Pre-19th century art and society

1) Iconography (gr. the image, the image and write, draw, paint) is a strictly lined system of reflection gods, saints and other supernatural characters or storyline scenes on religious themes, which is set by iconographic canon.

Iconographic canon is a set of rules and regulations governing painting the icons. It contains the concept of symbols (symbol acts as a bridge between the god world and reality, God and man), that has been formed in the Byzantine Empire in the XI-XII centuries (Starten 21-34). Main canons are:

1) reflecting faces of God, Virgin Mary and other saints pointing on their spiritual, unearth beginning;

2) immobility (static) of the figures;

3) special system of the  reflecting space and time;

4) conventions of color in the icon, its golden background.

First Christian symbolic images appear in the painting of the Roman catacombs and are related to the period of persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. During that period the symbols  looked like cryptography to allow religious communities to know each other. But the meaning of symbols already reflected the forming Christian theology. These symbols were used to prepare people for the new religion and at the same time as a way to hide themselves.

These are some of the symbols of the catacomb paintings: dove (as a symbol of the Holy Spirit); rooster (as a symbol of resurrection); lamb (as a symbol of Jesus Christ); lion (as a symbol of strength and power); olive branch (as a symbol of eternal peace); lily (as a symbol of purity) and others.

The image of the cross (the Crucifixion), on which Jesus Christ has been crucified is the main and indispensable symbol of the Christian religion.

Up to and including the IX century, Jesus Christ was shown on the cross not only being alive, resurrected, but triumphant. And only in the X century appeared the image of the dead Christ (Starten 85-92).

Art critics have tried to find the origins of the Northern Renaissance for a long time, to find out who was the first master, who laid this manner. For a long time it was believed that the first artist who left the traditions of the Gothic was Jan van Eyck. But by the end of the XIX century it became clear that Van Eyck was not the first.

Now it is believed that Robert Campin (ca. 1375-1444) has laid the foundations of a new freer approach to the reflecting of the surrounding world and of man, to the interpretation of religious images. These were altar arrangements (or their fragments) on the Gospel themes, as well as portraits.

Robert Campin, who first was a forerunner of the great masters of the XV century Jan van Eyck (ca. 1395-1441) and Rogier van der Weyden, and in some way influenced their manner, then when they surpassed their teacher, became their follower.

As a contemporary miniature working on illuminated manuscripts Campen, however, was able to reach a level of realism and observation, as no other painter before him. Still, his works are more archaic than ones by his younger contemporaries. In the domestic detail democracy it is noticeable that sometimes there is a home treatment of religious subjects, which will later become usual for Flemish painting.

The founders of Netherland pictorial tradition Robert Campin and Jan van Eyck placed deep religious meaning to the details of the interiors. Thus, in the central pane of Altar Merode triptych (c. 1425. Metropolitan Museum, New York), Robert Campin reflects the scene of the Annunciation, one of the most important events of Christian history, which takes place in the room of burgher house.

The main work by Van Eyck is Ghent Altarpiece that has been created for the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist Church in Ghent of St. John the Baptist. The altar consists of twenty-six paintings, on which two hundred fifty eight human figures are shown (Nash 23-56).

The big difference we see between the work by these painters and Hieronymus Bosch, the most mysterious artist of this time, whose work has not received a common interpretation yet.

Bosch’s art has always been attractive. First it was thought that the “devil” in the paintings of Bosch was intended only to amuse the audience, to tickle people’s nerves like those grotesque figures, which masters of the Italian Renaissance intertwined in their designs. Modern scientists concluded that in Bosch’s work there was hidden a far more profound meaning, and they made many attempts to explain this meaning, to find the origins, to give right interpretation. Some of the scientists consider Bosch to be someone like a surrealist of the XV century always remembering the name of Salvador Dali. Others believe that Bosch’s art reflects the medieval “esoteric disciplines”, such as alchemy, astrology, black magic. Still others are trying to connect the artist with the various religious heresies that have been spread in that period of time (Silver 50-68). Hieronymus Bosch in his multi-image compositions and paintings used the topics of folk sayings, proverbs and parables (“The Temptation of St. Anthony, the National Museum of ancient art, Lisbon; triptych “Garden of Delights”, “The Adoration of the Magi” – Prado Museum, “The Ship of Fools” – Louvre Museum), combined sophisticated medieval fantasy, generated by boundless imagination grotesque demonic images from folklore and satirical and preachy tendencies with unusual for the art of his era realistic innovations. The poetic landscape backgrounds, bold life observation aptly captured by the popular artist types and genre scenes set the stage for the formation of the Netherlands of genre and landscape; thirst for irony and allegory, for translating into grotesque satirical form a broad people’s picture are the main characteristics of his works.

Bosch’s symbolism is so diverse that it is impossible to find one common key to all his paintings. The symbols change their meaning depending on context, and they can come from many different, sometimes distant from each other sources. For example, they can be taken from the mystical or the practical magic, from folklore or ritual performances. Bosch endowed alchemy with something negative, demonic qualities and their attributes were often identified with the symbols of lust: copulation often depicted inside a glass bulb or in the water as an allusion to the alchemical connection. Color transitions sometimes resemble different stages of the transformation of matter; jagged towers, hollow trees, the fires are both symbols of hell and death, and a hint of fire of the alchemists, sealed the same vessel or melting furnace, these were also the emblems of black magic and the devil. Unfortunately we can’t tell for sure what exactly he has meant by his works, we can only speculate about the origins of his fantastic images.

2) Leonardo da Vinci made a significant contribution to the landscape. Depicted on the canvas water and fog in sunny colors and shadows, anticipating a magical, almost unreal landscape of “Mona Lisa” are absolutely not in the style of that time. Here Leonardo uses aerial perspective. Aerial perspective is used to create a depth image with gradations of color and trace the details. Leonardo was thinking a lot about the atmosphere and the air, and thought that it was almost palpable mass of particles between the eye and visible object, like clear ocean, in which all things were immersed. The air is filled with light and shadows, fog and humidity, it works like a link function, thus achieves the relationship between foreground and background. Many years of his life and many pages of his manuscripts are devoted to studying the atmosphere and its reflection at the picture (Laidlay 115-124).

Already at this time Leonardo believed that landscape was not only the backdrop for images of human figures, it was completely new in the art of that time. He saw a man in the complexity of environment as an integral part of nature.

Not long after creating “Baptism” Leonardo has made a little drawing, which is considered to be the first real landscape in the art. It is the first dated work by Leonardo (1473, Uffizi), a small sketch of the valley, visible from the height castle located on one side and a wooded hillside on the other. This sketch, made by rapid strokes of the pen illustrates interest of the artist to atmospheric conditions, about which he later has written a lot in his notes. This gives to the image some oriental flavor. Landscape, depicted from a high viewpoint overlooking the floodplain of the river was the usual method for the Florentine art of 1460-ies (although it has always served as a background of a picture). The picture of the ancient warrior in profile made with a silver pencil shows the full maturity of Leonardo as a draftsman. He skillfully combines weak, flaccid and tense, elastic lines and attention with progressively patterned light and shade surfaces, creating a living, palpitating image.

Thinking about the features of painting, Leonardo singled out ten of its “true principles”: light, darkness and color, body and figure, place, distance and nearness, motion and rest. To reflect a space filled with light and air, the effects of light and shade, and the volume on the plane, in addition to mathematical perspective he created aerial perspective, a skill that he mastered perfectly. By observing and describing the interaction of light and shadow, the dependence of the color on the lighting and air density, Leonardo made remarkably accurate observations on the nature of color reflections, the blue shadows, changing color and size of objects depending on distance, etc. All this has become a usual practice of art only a few centuries later. However, we can observe some similarities in the landscapes of Leonardo and works of Chinese art masters. Due to the broad strokes and high attention to the painting the landscapes, some of Leonardo works are compared to the Chinese paintings. The thing was that even when Leonardo  draw a portrait, he didn’t forget about the landscape, that was very unusual for the European art of that time (Gelb 20-53).

Period of Ming (1368-1644), which began after China had dropped of foreign domination and again became an independent power, was very complex and contradictory. Already in the Ming period numerous art schools began to develop away from the capital, mostly in the south of the country, where the master felt less pressure of official power. One of the representatives in the 16 century was Xu Wei. In his paintings there we can see a desire to disrupt the harmony of traditional contemplative painting. His lines seem to be deliberately rude and abrupt, broad brush saturated with moisture wanders across the paper lefts heavy drops and creates the illusion of tangled branches of bamboo in the wind or light strokes outlining its smooth trunk.

However, under the seeming negligence there is a great skill of the artist, the ability of random shapes to capture the hidden laws of nature. One of the most favorite themes in the work of Xu Wei (1521-1593), who worked in the genre of “flowers ”“ birds”, was bamboo. In his paintings, as in pictures of other Chinese artists, that image was not only a beautiful plant, which formed part of the natural world, it was a symbol of strength of the human spirit, able to withstand the blows of fate.

Drawing bamboo in the wind, rain or snow, depicting its graceful stem, slight sharp leaves artists of different ages have glorified the noble essence of a scientist, his high moral qualities. Each of them has made in the traditional bamboo painting of his own style, mood and emotion. Thus, during the Sung period monochrome painting of bamboo became the privilege of artists, poets and painters, who were not representatives of the academic school.

They have developed to the smallest detail symbolism and technique of writing the flowers and plants, which includes an image of bamboo (Ren 36-46).

During the Ming, when the academic court painting was in a period of stagnation, other artists, including Xu Wei, countered the creative freedom to the conservative tendencies of the time. Xu Wei succeeded to enhance the prestige and aesthetic significance of the genre “flowers ”“ birds”.

The basic idea of Xu Wei’s works is a reconstruction of the image of free virgin nature. His laconic bold paintings depicting bamboo acquired special philosophical meaning. Practically fully abandoning the lines and contours, he began to draw with a single indistinguishable brush stroke, hardly stopping on minor details and creating generalized bold images.

Behind the apparent randomness of his negligence and picturesque decisions nevertheless always it is always felt a great skill and tuned balance between the patches of ink and empty spaces on white sheet. Using gradation of ink shades he reflects the flexibility of the branches of bamboo and in the same time the mood of nature in general (Ren 63-74).

Entered into the picture calligraphic inscriptions are the same brave and organically linked with the picturesque system of the  picture. Cursive combination of hieroglyphs and leaves of bamboo arrears as a one single object.

Knowledge of the symbolic language of Chinese painting is necessary to understand the meaning of paintings by Xu Wei, who has recreated the image of free virgin nature. Though Chinese art is very different from European one, we can always find common details. Maybe it’s because we are all people and human nature is the same in each of us.

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