the pointed arches.

Their pointed arch, rather than the Roman round arch, meant buildings could be taller and let more light inside - God's light..

Gothic Cathedral interior
The walls, made of pillars and stained glass windows let in much more light.

Because this new style was definitely not Roman, it was dubbed "Gothic" Architecture. It had nothing to do with the Goths but like the Goths, it was so anti-roman in it's appearance.

The church's architectural emphasis suddenly changed. Rather than add great works of art to glorify the walls within the church and spread the Christian message, they now built their cathedrals as works of art. The emphasis was on sculpture rather than pictorial accounts. This new architecture replaced the massive walls of the Roman churches, with columns. Artwork was now in the form of ornate bronze doors, statuary and stained glass that painted brilliant pictures to the largely iliterate congregation. Painting was limited to frescoes on the ceilings.

The Dark Ages ended around the time of the appointment of Pope Callixtus III (Alonso Borgia), Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia), and his murderous son, a Cardinal (Cesare Borgia) all members of the infamous Borgia family, they were renowned for their debauchery, incest, murder, licentiousness and extravagance. Perhaps the Catholic Church was too preoccupied with its own nepotism, debauchery and greed, as each successive Pope sought to increase their personal political power and wealth, to be bothered with stifling knowledge. To the public in the cities, the corruption of the church was patently obvious and it has continued to lose it's credibility since then. Even today the Catholic Church tries to hide those dark days of debauchery by altering papal accounts, making murderers, adulterers, and wanton philanderers appear as pious saints and church leaders worthy of our esteem.

Unfortunately for the church, printing was invented and paper was now manufactured in many cities. Previously it was imported into most cities because the manufacture was a closely guarded secret. It was no longer a matter of altering a few records in the church archives, Even though the public was mostly illiterate, news was conveyed pictorially, and these events were hot news!

Early Paper making


This gave rise to a subgroup of artistic tradespeople; the engravers. These illustrators never attained the status of Artist and were not admitted into the artist guilds. It must have stung the guilds when the next massive development in art was to come, not from a master artists or even an artist's apprentice but from Albrecht Durer - a German engraver.

Woodcut by Albrecht Durer
Albrecht Durer's "Adam and Eve are cast out of Heaven"

Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) produced woodcuts and engravings that were at the forefront of the information revolution that swept through Renaissance Europe, placing printed texts and images in the hands of an increasingly literate populace. Not only were his engravings and woodcuts the finest ever produced, as lifelike as the works of the great masters but he developed a formula for foreshortening (the decrease in size of objects as they move away from you) that allowed him to fully master the illusion of depth that we call perspective.

For a while artists had realised this effect and tried unsuccessfully to use it but Albrecht Durer could calculate exactly how large an object should be in relation to its distance away from you. Look at the difference it made!

Albrecht Durer Engavings
Albrecht Durer not only refined engraving but mastered
the optical illusion of depth, we call perspective. Here
we see St. Jerome in his study, mouse over the image to
see the Adoration of the Magi, both show his complete
mastery of perspective.

By this stage the church was the only major employer of artists and was so powerful that no tradesman dared say no. A tradesman who made an enemy of a church official could be struck off the lists of surrounding churches. Even powerful kings would be reluctant to employ a tradesman not sanctioned by the church. The stranglehold the church had on art created an artist underground revolt. The church demanded work from the artists who were often payed late or less than quoted. The Church Official commissioning the art would often change their minds half way through. There developed an art underworld, artists who were anti church and they created a series of symbols, often used to mock their patrons or convey a hidden message in their work. This form of communication was lost on the upper classes but was well recognised by the rest of society who were mostly illiterate. Much of the art of the early renaissance is sprinkled with these icons, loaded with meaning. Icons began as a way of communicating to the illiterate masses, beyond what was in the picture. For example; in the picture of St Jerome (above), we have an old man studying. The halo around his head, the lion and other objects that appear out of place in this picture, were cues for the illiterate viewers, that this is St. Jerome.

The works of the engravers, as they improved, were a challenge to some traditional artists. The guilds hid behind the excuse that their craftsman used colour as well as texture and form, which was beyond the ability of even the best engravers. Durer rose to the challenge with these two works, "Hare" and "Turf".

Durer introduced colour to answer his critics
It was claimed that only artists could use colour,
texture and form; engravers could not handle
colour like the master artists. Durer rose to this
challenge with these prints; "Turf" (seen here)
and "Hare" (mouse over the picture to see it).

Upon seeing these, no more was said on the matter and Albrecht Durer today is regarded as a Master Artist and the inspiration (if not the Father) of Graphic Art. He is certainly credited with the discovery of Perspective in art.

The discovery of perspective removed the last obstacle to lifelike portrayal. Artists could paint what they saw creating an exact likeness.

So we have all these factors coming together at one time:

  • less church restrictions giving artists the freedom to paint other topics.
  • competition from printers able to capture images of artworks and make their cheaper copies available to the public.
  • a revitalisation of learning
  • church focus shifts from employing artists to record scenes to a formula, to allowing artists freedom of expression in style.
  • a new ability to portray scenes as they appeared in real life.
  • travel resumed on a greater scale and allowed an exchange of new ideas.
  • the emergence of a new wealthy class of traders who could afford original artworks and were not restricted to pious topics from the bible.

The renewed interest in learning was seen as a return to the Ancient Greeks age, before the Romans and their Church and fear of knowledge. It was a logical progression to return to the ideal of the Greeks with their pursuit of perfectionism. We see a renewed focus on anatomy in art, with detail in muscles and anatomy.

Examples of early renaissance art

Artists from France appeared in Florence, Spain and Venice. Advances in Alchemy (which had been refurbished as the new science of Chemistry and was no longer a black art of devilry) produced chemical pigments of greater purity, colour and stability. The renaissance had begun.


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