GOLDEN ALTARS Three late medieVal madonnas


In the late 13th and early 14th centuries the Italian practice of painting altarpieces in the Byzantine style began to make subtle moves toward a style that was more natural than anything that had come before. This time of transition was on the eve of the Renaissance when art would expand its subjects and its style to encompass more real world scenarios.

The purpose of Byzantine art was to translate theology into its visual expression and the important paintings during the late Medieval period were large altarpieces commissioned for, and often by, the cathedrals. The primary subjects were the Virgin Mary and Christ child with other Biblical and celestial figures. They were painted with elongated faces, especially their noses, and very long fingers that were all the same length. Poses were static, even stiff, and hieratic scale identified the important people. Most paintings involved extensive use of gold leaf.

As the Medieval period waned, artists like those in this exhibition began to experiment with faces and bodies that were still elongated but less angular and more filled out. Fingers were still quite long but gestures became more expressive. It began to be possible to see body structure as the clothing was painted with folds that clung to torsos. Poses became less rigid and less uniform, lending a sense of movement to the scenes. Hieratic scale gave way to the use of perspective to indicate importance. Gold leaf, however, was still used for backgrounds and halos.

The paintings in this exhibit represent the category of altarpieces called the Maestà, or Majesty. In these paintings, the Virgin Mary is seated on a throne and recognized as the Queen of Heaven; she holds her child on her lap as he offers a blessing to the other figures in the paintings and to the viewers.

Cimabue’s Madonna was a part of the altarpiece for Santa Trinità in Florence. As the earliest of the three, it is most clearly Byzantine in style but the new naturalism is also present. Thirty years later, Giotto painted his Madonna for the Ognissanti Church, also in Florence, and the advances toward even more naturalism are apparent. The Madonna Enthroned, painted by Duccio at about the same time, is a part of his great masterpiece known simply as the Maestà. It is a very large work made of up of multiple paintings and the Madonna is the centerpiece. As the latest in our series of Madonnas it moved painting irrevocably from Byzantine style to natural presentations of humans and landscapes that would become the style of the Renaissance.

The Madonna and Child in Majesty Surrounded by Angels, Cimabue (Cenni di Pepe), c. 1280, Tempera and gold on wood, Louvre, Paris

Cimabue was an early actor in the transition from Byzantine to Renaissance style. Here we can see the distinctive Byzantine characteristics combined with a new sense of life. Their faces seem to be fuller and modeled that suggests a new naturalism.

Neither is the painting entirely static. The folds in the garments imply a slight sense of movement, as does the way the angels lean supportively on the throne, as if they are protecting Mary and the Christ child.

The frame continues the Byzantine intention of translating theology into art by embedding twenty-six medallions that depict Biblical figures.

Ognissanti Madonna, Giotto di Bondone, c. 1310, Tempera on Panel. Uffizi Gallery, Florence.

Giotto’s masterpiece is often called the first Renaissance painting. We can still see typical Byzantine elements but they are moderated by a new focus on naturalism.

Giotto was the first artist to depict three-dimensional figures in his work. Here, we can see the contours of Mary’s body from his use of light and shadow along with color to model the fabric folds.

Christ’s hands are quite realistic and his fingers are no longer the same length. But his gesture is still more adult than a normal baby would use and his face is almost adult in its masculine qualities.

Madonna Enthroned, Duccio di Buoninsegna, c. 1308-11. Museo del’Opera Metropolitana del Duomo, Sienna, Italy.

This very large painting depicts a myriad of figures. All are painted with more human characteristics than we have seen and they stand in subtly different poses, lending a sense of movement to the work. Pure hieratic scale has given way to a greater sense of perspective although Mary and Christ are still depicted as larger than life.

The horizontal nature of the painting is entirely new and allowed Duccio place the figures in ranks around the throne and to position the other paintings in the work so that the altarpiece as a whole looks like a diadem crowning the altar.

Created By
Dr. Catherine Carter

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