Art History 101 – Part IIA: 1400-1499

The following list is Part IIA (1400-1499) of my attempt to trace the history of human artistic endeavors by finding the best, most significant, and most highly-regarded works of visual art (primarily painting and sculpture) from all times and places and presenting them in chronological order. The seven Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the over 30 ‘Best Works of Art’ lists that I collected from the Internet and books. Although most of the resources available to me focused almost exclusively on the art of Western Civilization, the list does identify some of the most significant artworks produced by the artists of Asia, Africa and South America. Because I believe visuals are essential for discussing the visual arts, I have included images of the art works, In most cases, you can click on the images to enlarge them. (I have tried to use public domain images where possible. In other cases, I believe this is a fair non-commercial use for educational purposes. If there are copyright concerns, please let me know.)

Each entry includes the date of the work, the artist’s name, the name (or names) of the work, the style or culture associated with the work, and the location where the work was produced.  In addition, I have included a brief essay with description (including measurements), artistic materials used, background and interpretation.

To see the rest of the Art History 101 series, click on the links below:
Part IA (Prehistoric Era-399 CE)
Part IB (400-1399 CE)

Part IIB (1500-1599)
Part III (1600-1799)
Part IV (1800-1899)
Part V (1900-Present)

For a list of the best works of visual art organized by rank, that is, with the items that were on the most lists at the top, go here.

c. 1400-1500: Unknown Artist: Coatlicue [Aztec; Mexico]

During a construction project in colonial Mexico in 1790, workers uncovered a large statue of the Aztec goddess Coatlicue, a savage primordial earth mother and the patron of women in childbirth. Coatlicue plays a crucial role is Aztec mythology: her children include the moon and stars and the gods Quetzalcoatl (god of wind, air, and learning), Xoloti (god of fire and lightning), and Huitzilopochtli (god of the sun and war). The 8.9 ft. tall statue, which was carved of andesite stone in the 15th Century before the arrival of Europeans, depicts a myth in which Coatlicue picks up a ball of feathers that had descended from the sky and tucks it into her skirt, after which the miraculously impregnates her. Her children, enraged by what they see as illicit sexual behavior, hatch a plot to kill her: they strike off her head, but are surprised when her son Huitzilopichtli emerges from her neck, fully grown and fully armed, to kill hs sister and brothers. The statue shows Coatlicue post-decapitation, with blood gushing from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of severed hands and human hearts, with a large skull pendant, and a skirt made from entangling snakes, (In fact, the name Coatlicue means The One with the Skirt of Serpents.) After discovering the statue, Spanish colonizers – worried that local people would revive Aztec religious practices that the Spanish had suppressed in favor of Christianity – buried it. In 1823, the statue was unearthed and brought to England for an exhibition. Eventually it was returned to Mexico and put on display. In 1933, a very similar identical statue was found, but with a skirt of hearts instead of snakes, and in much worse condition. The statue of Coatlicue is now at the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City.

1402-1405: Claus Sluter: The Well of Moses [International Gothic; Dijon, France]
well of moses
In the late 14th Century, Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, ordered the building and decoration of a Carthusian monastery just outside Dijon which would serve as his burial site. A number of artists provided artwork for the monastery, including Dutch sculptor Claus Suter, assisted by his nephew Claus de Werve, who created a large well for the center of the main cloister in the International Gothic style.  They constructed a massive limestone sculpture to stand in the center of the well consisting of a crucifixion scene, with Mary Magdalene (and possibly another) at the foot of the cross where Jesus was hanging, and below it, a hexagonal base with statues of six prophets who foresaw Christ’s death, each standing about 5 ft., 8 in. tall, and six weeping angels (see the fourth image for an imagined reconstruction). Dutch artist Jean Malouel painted the sculptures in vibrant colors and gilding; some of the paint remains. In each of six niches, Suter has created life-sized statues of Moses, David, Jeremiah, Zachariah, Daniel and Isaiah. (Moses’ horns in this and other artworks come from a Hebrew phrase that can be translated as either ‘horns’ or ‘rays of light.’) Each prophet carries his prophecy on a scroll and each one is individually detailed with a unique expression and personality (see Moses in first image and King David and Jeremiah in second image). Although they are sculpted in high relief, the figures appear to be independent of the stone behind them, and there is a sense of movement expressed by the bodies beneath the drapery.  The angels, who top the slender colonnettes that separate the planes of the hexagon, also have individualized gestures and expressions (see third image). During the French Revolution, the upper portion of the sculpture was destroyed (fragments are on display in a nearby museum), leaving the base, which has acquired the name the Well of Moses. The Well of Moses is located in the central courtyard of what was the main cloister of Carthusian monastery Chartreuse de Champmol, (now the Hospital de la Chartreuse) outside of Dijon, France. 

1404-1410: Claus Sluter & Claus de Werve: Mourners, Tomb of Philip the Bold [International Gothic; Dijon, France]

mourner 2 Mourner1 mourners 3
Philip the Bold, Duke of Burgundy, built Chartreuse de Champmol, a Charthusian Monastery, in part to house the tombs of his dynasty and in part to house the monks who would pray for him and his family. In the late 14th Century, Philip commissioned the workshop of Jean de Manville to make a tomb for him. Unfortunately, the work was incomplete when Philip died in 1404. De Manville gave most of the work to his assistant Claus Sluter, who designed an elaborate monument with an effigy of Philip atop a marble slab, attended by angels, while beneath him in an arcaded gallery is a funeral procession consisting of 41 Mourners (see first image). De Manville executed the arcaded gallery (see second image), and Sluter made the statues for the top of the slab, but Sluter died in 1405, before he was able to make the mourners. The job fell to Sluter’s nephew, Claus de Werve, to execute the final phase of Sluter’s design. Most of the 41 alabaster statuettes are approximately 16 in. tall, 5 in. wide and 5 in. deep. They are solitary or in groups of two. The leader of the procession is a choir boy carrying a container with holy water. He is followed by 40 highly individualized Mourners, including clerics and court dignitaries as well as numerous Carthusian monks, some of whom have been identified. Some of the monks have their cloaks pulled over their heads, obscuring their faces (see third image). Each mourner expresses grief in his own way – some are solitary, others console each other (see fourth and fifth images). (There is also a macabre humor as one monk holds his nose from the stench of the body.) Art historians have noted the expressiveness and variety of the drapery worn by the Mourners, so that even the monks with obscured faces appear to be grieving, from the way the folds of the clothing represent the body beneath it. The tomb was partially destroyed during the French Revolution, and the Mourners were scattered throughout Europe. Over time, many have been returned; more than 30 of the originals are now part of a restored tomb in the Musée des Beaux-Arts of Dijon, where some of their individual expressiveness remains hidden inside the arcade (see second image). Three are on display at the Cleveland Museum of Art, which gave replicas to the Dijon museum. A large number of the mourners went on an American tour in 2010-2012.

1408-1427: Andrei Rublev: Holy Trinity Icon [Medieval; Russia]
holy trinity Rublev
The Holy Trinity Icon is one of the few existing paintings that can be reliably attributed to painter and Russian Orthodox saint Andrei Rublev. Religious icons differ from other kinds of religious paintings in being less concerned with a specific time and place than with representing a heavenly realm outside time. An icon is intended not as a display of artistic technique or a representation of the earthly world but as an object of religious contemplation. The Holy Trinity Icon, which was painted with tempera on wood panels and measures 4.6 ft. tall by 3.75 ft. wide, depicts the story from the Book of Genesis in which three angels appear to the elderly Abraham at Mamre to announce that Abraham’s wife Sarah would bear a son. Believers who viewed the icon would have understood the links between the three angels and the three persons of the Christian trinity (God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit). At a 1551 conference on the question of religious art, Russian Orthodox church leaders declard that Rublev’s Holy Trinity was an ideal example of an icon and should be a model for other artists. Like many older icons, there has been considerable damage, repainting, and other alterations over the years, with attempts at restoration beginning in the 20th Century.  The Holy Trinity Icon is now at the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow.

1411-1416: The Limbourg Brothers: Les Très Riches Heurs du Duc de Berry [International Gothic; France]
Les Très Riches Heures
is a book of hours (a type of prayer book) that is a paragon of the International Gothic style. International Gothic was a late 14th-early 15th Century style favored by artists in the courts of Europe. According to one art historian, the style’s delicate realism and focus on vibrant colors, lively detail, and elegant settings “reflects the sophisticated, cosmopolitan nature and pageantry of courtly life.” Les Très Riches Heures was created for John, Duke of Berry. The book measures 11.8 in. high and 8.5 in. wide and contains a total of 206 sheets of vellum, with 66 large miniatures and 65 small paintings made with tempera. The book begins with a series of calendar pages and a zodiac, followed by numerous prayers. Most of the work was done by the three Dutch Limbourg Brothers (Paul, Jean and Herman) between 1411-1416, but they left the project unfinished, so it was completed by others, including Jean Colombe, in the 1480s. The illustrations depict the daily lives of the aristocracy as well as the peasants, and contains a number of remarkable depictions of Medieval architecture, including the Louvre Castle. The images shown are: (1) January, showing the exchange of New Year’s gifts among the Duke’s family and friends; (2) February, showing workers warming themselves by a fire, (3) October, showing farm workers with the Louvre Castle; and (4) the zodiac with the signs displayed on the body of a young man, then again in the frame surrounding the two figures. The book is now in the Musée Condé in Chantilly, France.

1414-1419: Jacopo della Quercia: Fonte Gaia [Late Gothic; Siena, Italy]
fonte gaia 2
The Fonte Gaia (Fountain of Joy) is a large fountain located in the Piazza del Campo at the center of Siena, Italy. The original fountain was built in 1342-1346, but the rectangular white marble frame with its many sculptures was added in 1419 by noted Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. The central bas relief figure is the life-size Madonna and Child, surrounded by allegorical figures of the Virtues. The sculptures on the sides show stories from the Book of Genesis: the Creation of Adam, and the Flight from the Garden of Eden. The fountain also refers to Siena’s legendary connections with Ancient Rome. Freestanding statues of the birth mother (Rea Silvia) and adoptive mother (Acca Larentia) of Romulus and Remus, both pictured with the twin boys, stood atop the end columns. Two wolves, representing the she-wolf that raised Romulus and Remus, serve as water spouts. The style is considered Late Gothic, although there are some elements (such as attempts at perspective) that presage the Renaissance style that was blooming in nearby Florence. The original sculptures suffered significant damage from the elements and were removed to a nearby museum and replaced by copies made by Tito Sarrocchi between 1858 and 1866. For some reason (excessive modesty?), the reconstruction omitted the two freestanding nude figures. The original sculptures are on display nearby at Santa Maria della Scalla. The images shown above are: (1) a view of the present-day Fonte Gaia fountain, with Sarrocchi’s copies: (2) Jacopo della Quercia’s original Madonna and Child; (3) Della Quercia’s statue of Rhea Silvia, with her sons Romulus and Remus; (4) an angel with a portion of the marble frame from the original Fonte Gaia;  and (5) the original allegorical figure of Wisdom.

1420: Unknown Bohemian Master: The Bohemian Madonna [Bohemian; Czech Republic]

Measuring 2.9 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide and painted with tempera on wood panel, the Bohemian Madonna (also known as the Madonna of St. Vitus) was created in about 1420 for St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague. While the painting has some of the devotional elements of an icon, it is known for its naturalism as well. The tilt of the Madonna’s head and her expression seem almost flirtatious, while the Christ child shows an unusual degree of animation. Scholars have noted the way the artist creates the illusion of three-dimensionality through the modelling of the figures and the folds of Mary’s clothing so it appears that Mary is truly offering her son to the congregation. According to art historians, the artist has conceived this Madonna and Child as a group composition in at least two ways. First, the angles of the figures and their body masses, particularly areas of bare skin such as Mary’s face and Jesus’s entire body, align with crossed diagonal lines. Second, the artist balances the composition by having Mary and Jesus lean in different directions. The Bohemian Madonna is in the Convent of St. Agnes in Prague, an exhibition space of Národní Galerie. It is not known if the unusually ornate, three-dimensional frame is original (see second image).

1423: Gentile da Fabriano: Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece [International Gothic; Florence, Italy]
gentile da fabriano 1

The often eye-dazzling International Gothic style favored brilliant color and abundant detail over realistic depictions of figures and space.  In his Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece, Italian painter Gentile da Fabriano brought the International Gothic style to its culmination, just a few years before the Early Renaissance style emerged in the works of Brunelleschi, Donatello and Masaccio. The altarpiece, which was painted with tempera paints on wood panels and measures 10 ft. tall by 9.25 wide (see first image), was commissioned by Palla Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine patron of the arts, for a chapel in the Santa Trinita church. (He and his son are depicted among the retinue of the Three Kings.) The ornate frame is crammed full of figures in elaborate 14th Century costumes, rich in scenery and populated by many animals, including exotic specimens like leopards and lions. The backstory of the Magi is told in the three arches: first, they see the star (left), then they go to Jerusalem (center), then to Bethlehem (right), and finally (in the foreground), they present gifts to the baby Jesus. The predella (the supporting panels at the bottom of the main frame) contains three additional scenes: two of them (the Nativity – shown in second image – and the Flight into Egypt) include some novel experiments with night lighting and multiple lighting sources.  The Adoration of the Magi Altarpiece is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Italy.

1403-1424: Lorenzo Ghiberti: North Doors, Florence Baptistery
[Early Renaissance, Florence, Italy]

Ghiberti - Adorazione_dei_Magi  ghiberti annunciation
The Baptistery in Florence has three sets of bronze doors that are decorated with relief sculptures. The south doors were done by Andrea Pisano in 1330-1336; Lorenzo Ghiberti did the north doors between 1403-1424, and the east doors (known as the Gates of Paradise) from 1425-1452. The 23-year-old Ghiberti won a competition to sculpt the north doors over such names as Brunelleschi and Jacopo della Quercia. The north doors consist of a large frame consisting of rosettes and prophets’ heads, inside of which are 28 panels (14 per door), each surrounded by a polylobate Gothic frame, each of which was set inside a square frame with plant motifs. Twenty of the panels depict the life of Christ, and eight panels portray the evangelists and church fathers. While Ghiberti’s work on the north doors shows some signs of the naturalism that would usher in the Renaissance, the style of the reliefs is essentially Gothic. This should come as no surprise when one compares Ghiberti’s audition piece with that of Brunelleschi’s – the latter sculptor’s version of the Sacrifice of Abraham is more modern and forward-looking than Ghiberti’s, but Ghiberti won the prize. A major restoration project was undertaken in 2012-2015. The original doors were removed, restored and moved to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they have been on display (and safe from the ravages of the weather) since late 2015. In January 2016, a faithful replica of the North Doors was installed at the Baptistery. The images shown above are (1) the restored North Doors in the Meuo dell’Opera del Duomo and pre-restoration versions of: The Adoration of the Magi and The Annunciation.

1423-1427: Donatello: The Feast of Herod [Early Renaissance, Siena, Italy]

The Feast of Herod, by Donatello (born Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi) is one of six bronze panels, measuring 1.97 ft. square, set in the base of the hexagonal baptismal font in the baptistery of Siena Cathedral (see first image). The piece – one of the first sculptures identified with the new Early Renaissance style – is remarkable for its use of the principles of linear perspective, recently rediscovered by Brunelleschi, to create the illusion of depth, a particularly difficult achievement in a relief sculpture. The story takes place on three levels and chronologically follows the dance of Salome, after which Herod grants her any wish and she, at her mother’s bidding, asks for the head of John the Baptist. In the far background, in low relief, an executioner shows the head to someone, perhaps Salome. In the middle background, also in low relief, two men watch a woman playing a musical instrument. In the foreground, in higher relief, Herod and his family react in horror to the head of John the Baptist (see second image), while Salome, sinuous in her dance costume, watches and gloats (see third image). The use of orthogonal lines in the floor tiles emphasizes the sense of real space. Donatello also demonstrates his ability to depict true human emotion, particularly in the faces and gestures of Herod and the young men sitting at the table.

1427: Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Baptism of Christ [Early Renaissance, Siena, Italy]
ghiberti baptism of christ
ghiberti baptism florence
Along with Donatello, Jacopo della Quercia and others, Italian sculptor Lorenzo Ghiberti was commissioned to create a relief sculpture on the life of John the Baptist for the base of the baptismal font in the Battistero di San Giovanni (the baptistery for Siena’s cathedral). Ghiberti’s subject is The Baptism of Christ. The bronze panel measures 1.97 ft. square. Ghiberti completed the Siena commission after finishing the North Doors of the Florence Baptistery in 1424 and after starting work on the East Doors (now known as “The Gates of Paradise”) in 1425. Given his focus on the Florence work, it is not surprising that Ghiberti’s panel borrows heavily from his own depiction of the same event for the Florence baptistery just a few years earlier (see second image, shown before recent restoration). The work displays some dynamic compositional elements and emotional complexity (note the expressions on the bystanders and angels), but the frieze-like approach gives a somewhat flat effect. Ghiberti would soon learn the lessons of linear perspective and use it with dazzling creativity in his masterpiece, the Gates of Paradise (completed in 1452).  

1424-1428: Masaccio: Frescoes, Brancacci Chapel
[Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
tribute money
expulsion masaccio st peter healing the sick masaccio distribution of alms
Of the 15 frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in Florence’s Santa Maria del Carmine Church, at least six are attributable to Florentine artist Masaccio (born Tommaso di Ser Giovanni di Simone). Masaccio had begun as the assistant to the commissioned artist, Masolino da Panicale, but he eventually took over the project (although he, too, left it unfinished, to be completed by Filippino Lippi). The majority of the frescoes illustrate stories from the life of St. Peter. Two of Masaccio’s frescoes – the The Tribute Money (8.1 ft. tall by 19.6 ft. wide) (see first image) and The Expulsion of Adam and Eve (7 ft. tall by 3 ft. wide) (second image) – are considered his masterpieces. These frescoes mark a revolution in the style of painting that truly announces the arrival of the Renaissance in that art form. The figures are substantial and firmly grounded and are defined by modeling, not line; the scenery and background are realistic; and the emotional content is highly expressive (particularly in Eve’s despairing moan). Most importantly, Masaccio uses the newly rediscovered rules of linear perspective to creat the illusion of three-dimensional depth on the two-dimensional wall. Masaccio’s frescoes, which underwent a substantial restoration in the 1980s, were highly influential among 15th Century Florentine artists. Other Masaccio frescoes from the Brancacci Chapel shown in the images above are: (3) St. Peter Heals the Sick with His Shadow (7.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide) and (4) The Distribution of Alms and Death of Ananias (7.5 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide).

c. 1425-1428: Workshop of Robert Campin: The Mérode Altarpiece (The Annunciation Triptych) [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]
merode altarpiece jesus merode altarpiece joseph
The Mérode Altarpiece is a seminal work of the Early Netherlandish style that developed in Northern Europe in the 15th Century, while the Renaissance was being born in Italy. It is also one of the earliest masterpieces of the new technique of oil painting. The center panel (2.1 ft tall by 2.1 ft. wide) shows the Annunciation, where the Angel Gabriel announces to Mary that she is to be the mother of Jesus. The left wing (2.1 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide) shows the donor, his wife, and a messenger (the wife and messenger were probably added later, after the donor marrried) and the right wing (2.1 ft. tall by 0.9 ft. wide) shows Mary’s future husband Joseph in his workshop, making a mousetrap. The authorship of the triptych is much disputed. It was originally attributed to the unnamed Master of Flémalle, who is now generally assumed to be Robert Campin.  But after the discovery of an earlier version of the central panel (now in Brussels), many scholars attribute the Mérode triptych to Campin’s assistants in his workshop. The small size of the triptych leads experts to believe that it was intended for private devotional use. The painting includes many examples of Early Netherlandish attention to detail, and the technique of applying thin layers of oil paint over an opaque base allowed the artist to create illusionistic effects. The triptych abounds with religious symbolism. The center panel actually shows the Virgin Mary at the moment before she recognizes the Angel Gabriel is present. At the same time, a tiny Jesus flies down from the window with his cross, a sign of the Incarnation (see second image). The just-snuffed candle may show the transformation of God into man. Similarly, the mousetrap Joseph is making may allude to St. Augustine’s writings, in which he describes the Incarnation of Jesus as a mousetrap to catch the Devil. Perhaps unintentionally, the triptych seems to imply that Joseph and Mary were living together before they were married. Based on other details, the donor who commissioned the work was probably from Mechelen, Belgium, possibly a member of the Ingelbrecht family. The name Mérode comes from one of the families that owned the piece, which is currently at the Cloisters, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. 

1428: MasaccioThe Holy Trinity [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
 masaccio holy trinity
masaccio memento mori
When Giorgio Vasari was commissioned to renovate Florence’s Basilica of Santa Maria Novella in the mid-16th Century, he faced a dilemma. On the one hand, Vasari was an artist who wanted to please his patron by updating the church’s decorations into the contemporary Mannerist style.  On the other hand, Vasari, who was also one of the first art historians, knew that Masaccio’s Holy Trinity fresco (21.9 ft. tall by 10.4 ft. wide), painted on the left side wall of the nave in 1428, was an important work that should be preserved for future generations. So Vasari compromised. He didn’t paint over the fresco and so preserved it for the future; but he constructed a new screen and altar directly in front of Masaccio’s work, hiding it from view. It was not until 300 years later that another round of renovations in 1860 uncovered the top portion of the hidden masterpiece. The lower portion of Masaccio’s fresco (which was not reunited with the top until 1952) is a memento mori: a skeleton lying on a sarcophagus and an inscription in Italian reading, “I was once what you now are and what I am, you shall yet be.” (See third image.) Above, in what appears to be a recessed vestibule, we see God the Father standing behind his son Jesus, who is hanging on the cross; Mary and St. John stand below them; even farther down, and outside the fictive inner sanctuary, kneel the donor and his wife. (See second image.) Masaccio’s use of one-point linear perspective (possibly achieved with the assistance of Brunelleschi himself) is here used to creat a tromp l’oeil (“tricks the eye”) effect that astonished contemporary and later artists. Vasari wrote, “The most beautiful thing, apart from the figures, is a barrel-shaped vaulting, drawn in perspective and divided into squares filled with rosettes, which are foreshortened and made to diminish so well that the wall appears to be pierced.   

1432: Jan and Hubert van Eyck: The Ghent Altarpiece [Early Netherlandish; Ghent, Flanders]

The Ghent Altarpiece which was made for the Church of St. John the Baptist (now St. Bavo Cathedral) in Ghent, Belgium, is an early masterpiece of the Early Netherlandish style and highlights the new artistic effects possible with oil paints. The large altarpiece (11 ft. tall by 15 ft. wide when open) consists of 12 panels, eight of them with hinged shutters. The commission from merchant and mayor Joost Vijdt was given to Hubert van Eyck, but many scholars believe Hubert’s brother Jan painted most or all of the piece. When closed, the altarpiece shows the Annunciation, imitation statues of two saints in grisaille, and portraits of the donor and his wife, Joost Vijdt and Lysbette Borluut (see third image). The brightly-colored interior panels (see first image) show: (top row) God the Father, dressed as the Pope, Mary, St. John the Baptist, musical angels and Adam and Eve and (bottom row) a grand celebration of Jesus as the Lamb of God, known as the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb, in which the Lamb of God bleeds into the Holy Grail. The Early Netherlandish style was influenced by the earlier International Gothic, Byzantine, and Romanesque styles, but the lack of idealization and the attention to detail in the Ghent Altarpiece combines aspects of International Gothic, Byzantine and Romanesque, but the lack of idealization (see, for example, the individualized faces of the angels) and the attention to detail indicate a new artistic conception that may show the influence of the Italian Renaissance.  

1433: Jan van Eyck: Portrait of a Man (Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban) [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]

Is Jan van Eyck’s Portrait of a Man in a Red Turban a self-portrait? Although there is no direct evidence, there are many circumstantial clues. On the frame of this small painting (made with oils on wood panels measuring 10 in. tall by 7.5 in. wide), van Eyck has painted a inscription in Latin at the bottom (“Jan van Eyck Made Me on October 21, 1433”) and a motto in Greek at the top (“As I Can”, a pun on “As Eyck can”). The personal motto only appears on a small number of paintings and never as prominently as here. The clothing is appropriate for a man of van Eyck’s social position. The subject gazes directly – almost confrontationally – at the viewer, in stark contrast to the tradition of portraiture at the time. In addition, the way the long tail of the subject’s headgear (not a turban but a chaperon, a common form of 15th Century male headwear) is tied up on his head would be a sensible precaution for a painter. Some scholars have speculated that van Eyck used this small portrait as a calling card or advertisement of his skills, allowing customers to compare it with the face of the living artist standing in front of them. Self-portrait or not, the painting is a masterpiece of oil painting in the Early Netherlandish style. Light enters the painting from the left, and the subject, with his direct gaze and bright red headpiece, appears to emerge from the dark background, and early use of the technique known as tenebrism. Perhaps to ensure that the painted van Eyck would match the real one, even on a bad day, the subject is shown with bloodshot eyes (see second image), a bit of beard stubble, and some sagging of the flesh around the cheeks. This is clearly no idealized portrait. The painting of the intricate folds of the chaperon indicates a prodigious talent, evidence of Jan van Eyck’s position as one of the most highly regarded artists of his day by both contemporaries and current art historians.  The painting has been in the National Gallery in London since 1851; the museum has given it the title Portrait of a Man (Self Portrait?). some object in front of him, while the right eye appears only vaguely engaged in the act of looking. This effect would result if van Eyck was painting his own eyes by looking at them in a mirror. Some scholars have speculated that van Eyck used this small portrait as a calling card or advertisement of his skills, so that customers could compare it with the face of the living artist standing before them. 

1425-1434: Jacopo della QuerciaPorta Magna, San Petronio Church
[Early Renaissance; Bologna, Italy]


The bas reliefs decroating the central portal of the Basilica of San Petronio in Bologna, Italy are considered the crowning masterpiece of Sienese sculptor Jacopo della Quercia. Della Quercia, who began his career in the Gothic style, was one of the first sculptors (after Donatello) to adopt the new Renaissance style, with its focus on more realistic human figures and a truer sense of how people and objects occupy space. The San Petronio commission was significant: (1) 10 panels with stories from the Book of Genesis, in low relief; (2) portrait busts of 18 Prophets; (3) the Madonna and Child with Sts. Ambrose and Petronius in the bezel; and (5) five scenes from the New Testament on the lintel. Della Quercia began the work in 1425 but left it unfinished in 1434 (he died in 1438). The work was completed after 1510 by Domenico da Varignana (St. Petronius), Antonio Minello (prophets), Anthony Ostiglia (prophets) and Amico Aspertini (Moses). Art historians have praised the “directness and power” of the reliefs, their “wide gestures, eloquent poses and dynamic compositions”, and the sculptor’s “concentratin on man’s psychic and physical energy.” Michelangelo famously acknowledged his debt to della Quercia’s reliefs (including the Creation of Adam) as an influence on his Sistine Chapel ceiling frescoes. The images shown above are: (1) a full view of the Porta Magna; (2) the Creation of Adam; (3) Original Sin, showing Adam, Eve, the serpent and the apple; and (4) on the bezel, Madonna and Child, St. Ambrose and St. Petronio, with five New Testament scenes on the lintel below.

1432-1434 or 1437-1440: Fra Angelico: Deposition of Christ (Deposition from the Cross; Santa Trinità Altarpiece) [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

Originally, Lorenzo Monaco had been commissioned by the Strozzi family to paint an altarpiece for the Strozzi Chapel in the Santa Trinità church in Florence, but Monaco died after finishing only the three scenes above the arches and the commission went to Fra Angelico. (The man known as Fra Angelico (“Angelic Brother”) was born Guido di Pietro in Tuscany in about 1400. He became a painter and a Dominican monk early in his life.) At first Fra Angelico worried that the three Gothic arches would hinder his work, but he worked within the constraints by organizing the figures into three groups. In the center, the wood of the cross, the ladders, and the blue sky behind them provide a neutral background for focusing on the dead body of Jesus. The cross bar of the cross disappears behind the arch, creating the illusion of space. Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea and St. John help to lower Jesus from the cross. Mary Magdalene kisses his feet, a sign of repentance. An unidentified man shows doubters the nails and the horns from the crown of thorns. The background landscape shows the Holy City and Calvary. On the sides of the frame are twelve full-length portraits of saints standing on columns and eight medallions with portrait busts. Fra Angelico used tempera on wood panel to paint the Deposition of Christ, which measures 5.75 ft. high by 6.1 ft. wide. It is now in the National Museum of San Marco in Florence. 

c. 1433-1434: Fra Angelico: The Annunciation of Cortona [Early Renaissance; Cortona, Italy]

The Annunciation is the central panel of an altarpiece that Fra Angelico painted for the Church of St. Dominic in Cortona, although at some point it was transferred to the Church of Gesù and now hangs at the Museo Diocesano in Cortona.  In addition to the Annunciation, which was made with tempera on wood panels measuring 5.7 ft. tall by 5.9 ft. wide, the altarpiece includes several scenes from the life of the Virgin Mary on the predella (see first image). The Annunciation takes place in a loggia with elaborate columns (atop one of which is a roundel with the image of the prophet Isaiah, who predicted the birth of Jesus). Mary is dressed elegantly and sits on an ornately decorated seat; the Angel Gabriel, too, is highly ornamented. Fra Angelico has chosen to paint the words of the conversation (taken from the Gospel of Luke) in rippling gold streams between the mouths of Mary and the angel (see second image). As the Holy Spirit (in the form of a dove) hovers over Mary in a halo of golden light, Gabriel says, “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee” and Mary responds, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.” The words of the angel read left to right, while Mary’s words are upside down and read from right to left. As more than one commentator has noted, the words of Mary are designed to be legible only to God, looking down from above. Outside, we see the walled garden, symbol of Mary’s virginity, but we also see Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden. The message is that the birth of Jesus will finally take away the sin that they committed. Random Trivia: The depiction of the Visitation in the predella contains what art historians believe is the first identifiable landscape in Italian art – a view of Lake Trasimeno, the Chiana Valley and the town of Castigliona Florentino (see third image). 

1434: Jan van Eyck: The Arnolfini Portrait (Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini (?) and his Wife) [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]

The Arnolfini Portrait (painted with oil paints on oak panels measuring 2.8 ft. high by by 2 ft. wide) is a masterpiece of Early Netherlandish painting, but it is also a bit of a mystery. Wealthy Italian merchant Giovanni di Nicolao Arnolfini spent most of his life in Bruges, Flanders.  He married in 1426 but his wife died in 1433; he remarried in 1447, six years after Jan van Eyck’s death. So who is the couple in the painting? Is it a memorial to Arnolfini’s recently-deceased wife? Or is it not Arnolfini but another wealthy Flemish couple and the title The Arnolfini Portrait is a misnomer? We may never know. What we do know is that this work is a tour de force of the skills of the painter, Jan van Eyck (who inscribed his name on the far wall). His adept use of oil painting techniques – applied layer after layer of thin translucent glazes – allowed him to mimic many different textures (the fabrics of the clothing and bed linens; the carvings on the wooden bedframe; the metal frame of the chandelier) and to show the way light reflects off different objects (such as the chandelier and the hanging rosary beads). As the piece de resistance, van Eyck places a mirror, like a gazing eye, in the center of the composition that reflects the couple and the room (but in reverse) but also reveals that there are two people standing in the doorway (one of them perhaps the painter himself?). The objects in the room have symbolic value; they refer to love and marriage (the dog, for example, is a symbol of marital fidelity) and also highlight the wealth of the subjects (the oranges near the window would have been expensive luxury items). And no, the woman is not pregnant; that’s just the way she is holding up her fashionable dress. The Arnolfini Portrait is now in the National Gallery in London.

1434-1435: Jan van Eyck: Madonna of Chancellor Rolin [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]

The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, also known as Virgin and Child with Chancellor Rolin, was commissioned by Nicolas Rolin, the chancellor of the Duchy of Burgundy, for his parish church in Autun, France (see first image). It was common practice to paint the donor into the painting, but before the Renaissance, such figures were painted on a much smaller scale than the saints and religious icons. Here, Rolin and the Madonna are equal size, a reflection of the humanism that characterized the Renaissance. Jan van Eyck, a master of the Early Netherlandish school, is known for his attention to detail. Here, note the intricacies of the floor tiles, the crown that the angel is holding, the carvings on the columns, and the landscape outside, with churches, a garden and additional figures (see second image). The Madonna of Chancellor Rolin, made with oils on a wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. high by 2 ft. wide, is now in the Louvre in Paris.

c. 1435: Rogier van der WeydenDescent from the Cross (Deposition of Christ)
[Early Netherlandish; Flanders]
Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden was commissioned by the Leuven guild of archers to make this large panel painting (7 ft. tall by 8.5 ft. wide) of Christ being lowered from the cross into the arms of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus, which originally hung in the guild’s chapel (see first image). In honor of the donor guild, Christ’s body approximates the shape of a crossbow. This is an early depiction of the swooning Mary figure, which soon became standard iconography, although it has no basis in Scripture. The painting is considered one of the most unique and influential of the 15th Century and was copied many times. Scholars have pointed out the vividness of the colors and the realistic facial expressions, including a tearful St. John reaching down to help Mary (second image). Mary Magdalene’s grief is expressed through her entire body (third image). One art historian compared the “undulating lines, swaying poses and counterposes of figures” to counterpoint in polyphonic music. The Descent from the Cross is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

c. 1434-1436: Jan van EyckVirgin and Child with Canon van der Paele
[Early Netherlandish/Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
van der paele madonna
Jan van Eyck’s Virgin and Child with Canon van der Paele is an early example of a sacra conversazione, in which various religious figures are gathered without reference to any specific religious event.  Here, the donor (Canon van der Paele, a wealthy priest) kneels before Mary and Jesus, with Saint Donatian of Reims (patron saint of Bruges) at left and St. George (the donor’s name saint) at right. Note that in contrast to medieval convention, in which figures from the heavenly realm – Jesus, Mary and the saints – are depicted as gigantic compared with earthly mortals, all the figures here are shown at the same scale. Scholars attribute this change in tradition to a change in societal attitudes about the role of human beings known as humanism. The painting, also known as Madonna with Canon van der Paele, was made with oil paints on wood panels and measures 4.6 ft tall by 5.8 ft wide (including frame). It is now at Groeningemuseum in Bruges.

1438: Robert Campin (?): Werl Altarpiece (The Werl Triptych) [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]

Originally a triptych, the Werl Altarpiece is missing its central panel, leaving us with the wings. Each wing is painted with oils on a wood panel measuring 3.3 ft. high by 1.5 ft. wide. The left wing shows the donor, Franciscan priest Heinrich von Werl, kneeling in prayer before the devotional scene in the missing central panel. Behind him is his intermediary, John the Baptist, with his attribute, the Lamb of God. In an homage to van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait, a mirror on the wall reflects the room and reveals a figure not otherwise visible (see second image). The right panel shows St. Barbara sitting in a contemporary room with a book and a blazing fire; the viewer looks down from a high angle. The sumptuous green of her clothes contrasts with the rich red of the cushions. The tiled floor shows perspective, and the statue of the Holy Trinity on the mantle is a marvel in miniaturism. The figure is identified as St. Barbara by the tower outside the window, a reference to the story that her father locked her in a  tower. Art historians have noted that while the artist excelled in rendering the furnishings of St. Barbara’s room and in showing the effects of two light sources (sun and fire) of different qualities, his work on St. Barbara’s figure lacks substance. Scholars have disputed the attribution of the work; while most agree that Robert Campin painted it, a minority believe it was executed by his workshop assistants as a pastiche. The work is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

c. 1435-1440: Donatello: David [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

Early Renaissance Italian artist Donatello made two statues of the Biblical David. The second sculpture, which is the more highly regarded of the two, shows the young hero, having slain Goliath, standing with his foot on the giant’s head (see second image), and carrying Goliath’s immense sword (see first image). Standing 6.2 ft. tall, Donatello’s David is the first unsupported bronze statue of the Renaissance and the first freestanding nude male sculpture in any medium since Greek and Roman times. David was considered a symbol of Florence, and the Medici family commissioned the statue for their palace courtyard as a political statement about their place in the Florentine power structure. While the statue’s beauty is undisputed, some have commented on its departures from traditional forms. Some find the boy’s nudity odd, given his hat and boots. Some find the figure too effeminate or androgynous. Others claim that the very aspects some find ‘odd’ are intended to demonstrate that David’s victory over Goliath was not a result of strength, but of God’s will that a boy not yet a man could conquer a giant. Still others find homoerotic elements in the composition, such as the way the feather from Goliath’s cap runs up the inside of David’s leg (see second image). The David is now in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello in Florence.

c. 1440-1442: Stefan Lochner: Madonna of the Rose Bower
[International Gothic/Northern Renaissance, Germany]

Also known as Virgin of the Rose Bower. the painting presents Mary in her role as Queen of Heaven, surrounded by symbols of purity, such as the enclosed garden. The presence of God the Father and the Holy Spirit at top center also make this a representation of the Holy Trinity. German artist Stefan Lochner brings together aspects of the dominant International Gothic (line, color) mixed with the influence of the newer Northern Renaissance style (realism, iconography). Painted on oak panels measuring 1.6 ft tall by 1.3 ft wide, the Madonna of the Rose Bower is now at the  Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne, Germany. Note: Some art historians date the painting to c. 1448 based on its similarities with Lochner’s Dombild Altarpiece from that year.

1444: Konrad Witz: The Miraculous Draught of Fishes [Northern Renaissance; Switzerland]
According to the Gospel of John, after Jesus died and rose from the dead, seven of his disciples spent all night fishing without luck. In the morning, a man called from shore and asked if they had caught anything. When they said no, he told them to put the net on the right side of the boat; when they did, they caught 153 large fish. One of the disciples recognized the man as Jesus and called out, at which point Peter jumped in the water to meet him. A number of painters have depicted this story, including German-born Swiss painter Konrad Witz, who painted The Miraculous Draught of Fishes in 1444 as part of the altarpiece for St. Peter’s Cathedral in Geneva. Most of the altarpiece is lost, but The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is one of four surviving wings. Made with oils on a wood panel measuring 4.3 ft. tall by 5 ft. wide, the painting’s importance to art history is based not on its figures, but on the realistic landscape. Witz substituted Lake Geneva for the Sea of Galilee, and in doing so, was able to paint an accurate and realistic depiction of an actual landscape, not the imaginary, idealized landscape found in so much earlier art. Furthermore, the landscape has been promoted from a minor element seen through a window to a major component of the composition. In addition to his landscape painting prowess, Witz used the work to examine the properties of reflections on water. Note, however, that the resurrected Jesus casts no reflection. The Miraculous Draught of Fishes is now in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Geneva.

c. 1441-1446: Fra Angelico: The Annunciation [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
In 1439, Fra Angelico transferred to the priory of San Marco in Florence, which was sponsored by the Medici family. It was at San Marco that Fra Angelico painted some of his most important works, many of them frescoes painted on the walls for the benefit of the other monks. Standing at the bottom of the staircase to the second floor, a monk looking up would have seen a large fresco of The Annunciation, the story from the Gospel of Luke in which an angel visits Mary to inform her that, although she is a virgin, she will bear a child who will be the Son of God.  Measuring 7.5 ft. tall by 10.5 ft. wide, the fresco’s unusual perspective lines are based on a viewer looking up from the bottom of the stairs. The work is remarkable for its spare quality – there is none of the clutter of objects and symbols common in other Annunciations, maybe because the monks already knew the story and did not need guidance. The left side of the painting is almost two-dimensional in its flatness. Even Angel Gabriel and the Madonna are less substantial than some figures from earlier Renaissance works. It is as if Fra Angelico is aware of the new styles but is not quite ready to adopt them. The lighting is also odd, with a strong light source at the upper left, but few shadows. Still, the moment at the center contains much for the monks to contemplate, including the way the angel and Madonna lean in toward each other, their mirrored hand gestures, the expressions in their eyes, and even the rainbow of color in the angel’s wings. The Annunciation remains in the Convent of San Marco in Florence where Fra Angelico painted it, now known as the Museum of San Marco.

c. 1445-1447: Domenico VenezianoSanta Lucia de’ Magnoli Altarpiece (St. Lucy Altarpiece)[Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
veneziano st lucy

Domenico Veneziano’s St. Lucy Altarpiece is considered by some to be the first true sacra conversazione, in which Mary, Jesus and selected saints share a single space and relate as equals outside the context of any particular Biblical narrative. The altarpiece is missing the predella, which consisted of five scenes from the lives of the depicted saints; it was removed and the panels are now located in four different museums. The altarpiece was commissioned for the Santa Lucia dei Magnoli Church in Florence, a Franciscan church dedicated to St. Lucy. Not surprisingly, then, Sts. Francis and Lucy are among those depicted (from left): St. Francis, St. John the Baptist (Florence’s patron saint), Mary and Jesus, St. Zenobius (Florence’s first bishop), and St. Lucy. Painted using the rules of single-point linear perspective, the St. Lucy Altarpiece was made with tempera on wood panels and measures 2.7 ft high by 2.8 ft wide. It is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.  The predella sections are (from left to right): (1) St. Francis Receiving the Stigmata, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.; (2) St. John the Baptist in the Desert, National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. (second image); (3) The Annunciation, Fitzwilliam Museum (University of Cambridge), Cambridge, UK (third image);, (4) A Miracle of St. Zenobius, National Gallery in London; and (5) The Martyrdom of St. Lucy, now in the State Museums of Berlin. 

c. 1445-1450: Andrea del Castagno: The Last Supper [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
Andrea_del_Castagno last supper

Andrea del Castagno’s Last Supper is a fresco measuring 14.9 ft tall by 32 ft wide that was painted on the wall of the dining room of Sant’Apollonia convent in Florence, Italy. Scholars have noted that the detail and naturalism of del Castagno’s style are advances over work by earlier painters (see detail showing St. Peter, Judas, Jesus, and a sleeping St. John in second image). The art world was unaware of the existence of the fresco until 1866, when the convent was closed by an anticlerical Florentine government. As with many depictions of Jesus’ last meal with his Apostles (although not Leonardo da Vinci’s famous and more emotionally-charged 1498 version), Judas sits on the other side of the table. The former convent is now the Museo di Cenacolo di Sant’Apollonia in Florence.

c. 1448-1450: Piero della FrancescaThe Baptism of Christ
[Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy]

The Baptism of Christ, by Italian artist Piero della Francesca, measures 5.4 ft. tall and 3.8 ft. wide and was painted with tempera on wood panel. It was commissioned by the Camaldolese Monastery, in Sansepolcro, Italy. Piero was fascinated by perspective and geometry and his paintings have a level of abstraction that is unusual for his time. Examples of Piero’s mathematical composition abound: (1) John the Baptist’s hand, the bowl, Christ’s hands and the dove (representing the Holy Spirit) form an axis that divides the painting into two symmetrical halves; (2) the large tree divides the painting according to the Golden Mean; (3) the angles made by John’s arm and leg are equivalent; and (4) a horizontal line runs from the man taking off his shirt on the right, through John’s belt and Christ’s waist to the belts of the angels. The painting may contain references to the Council of Florence, which sought to unite Western and Eastern rite churches and was supported by Camaldolese monk St. Ambrose Traversari. The Baptism of Christ is now in the National Gallery in London.

c. 1450: Andrea del Castagno: The Youthful David [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

The Youthful David is painted on a decorative shield that would have been displayed on public occasions or in parades. Although most such shields were painted with a family’s coat of arms, some depicted heroes or other painted scenes. Italian Renaissance painter Andrea del Castagno here shows a young David (a Florentine symbol/mascot) with his sling in an active pose, with the head of Goliath beneath his feet. Painted on leather-covered wood and measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 2.5 ft wide (top) and 1.3 ft wide (bottom), this may be the only such painted shield known to the art world. It is now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

1425-1452: Lorenzo Ghiberti: The Gates of Paradise (East Doors of Florence Baptistery) [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

adam and eve     gates of paradise 2Ghiberti
The Gates of Paradise is the name coined by Michelangelo for the gilded bronze relief sculptures carved by Italian artist Lorenzo Ghiberti for the east doors of the Florence Baptistery. This was the second set of door panels carved by Ghiberti for the building. In 1401, at the age of 23, he won a contest to create 28 panels with scenes from the New Testament for what are now the north doors, a project he finished in 1423. In 1425, Ghiberti received a commission to create 10 panels with scenes from the Old Testament for the east doors. This project, which involved a dangerous gilding process, took him 27 years to finish. The second set of doors incorporates the newly discovered rules of perspective and the scenes have a naturalism that is absent from the north door reliefs. The doors are 17 ft. tall, and each panel is 2.6 ft square (see first image). Between the panels, narrow borders contain 20 full-length portraits and 24 heads in roundels of prophets and evangelists, including a Ghiberti roundel self-portrait (see border in third image; roundel self-portrait in fourth image). Since 1990, the doors at the Baptistery have been reproductions, in order to protect the originals from weather damage. Serious conservation efforts began in 1966 after a flood dislodged six of the panels. The originals were brought to the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, where they recently underwent a 27-year-long restoration and cleaning (see second image, showing Adam and Eve, and third image, showing Solomon and the Queen Sheba). 

c. 1450-1452: Jean Fouquet: The Melun Diptych
[International Gothic/Northern Renaissance; France]
Jean_Fouquet melun diptych

The Melun Diptych, which was made with tempera on two wood panels, each measuring 3 ft. high by 2.8 ft. wide, was created by French artist Jean Fouquet for Étienne Chevalier, treasurer to King Charles VII, to hang over the tomb of Chevalier’s wife. The name of the piece comes from the Collegiate Church of Notre-Dame in Melun, where it originally resided. The left wing contains a portrait of Chevalier beside his patron saint, St. Stephen, shown with a rock to remind us that he was stoned to death (to drive the point home, blood drips from a wound on the saint’s head). Fouquet adeptly uses the rules of linear perspective to create the illusion of space receding into the background. The left wing is in the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. The right wing is another matter entirely. Entitled Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels (or Madonna and Child), the panel depicts the Virgin Mary ‘sitting’ on an ornate throne with the baby Jesus on her lap. Mary, who may be a posthumous portrait of the king’s mistress Agnès Sorel (called by some ‘the most beautiful woman in the world’) has ghostly marble skin, a fashionable shaved hairline and is wearing the equivalent of 15th Century haute couture. And there is the problem of the exposed breast; one commentator described it as “pneumatic”, another termed it “gravity-defying.” There is no indication that Jesus is breastfeeding, so the gratuitous partial nudity seems to serve no purpose but to titillate those paying their respects to the dear departed Mrs. Chevalier, while creating what Dutch historian Johan Huizinga described as an “air of decadent impiety.” To add to the extreme oddity of the scene, the background is full of red and blue angels who interlock, Escher-like, to create a two-dimensional surface. In an attempt to explain the unnatural color scheme, one scholar theorized that Fouquet meant to honor the red, white and blue of the French flag. To further disorient the viewer, in depicting the heavenly space in the right panel, Fouquet completely abandoned the rules of perspective he employed so well on the left. Ironically, the unnatural and otherworldly aspects of the painting make it seem much more modern than a typical 15th Century religious painting. Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels is at the Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Antwerp. The two wings of the diptych have been seen together only once in the past 200 years, at a 1904 exhibition in France. Random Trivia: A 2.4 in. medallion with Fouquet’s portrait was originally attached to the frame; it is now in the Louvre in Paris (see third image).

c. 1453: Donatello: The Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata [Early Renaissance, Padua, Italy]

The Equestrian Statue of Gattamelata is a bronze equestrian statue that has stood in the Piazzo del Santo in Padua, Italy since Donatello completed the commission in 1453. The Republic of Venice commissioned Donatello to create a monument to a revered military leader (“condotiero”) Erasmo da Narmi (1370-1443), known by his nickname Gattamelata (“speckled cat”). Measuring 11.1 ft tall by 12.8 ft long on a 26.5 ft by 13.4 ft base, the statue – the earliest extant equestrian statue of the Renaissance – revived the Classical iconography of depicting heroes on horseback. In order to create a sense of movement, Donatello angled the head of the horse and lifted its left foreleg, but concerns over balancing the horse on three legs led him to place a sphere beneath the lifted leg. 

c. 1453-1455: Donatello: Penitent Magdalene (Mary Magdalene)
[Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

Carved from white poplar wood and standing 6.2 ft tall, Donatello’s ultra-realistic Mary Magdalene, shown suffering the symptoms of abstinence and fasting, shocked and awed contemporaries and stands apart from the rest of Donatello’s ouevre in both style and substance. Although the story of Mary Magdalene going into the desert to fast and repent from her life as a prostitute has no basis in the Gospels, it was a popular subject for artists in the Renaissance and afterwards. Scholars believe that concept of the penitent Magdalene resulted from a conflation of the character in the Gospels with St. Mary of Egypt, a 4th Century CE former prostitute who fasted in the desert while repenting her sins. Probably originally placed in the Baptistery of the Florence Cathedral, the sculpture was originally painted and gilded. Experts are divided over whether the statue’s dominant feature is the pathetic weakness of the emaciated penitent or the inner emotional strength she displays despite her condition. In support of the latter view, art historian Martha Levine Dunkelman wrote: “She can be read as a representation of continuing physical and emotional tenacity in the face of adversity – her suffering having increased her power.” Donatello’s Mary Magdalene (also known as The Penitent Magdalene), is now in the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Florence. Note: While most experts date the statue to the 1450s, some believe it was made much earlier, in the 1430s. 

c. 1438-1455: Paolo UccelloThe Battle of San Romano [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
Part I: c. 1438-1440

Part II: c. 1435-1455

Part III: c. 1455

Florentine painter Paolo Uccello’s The Battle of San Romano consists of three paintings depicting events from a 1432 battle between Florence and Siena. All three were painted on poplar wood panels using egg tempera with walnut and linseed oils and gold and silver leaf, the latter of which has oxidized to gray or black. Each panel measures approximately 6 ft. high and 10.5 ft. wide. The first panel shows Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (first image) and is at the National Gallery in London. The second panel is Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino unseats Bernardino della Ciarda at the Battle of San Romano, (second image) and is in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. The final painting is The Counterattack of Michelotto da Cotignola at the Battle of San Romano (third image), which is in the Louvre in Paris. The paintings were designed to be hung high on three walls of a room, and Uccello’s use of perspective presumes that viewers are looking up, not straight ahead. All three paintings were commissioned by the Bartolini Salimbeni family, although once Lorenzo de’ Medici saw them, he decided he had to have them, so he bought one and stole the other two.

c. 1453-1457: Andrea Mantegna: St. James Led to His Execution
[Early Renaissance; Padua, Italy] destroyed

mantegna st james frescoes
Early Renaissance painter Andrea Mantegna painted six frescoes showing scenes from the life of St. James on a wall of the Ovetari Chapel of the Eremitani Church in Padua, the most highly-regarded of which was St. James Led to His Execution (also called St. James Led to Martyrdom). In the fresco (which measures 14 ft. tall by 11 ft. wide), Mantegna – who loved to give himself perspectival problems to solve – deliberately ignored the strict rules of one-point linear perspective in having no single point where all lines meet. He presented what is called a “worm’s eye view” – looking up at the figures from below – while also preserving the sight lines from the chapel so that viewers would not be disoriented. This and the other five frescoes are only known from black and white photographs, however, because on March 11, 1944, during World War II, Allied bombs hit the church, leaving only fragments of Mantegna’s artwork (see third image showing photographs of all six scenes). There is also a preparatory study for the fresco (c. 1455) in the collection of the British Museum (see second image).

1456-1459: Andrea Mantegna: The Crucifixion (Calvary) [Early Renaissance; Verona, Italy] Andrea_Mantegna crucifixion

Italian artist Andrea Mantegna painted The Crucifixion (first image) to be the center panel of the predella of an altarpiece (second image) commissioned by Gregorio Correr, the abbot of the Benedictine monastery of San Zeno in Verona, Italy. Mantegna made the painting with tempera and oil paints on wood panel measuring 2.2 ft. high by 3.1 ft. wide. In the late 18th Century, invading French troops took The Crucifixion and other paintings from the San Zeno altarpiece and brought them back to France. The Louvre bought The Crucifixion in 1798, and the other two predella paintings were purchased by another French museum. As the result of an 1815 treaty, some of the paintings taken from San Zeno were repatriated, but The Crucifixion stayed at the Louvre. The San Zeno now displays copies of the predella paintings in the altarpiece. Scholars admire Mantegna’s Crucifixion for its expert use of both atmospheric and linear perspective. In atmospheric perspective, the sky is shaded to use lighter blue to appear more distant. In linear perspective, figures are foreshortened to show distance, and lines converge to a vanishing point, here directly behind the center cross. To emphasize the diagonals, Mantegna has angled the crosses of the two criminals and even used the cracks in the flooring to lead our eyes back. To create a sense of monumentality, Mantegna has given the viewer a steep upward point of view, and also kept the horizon line low. The painting is filled with striking details, particularly the City on a Hill to the back left, which represents Jerusalem, but also functions as an Italian hill town. Unlike many Florentine painters, who settled for approximating historical accuracy, Mantegna had an almost scientific passion for recreating the look of the past, exemplified here by the clothing and equipment of the Roman soldiers of Jesus’s time.

1455-1460: Piero della FrancescaThe Flagellation of Christ [Early Renaissance; Urbino, Italy]
Art critic Kenneth Clark called Piero della Francesca’s The Flagellation of Christ “the greatest small painting in the world.” Painted with oils and tempera on wood panel measuring 1.9 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, The Flagellation of Christ is notable for the artist’s deft use of perspective in contrasting the three men in the right foreground with the scene in the open air building, left rear, which almost certainly depicts the whipping of Christ as described in the Gospels. As for the identities of the three men on the right, and some of the figures on the left, there are a plethora of theories. Many scholars believe that the figures on the right are contemporaries of Piero, or represent other men from the recent past. The theory that the right and left sides of the painting occur in different eras finds support in the unusual lighting: the flagellation scene is lit from one direction, while the three men are lit from another. The time warp theory might also explain why the men on the right are ignoring the violence going on behind them. One common explanation is that the young man in the middle is Oddantonio da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino, with his two advisors, all three of whom had been murdered in 1444. Other scholars point to evidence contradicting that theory. As for the less controversial left side, most scholars agree that the sitting man is Pontius Pilate, and the man with his back turned is Herod, but this is not accepted by all. In fact, one art historian believes that the person being flogged is not Jesus but St. Jerome. The Flagellation of Christ is in the collection of the Galleria Nazionale delle Marche in Urbino, Italy.

c. 1460: Rogier van der Weyden: Portrait of a Lady [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]

Although we know that Flemish artist Rogier van der Weyden (1399? – 1464) made many portraits in the last years of his life, this small panel is the only surviving portrait of a woman attributable to him. The woman (her name is lost) is dressed in the fashionable Burgundian style, which the artist reveals in loving detail, but the clasped hands and lowered gaze indicate penitent humility. Van der Weyden uses the elaborate veil as the touchstone for a series of geometric symmetries that balance the composition. Made with oil paints on an oak panel measuring 13 in. tall by 10 in. wide, Portrait of a Lady is now in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Random Trivia: Anatomists might note that the lady’s left ear is positioned higher on her head than normal; art historians suspect that the artist may have raised the ear in order to balance his portrait, thus favoring aesthetic truth over anatomical.

c. 1459-1462: Benozzo GozzoliThe Procession of the Magi (The Journey of the Magi to Bethlehem) [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

magi south wall gozzoli self-portrait
After renowned architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo designed and built a new Florentine home for the powerful Medici family, Palazzo Medici, the family commissioned Fra Angelico’s former student, Benozzo Gozzoli, to paint frescoes on the walls of the Palazzo’s chapel. Gozzoli painted The Procession of the Magi on three walls of the large hall, which is now known as the Magi Chapel. Each of the three kings and his retinue receives a wall, with Caspar, the youngest king, leading the procession on the east wall (shown in first image), Balthasar following on the south wall (see second image) and Melchior, the oldest, bringing up the rear on the west wall (see third image). Among the kings’ entourages are portraits of the Medicis, their friends and business associates, political and religious leaders as well as at least one Gozzoli self-portrait (see fourth image above). The style is International Gothic, but in creating the sumptuous landscapes, Gozzoli may have been influenced by the Medicis’ large collection of Early Netherlandish tapestries. When the Riccardi family moved into what is now called the Palazzo Medici-Riccardi in the mid-17th Century, they made architectural changes that required cutting a hole in the south wall of the Magi Chapel to make a new door. The fresco was saved by removing part of the wall, cutting it in two pieces and building a new, jutting corner wall, but gone was the simple symmetry of Gozzoli’s original design. Random Trivia: One of the reasons the 15th Century frescoes are so well preserved is that the walls are hollow – the Medicis had a maze of secret passageways built into the Palazzo to allow quick escapes. The unusual construction significantly reduced moisture, which is a fresco’s worst enemy.

1460-1462: Piero della Francesca: Misericordia Altarpiece
[Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy]

In 1445, the Confraternity della Misericordia, a lay Christian group in Sansepolcro, Italy, commissioned Sansepolcro native Piero della Francesca to paint what is now known as the Misericordia Altarpiece, or the Polyptych of the Misericordia (see first image, showing recreated altarpiece). The commission specified certain subjects and styles, including the outdated Gothic trope of a solid gilded background for the figures. Although the commission required delivery of the finished altarpiece in three years, Piero did not complete it until 17 years later, in 1462. The altarpiece, which contains Piero’s earliest surviving work, shows his indebtedness to Donatello and Masaccio and his love of geometric forms. It also embodies a tension between the donors’ desire for the styles and forms of a previous generation, and Piero’s embrace of modern Renaissance principles. The earliest panels completed were those of St. Sebastian and St. John the Baptist. Next were the Crucifixion, St. Benedict, the Angel, the Madonna of the Annunciation, and St. Francis. Piero finished the figures of St. Andrew and St. Bernardino about 1450. Despite the commission’s edict that Piero perform all the work himself, Piero assigned the predella, with five scenes of the life of Jesus, to his assistants. The last panel Piero painted was the centerpiece, the Madonna della Misericordia (Virgin of Mercy), which measures 4.3 ft. tall by 2.9 ft. wide (second image). While the practice of making the Virgin Mary much larger than her followers is a holdover from the Gothic style, the piece contains many Renaissance attributes. The Virgin stands with her hands outstretched, enfolding a group of eight kneeling townspeople in her mantle, including an anonymous member of the donor confraternity (with hood). The mantle echoes the arch above the Virgin’s head. Despite the limitations posed by the two-dimensional gilded backdrop, Piero manages to create a realistic three-dimensional space within the mantle that recalls the apse of a church. The Misericordia Altarpiece, which is painted with oils and tempera on wood panels measuring 10.8 ft. wide by 8.9 ft. tall overall, is located in the Pinacotea Comunale of Sansepolcro, Italy.

c. 1460-1463 (or 1485-1490): Niccolò dell’Arca: Lamentation over the Dead Christ
[Early Renaissance; Bologna, Italy]
lamentation dell arca
lamentation 2     
Scholars cannot reach consensus on the date that Italian sculptor Niccolò dell’Arca created the seven-piece terracotta group Lamentation over the Dead Christ (Compianto sul Cristo morto) for the sanctuary of Santa Maria della Vita in Bologna, where it is still located.  One group gives a date near 1460, probably 1463, while another faction asserts a much later date of 1485-1490. Whatever the date, all agree that the life-sized figures, especially the six who are gathered around the dead body of Jesus (the Virgin Mary, Mary Magdalene, Mary Clopas, Salome, John the Apostle, and Joseph of Arimathea), show extraordinary drama and pathos in their stances and facial expressions (see detail in second image). This combination of realism and expressionism in the figures, which were originally painted, was very influential on other Early Renaissance artists. Art historians have noted some Burgundian influences in the carving, derived either from the influence of Catalan sculptor Guillem Sagrera, who worked on the Castel Nuovo in Naples in the 1450s or from a possible trip dell’Arca took to France in the 1460s. Random Trivia: Sculptors in Bologna used terracotta because there was little quarried marble in the vicinity. Ironically, the less pliable marble would probably not have allowed Niccolò dell’Arca to carve the highly detailed facial expressions that make his figures so life-like.

1460-1464: Andrea Mantegna: Death of the Virgin (Dormition of the Virgin)
[Early Renaissance; Mantua, Italy]

The Virgin Mary lies on her deathbed, surrounded by 11 grieving Apostles, all rendered with great expression and individuality in their faces, gestures and postures. It is her final moment on earth. In his Death of the Virgin, Italian artist Andrea Mantegna draws our eyes to the Madonna using linear perspective, aided by the checkerboard floor tiles and the rows of pilasters (see first image). The sight lines continue into the landscape outside, which is a realistic depiction of Mantua’s lake and Castle of St. George. This choice of landscape is not coincidental: the Death of the Virgin was one of several works Mantegna painted for his employer Ludovico Gonzaga to decorate the chapel of the Castle of St. George, the same castle the viewer sees through the window. In addition to his reliance on perspective to create the illusion of three-dimensionality, Mantegna draws from the Classical tradition to render the architecture and the draperies. Scholars believe that Death of the Virgin, which was made with gold and tempera on wood panel and now measures 21 in. tall by 17 in. wide, once included an upper portion with the figure of Jesus with angels receiving the soul of his mother, Mary. According to experts, approximately one-third of the painting’s height was removed and is now being displayed as a separate work of art under the name Christ Receiving the Virgin (also known as Christ with the Soul of the Virgin) (see second image).  Mantegna’s Death of the Virgin is now located at the Museo del Prado in Madrid. The missing piece, Christ Receiving the Virgin, is in the Pinacoteca Nazionale in Ferrara, Italy.

c. 1459-1465: Giovanni BelliniThe Agony in the Garden [Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
Bellini - Agony in the Garden
The Agony in the Garden refers to that moment when, just prior to his arrest, Jesus asked God to “take this cup away from me” while his disciples slept. Most painters depict The Agony in the Garden in the depths of night, to emphasize that this was a dark hour in the life of Jesus. Giovanni Bellini upends that tradition with his 1465 rendition of the Biblical theme. Consistent with iconographic tradition, Jesus prays while an angel presents him with the sacrificial cup, the foreshortened disciples sleep, and off in the distance, Judas leads a cadre of Roman soldiers to make their arrest, but the scene-stealer is dawn, its salmon-colored light bringing a glow of hope to the bleak, rocky ‘garden’, as well as to the houses in an Italian hill town that doubles as the City of Heaven. Instead of focusing on Jesus’s impending suffering and death, Bellini is already thinking ahead to the salvation that Christians believe his death and resurrection brought about. The composition (without the dawn light) owes much to the previous treatment of the same subject by Bellini’s older brother-in-law Andrea Mantegna, and both paintings appear to be derived from a drawing by Belllini’s father Jacopo. The Agony in the Garden was made with tempera on a wood panel measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide and is now in the National Gallery in London.

c. 1463-1465: Piero della Francesca: The Resurrection of Christ (The Resurrection)
[Early Renaissance; Sansepolcro, Italy]

Piero della Francesca painted The Resurrection of Christ on the wall of a communal meeting hall in his home town of Sansepolcro, in Tuscany, Italy. Measuring approximately 7.5 ft. tall by 6.5 ft. wide, the fresco depicts Christ as he leaves the tomb, while four soldiers – one of whom is a self-portrait of the painter – sleep. The flag with a red cross on a white background was a common symbol of the Resurrection. The painting survived World War II due to the refusal of British artillery officer Tony Clarke to shell Sansepolcro after having read accounts of the painting’s importance to art history. In gratitude, Sansepolcrans named a street after Clarke. As it happened, the Germans had already retreated so the bombing would have been pointless. The meeting hall where Piero painted the Resurrection fresco (and where it remains) is now the Museo Civico of Sansepolcro. 

1458-1466: Piero della FrancescaThe Legend of the True Cross (The History of the True Cross) [Early Renaissance; Arezzo, Italy]

piero della francesca Exaltation of the Holy Cross, Arezzo
true cross 4   battle-between-heraclius-and-chosroes(1)
Between 1452 and 1466, Piero della Francesca painted a cycle of frescoes in the main choir chapel (Cappella Maggiore) of San Francesco Church in Arrezo, Italy on the theme of the Legend of the True Cross (also known as The History of the True Cross) (see first image). Taken from the popular 13th Century book The Golden Legend, these tales follow the cross that Jesus was crucified on from the time the tree was a seed until the recent past. The cycle is considered one of the masterpieces of Early Renaissance painting, with Piero della Francesca excelling in composition, perspective and use of color. Several of the chapel’s frescoes are shown in the above images:
(2) Constantine’s Dream, in which the Roman Emperor, on the eve of battle, dreams of a cross and hears the instructions, “By this sign you shall conquer.” Constantine converts to Christianity and leads his troops to victory. The fresco measures 10.8 ft. tall by 6.2 ft. wide.
(3) Exaltation of the Cross, measuring 12.8 ft. high by 24.5 ft. wide, shows Heraclius carrying the cross back to Jerusalem, when a group of passersby kneel down to worship it.
(4) Finding and Recognition of the True Cross, measuring 11.7 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide. This fresco shows Constantine’s mother and others who had been searching for the cross finally find it and recognize it as the true cross when a dead youth is miraculously resurrected.
(5) The Battle between Heraclius and Khosrau, measuring 10.8 ft. tall by 24.5 ft. wide. After Persian king Khosrau stole the true cross, Eastern Emperor Heraclius went to war against him to retrieve it. This fresco shows Heraclius’s victory.
The frescoes remain in the San Francesco Church in Arezzo, Italy.

1464-1467: Dieric Bouts: The Last Supper [Early Netherlandish; Leuven, Flanders]
bouts altarpiece
bouts detail   bouts detail 2
Dieric Bouts was an Early Netherlandish painter who was influenced by Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden. Made with oil paints on wood panel measuring 5.9 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide, The Last Supper was the central panel of an altarpiece for St. Peter’s Church in Leuven and was commissioned by the Leuven Confraternity of the Holy Sacrament. There were four smaller panels on the wings of the altarpiece (called the Altarpiece of the Holy Sacrament or the Altarpiece of the Last Supper) with scenes from the Old Testament (see first image). Bouts’ Last Supper is one of the first northern European examples of the strict application of the rules of linear perspective developed in Italy; the main room has a single vanishing point on the mantle above Christ’s head; the small room and outside landscapes also have vanishing points. The composition and color scheme are highly unified. The apostles are not highly individualized or emotionally expressive; they seem frozen in space and time as Jesus consecrates the host. Meanwhile, four servants dressed in Flemish attire look on, including two who peek through a window from the kitchen (see second image). There are glimpses of outdoor landscapes through narrow windows (see second and third images). The altarpiece is located in St. Peter’s Church in Leuven, Belgium.

c. 1470: Paolo Uccello: The Hunt in the Forest [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
 Paolo_Uccello_hunt detail
The Hunt in the Forest (also known as The Hunt, or The Hunt by Night) was the last major work by Florentine painter Paolo Uccello before he died in 1475. We do not know who commissioned it, but it may have been designed for a spalliera (the back of a bench or the headboard or footboard of a bed) for a prosperous Florentine family. Painted with tempera, oil and gold leaf on a wood panel measuring 2.17 ft. tall by 5.42 ft. wide, The Hunt in the Forest is a fine example of the use of linear perspective (see first image). The artist used a grid on the wood panels to ensure that objects diminished in size as they became more distant. The perspectival vanishing point also serves the painting’s subject matter, as the dogs chase the roebuck into the distance at the work’s dark center, while the brightly-colored hunters and their entourages hesitate amid the noise and disorganization (see detail in second image). The scene is remarkable for its setting – a moonlit night in the forest – and its chaos. It is also a rare example of a contemporary secular subject painted for domestic use from this period. It is not clear is whether the scene is supposed to be real or imaginary, but the foliage of the trees was originally lined with gold leaf, giving it a magical sparkle, and there is at least one (probable) Classical reference: the crescents on the horses’ dressings may be crescent moons, symbol of Diana, goddess of the hunt. The Hunt in the Forest is now in the Ashmolean Museum, in Oxford, England.

c. 1470: Paolo UccelloSaint George and the Dragon [Early Renaissance; Italy]
st. george and the dragonPaolo_Uccello_st george 
Italian artist Paolo Uccello painted two versions of the story of Saint George and the Dragon, which most European Christians knew from the 13th Century book of saints’ lives called The Golden Legend. The earlier version, from 1435-1440, showed a not very fearsome-looking green dragon rearing up on its hind (that is, only) legs, while the damsel watches Saint George drive the spear home (see second image). Thirty years later, Uccello returned to the subject (see first image). This time, he combined two aspects of the story, ignoring narrative flow in favor of pictorial balance. At the same time that St. George is spearing the loathsome dragon (which had been terrorizing the local people by bringing them the black plague), the damsel is taming him, using her belt as a leash. While it is difficult to see how both actions could occur simultaneously, the composition is now balanced nicely, with one human on each side, both interacting with the dragon. Uccello uses the spear to establish a sense of three-dimensional space; at the same time, by lining up the spear with the spiraling storm behind St. George, Uccello implies that heavenly power assisted the saint in accomplishing his heroic quest. Scholars have noted Uccello’s penchant for Gothic touches (such as the dragon’s wing emblems) as well as occasionally ignoring naturalism in favor of accurate perspective (as in the case of the oddly shaped patches of grass). Uccello’s 1470 version of Saint George and the Dragon is at the National Gallery in London.

1467-1471: Hans MemlingThe Last Judgment [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]
memling last judgment
It was not until the mid-19th Century that an art historian definitively attributed The Last Judgment to German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling, who had studied with Rogier van der Weyden. Memling painted the triptych using tempera and oil on wood panels measuring 7.9 ft. high by 5.9 ft. wide (center panel) and 7.9 ft. high by 2.9 ft. wide (wings). The painting shows Jesus in heaven, surrounded by the Virgin Mary, the apostles and angels, sitting atop a rainbow with his feet on a golden globe. His two hands indicate the two possible fates of the sinners below, a dichotomy emphasized by the symbolic lily of mercy and sword of justice hovering nearby. Below Jesus, St. Michael the Archangel weighs the souls of the sinners (one of whom is a portrait of a donor) to determine if they should go to heaven or hell. The right panel depicts the chaos of hell, where black monsters shove the damned into a fiery volcanic pit. The left panel shows the orderly procession of the saved up the steps to the gates of heaven, where they meet St. Peter and various clerics. As a perk of salvation, the saved receive clothing from dispensing angels. The sinners’ nude bodies form a spiral chain that links the three panels together. Memling was known for his ability to create coherent compositions with large numbers of figures, and this early work is no exception. The Last Judgment has a tumultuous history. It was commissioned by Angelo Toni, who was in Bruges as an agent of the Medici family, who wanted it for the Badia Fuesolana Church in Florence. The painting was placed on a ship in 1473 bound for Florence via London. Unfortunately English trade was then subject to a blockade by the Hanseatic League. A privateer ship from Gdańsk in the pay of the Hanseatic League boarded the ship and took the cargo, including the painting, which ended up in the Basilica of the Assumption in Gdańsk. Numerous attempts were made to bring the painting to Italy. During the Napoleonic Wars, the painting was removed by the French, who later returned it to Poland. The Last Judgment is now in the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland.

1465-1472: Piero della Francesca: Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza [Early Renaissance; Urbino, Italy]

dukes of urbino reverse  
Piero della Francesca painted the diptych entitled Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro and Battista Sforza (known by various other names, including Portraits of the Duke and Duchess of Urbino, Diptych of the Duchess and Duke of Urbino, and Double Portrait of the Dukes of Urbino) between 1465 and 1472 using tempera on two wood panels, each measuring 1.5 ft. high by 1 ft. wide (first image). The painting may be a memorial tribute for the Duchess, who died in 1472 from complications after childbirth, in which case Piero may have used her death mask to create the image.  (Other experts believe the painting may date to shortly after the couple’s marriage in 1465.) Over a plain black dress, the Duchess wears intricately decorated garments on her arms and neck, as well as an elaborate headpiece. Her hairline is shaved to create a great expanse of forehead, as was the fashion. The choice to pose in profile hearkens back to Roman coins or portrait medals and heraldic medallions, adding a formality to the depictions, but also placing the Duke and his lost partner in eternal conversation. The Duke was always painted on his left side, as he had lost his right eye and the bridge of his nose in a jousting tournament accident. The composition shows the two leaders towering over vast landscapes, which we view from an aerial perspective, a clear message about the power exerted by the two subjects over their territory. On the reverse of the portraits, Piero painted the subjects being carried in triumphal chariots with allegorical figures representing the Virtues, with Latin inscriptions below (second image). The Duke is carried on a chariot led by white horses with Justice, Wisdom, Valor and Moderation, while the Duchess is joined by Faith, Hope and Charity on a chariot led by unicorns, a symbol of chastity. The diptych is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

1465-1474: Andrea Mantegna: Frescoes, Camera degli Sposi, Castle of San Giorgio
[Early Renaissance; Mantua, Italy]

mantegna camera degli sposi 

In the mid-1400s, Ludovico III Gonzaga commissioned Andrea Mantegna to paint frescoes in the Camera degli Sposi, or bridal chamber, of the Ducal Palace in Mantua, Italy. The major frescoes include a court scene on the north wall, a meeting scene on the north wall, and an oculus on the ceiling (see second image). Each fresco creates the trompe-d’oeil illusion of additional space beyond the wall or ceiling: the ceiling oculus, for example, appears to open into the sky above, with various characters peering over the edge down into the room (first image). It is one of the first di sotto in sù ceiling paintings. The court and meeting scenes show the patron with friends, family and dignitaries (see third and fourth images). The frescoes remain in the bridal chamber in the northeast tower of the Castle of San Giorgio in Mantua.  

1472-1474: Piero della FrancescaThe Brera Madonna (Madonna and Child with Saints; Montefeltro Altarpiece) [Early Renaissance; Italy]

The Brera Madonna belongs to the genre of sacra conversazione, which shows saints and other religious figures gathered in a group without identifying any particular event or holy occasion. At the center of the composition is a seated Virgin Mary, with a contorted baby Jesus on her lap, three angels behind her and six saints, including St. John the Baptist (front left) and St. Francis (back right) standing beside her. The kneeling figure, wearing his armor, is the patron, the Duke of Urbino, Federico da Montefeltro. In his loving attention to the tiniest of objects, such as the angels’ jewelry (see second image, above), artist Piero della Francesca acknowledges the debt that he and other Italian Renaissance painters owe to the detail-obsessed Northern European painters of the Early Netherlandish school. The date of the piece is uncertain, although it must have been painted before the Duke received an important honor in 1475, which surely would have been depicted. Some have speculated that the occasion for the painting was the birth of the Duke’s son in 1472, or perhaps the death of his wife, the Duchess, six months later, and they speculate that the mother and son were the models for Mary and Jesus, or at least they represent them symbolically. The painting, possibly Piero della Francesca’s last, reminds us that he was a mathematician as well as an artist. The geometry and symmetry of the space approach perfection. The background is the apse of a church and experts have noted that the gathering around the seated Madonna is another apse, echoing the first. The egg hanging from the ceiling (see second image) is also a symbol, but there is tremendous dispute about what it symbolizes. Most agree that its placement over the Madonna’s head, which is itself oval shaped, means that it refers to some aspect of her holiness, perhaps the virgin birth. In fact, hanging eggs (usually ostrich eggs) from church ceilings was a moderately common practice at the time. (Note that, in his one departure from strict perspective, Piero made the egg larger than that of any living bird. If he had used made it the size of an ostrich egg, it would have been much smaller.) Consistent with the spirit of Renaissance humanism, Piero gave the painting a vanishing point at the level of the figures’ hands, thus making it easier for the faithful to eavesdrop on this holy conversation without being intimidated, instead of setting the vanishing point high, making the figures monumental and imposing. The Brera Madonna (also known as Madonna and Child with SaintsPala di Brera, Montefeltro Altarpiece and Brera Altarpiece) was painted with oil and tempera on wood panels measuring 8.2 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide and is now in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

c. 1470-1475: Antonio Pollaiuolo: Hercules and Antaeus [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

This highly-polished bronze statuette, 1.5 ft tall, depicts the story of Hercules meeting the giant Antaeus, who could not be defeated as long as his feet remained on the earth, his source of strength. Italian painter and sculptor Antonio Pollaiuolo shows the moment when Hercules (wearing the pelt of the Nemean lion) lifts Antaeus off the ground and holds him close while Antaeus begins to expire, his mouth open in a dying scream (see detail in second image). The sculpture, also known as Hercules (or Heracles) Slaying Antaeus, is now located in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence.

c. 1473-1475: Andrea del Verrocchio: David [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

Standing 4.1 ft tall, the David is a bronze statue created by Andrea del Verrocchio for Florence’s powerful Medici family. The Medicis sold it to the ruling signoria, who placed it in the Palazzo Vecchio in 1476. There is some debate among curators over the proper placement of Goliath’s head, which was sculpted separately from David, and it has been placed both next to and between David’s legs. The statue is now located in the Museo Nazionale del Bargello, Florence. Random Trivia: According to one theory/legend, the model for the David was Andrea del Verrocchio’s handsome young student, Leonardo da Vinci.

c. 1475: Hugo van der Goes: The Portinari Altarpiece [Early Netherlandish; Flanders]
portinari altarpiece
portinari_child portinari right wing  
A triptych, the Portinari Altarpiece (measuring 8.3 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide) was commissioned by Italian banker Tommaso Portinari for the church in Florence’s Santa Maria Nuova hospital (see first image). Flemish painter Hugo van der Goes, using oil paints on wood, depicted the Adoration of the Shepherds in the center panel (see second image above), with the Portinari family and their patron saints on the side panels (see first image above). In a break from traditional iconography, the infant Jesus is placed on the ground, on a ‘blanket’ made of golden rays, instead of lying on a crib or on his mother’s lap (second image). A separate narrative goes on in the background of each panel: (1) the left wing shows Joseph and Mary on their way to Bethlehem; (2) the center panel shows the angel appearing to the shepherds; and (3) the right panel shows the Three Magi on their way to see Jesus (third image). When the painting arrived in Florence in 1483, its naturalistic depiction of the figures influenced Domenico Ghirlandaio and other Italian painters. The Portinari Altarpiece is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

1475-1476: Antonello da Messina: Portrait of a Man [Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy]

Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina’s short sojourn in Venice in 1475-1476 had widespread impacts on the future of Venetian painting. Antonello was one of the first in Italy to completely absorb both the technique and the style of the Flemish oil painters from the Early Netherlandish school. Even on the small Portrait of a Man, made with oils on a poplar panel measuring 14 in. tall by 10 in. wide, Antonello shows how the multiple layers of oil paint, painstakingly applied, could produce astonishing effects. What was remarkable about this three-quarter portrait of a middle class man, possibly a self-portrait, was the treatment of light. As one critic noted, light sinks into the subject’s flesh at some points, turning his cheek to red and brown, and it reflects off his eyes and nose, as if it were reflected in a lake. Antonello da Messina had also mastered the Northern European attention to detail, as seen by his handling of the subject’s beard stubble. Yet, for all its Early Netherlandish elements, this was a portrait of an Italian by an Italian, for other Italians to view. There is humor in the idea that, even though the man is having his portrait painted, he seems wary or skeptical of the artist’s intentions – oil glazes catch that expression perfectly. Portrait of a Man is now located in the National Gallery in London. 

c. 1476: Antonello da Messina: Virgin Annunciate [Early Renaissance; Sicily, Italy]

With the Virgin Annunciate, made with oils on a wood panel 17.7 in. tall by 13.8 in. wide, Antonello da Messina has created a vision of the Annunciation that upends the traditional iconography. First, there is no Angel Gabriel. Instead, by depicting only the Virgin Mary, the viewer becomes the sole witness to the holy event, perhaps even cast in the angel’s role. Second, there is no background, no architectural space (except the desk), no symbolic objects or allegorical figures to distract the viewer. What remains is the psychological truth – we see a young girl, a virgin, who has just learned that she will bear a child who is divine. Mary’s book, hands and gaze tell the whole story: she was disturbed from her reading by the angel, she put up her right hand out of fear (or ‘to make time stand still’, as one critic remarked), then clutched her veil, pointing to herself so as to ask how it could be, and finally the knowing gaze of willing acceptance of God’s will for her. Despite the spare composition and featureless background, Antonello manages to create a sense of real space with the book stand, desk and particularly Mary’s foreshortened hands. The Virgin Annunciate was painted in Antonello da Messina’s home in Sicily, with a local girl as model. It may be the last picture he ever painted. It is now in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.

1477-1478: Sandro BotticelliVirgin and Child with Eight Angels (Raczynski Tondo) 
[Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

Painted after The Adoration of the Magi, Sandro Botticelli’s first success, but before his greatest masterpieces, Madonna and Child with Eight Angels (also referred to as the Raczynski Tondo after one of its owners) portrays the Virgin Mary breastfeeding her son Jesus (a discreet nipple is visible, although Jesus faces the viewer), while eight wingless boy angels sing hymns and hold lilies, symbol of Mary’s purity. As one critic observed, the hymns are antiphonal, with one section singing while the other waits its turn. The round work (called a tondo) was made with muted tempera paints on wood panel measuring 4.4 ft. in diameter. There is strict symmetry to the composition. The goal of the piece is to engage the viewer in a devotional experience and to that end, Botticelli has three of the figures – Mary, Jesus and one of the angels – engage the viewer with direct or almost direct eye contact. The infant and the angel express a mix of curiosity and invitation, while the Madonna’s liquid eyes and tilted head communicate some deep sadness. The painting is in the Gemäldegalerie, part of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin.

1474-1479: Hans MemlingSt. John’s Altarpiece (Altarpiece of St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist) [Early Netherlandish; Bruges, Flanders]
memling st john
 memling st john baptist head memling st john detail
Memling apocalypse detail Memling outer panels
The St. John Altarpiece is a triptych made by German-born Flemish painter Hans Memling with oils on oak panels (see first image). The center panel measures 5.7 ft. tall by 5.7 ft. wide; each wing is 5.8 ft. tall by 2.6 ft. wide. It was made for the chapel of St. John’s Hospital in Bruges and is dedicated to the patron saints of the hospital, St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. The center panel takes the form of a sacra conversatione with saints gathered around the Virgin Mary and Jesus. John the Baptist stands at left, while events from his life shown in the outdoor space behind him; John the Evangelist stands on the right. St. Catherine sits at the left, while St. Barbara sits on the right. Mary sits on a throne with an Oriental carpet (known as a Memling carpet) beneath her, reaching almost to the picture plane, while above two blue angels hold her crown. The infant Jesus puts a ring on St. Catherine’s finger, symbolizing her spiritual commitment to God, leading some to refer to the center panel as the Mystic Marriage of St. Catherine. Scholars have noted that the composition of two standing and two sitting saints around the Virgin was very unusual. Also unusual was the breaking up of the architecture to allow almost continuous views of the background landscape, which allowed Memling to paint scenes from the saints’ lives there. (Even the carvings at the top of each capital represent aspects of the saints’ lives.) Each wing is dedicated to one of the St. Johns. The left wing shows the beheading of John the Baptist: the executioner, his back to us, places the head on Salome’s platter, while the headless body lies on the ground (second image). The right wing shows John the Evangelist writing the Apocalypse on the island of Patmos, with the key events of the Book of Revelation depicted. Experts believe this is the first time that the entire Apocalypse story was presented in a single painting. Two concentric rainbows show God enthroned, with four beasts and 24 elders, while the Lamb of God breaks the seven seals on God’s lap (third image). Elsewhere, Memling shows a giant angel emerging from the water, while a seven-headed dragon in seen in the background (fourth image). When the doors of the triptych are closed, it reveals portraits of the four donors (two priests and two nuns) kneeling before their patron saints (fifth image). The St. John’s Altarpiece is now in the Memling Museum at St. John’s Hospital in Bruges.

c. 1476-1479: Antonello da Messina: Martyrdom of St. Sebastian
[Early Renaissance; Venice/Sicily, Italy]

Sicilian painter Antonello da Messina’s visit to Venice in 1476 is the stuff of legend; according to 16th Century art historian Giorgio Vasari, Antonello not only introduced oil paints to Venice, but brought a whole artistic new style as well. One of the results of that visit was a commission to paint two panels of an triptych for for the Scuola di San Rocca in Venice’s San Giuliano church. The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian – showing the saint’s legendary death by arrows – was one of those panels; the other painted panel and the sculpted centerpiece, are lost. The original was painted with oils on wooden panel but was later transferred to a canvas measuring 5.6 ft tall by 2.8 ft wide. The painting’s geometrical architecture shows the influence of Piero della Francesca but many touches are original to Messina, including the treatment of St. Sebastian’s body and the plethora of interesting details in the background (see second image showing much-foreshortened sleeping man and woman with baby). The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, also known simply as St. Sebastian, is now at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden, Germany.

c. 1480: Giovanni Bellini: St. Francis in the Desert (St. Francis in Ecstasy)
[Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
st francis
st-francis-animals st francis rabbit
By choosing to use oil paints – which were very new to Italy – to paint a portrait of St. Francis, Giovanni Bellini proved to his fellow Italian painters that the new medium could render light and the effects of light in ways that could not have been achieved with tempera. Painted on three joined poplar wood panels and measuring 4.1 ft. tall by 4.7 ft. wide, St. Francis in the Desert uses natural lighting effects to create the sense of a heavenly visitation upon the founder of the Franciscans (see first image). Some believe the painting is meant to tell the story of St. Francis receiving the stigmata, or wounds of Christ, in his side and on his hands and feet, while on a solitary retreat near Mt. La Verna in the Apennines in 1224 and point to the marks on his hands and one foot. Others some argue that St. Francis, who is shown with his mouth open, is singing the Canticle of the Sun, a song he composed, in response to the presence of God. They note that in typical representations of saints receiving the stigmata, we usually see an angel shooting dart-like rays of light. The work is unusual in other ways: consistent with the Renaissance’s celebration of the natural world, St. Francis is almost dwarfed by the vast landscape around him such that if he were removed, the painting could stand on its own. Bellini has taken care to depict many of the plants and animals that share the world with St. Francis (see bird, donkey and hare in second and third images). In addition, many of the objects in the painting double as references to Christian stories or teachings. To choose just a few examples related to Moses, the dry tree at left may represent the burning bush that spoke to Moses; the water issuing from the rocks at right may remind us of Moses striking the rocks at Horeb to start water flowing; and St. Francis’ bare feet and nearby sandals recall God’s words to Moses to take off his sandals on holy ground. Followers of St. Francis would have made many other connections.  St. Francis in the Desert (also known as St. Francis in Ecstasy or St. Francis in the Wilderness) is now at the Frick Collection in New York.

1471-1481: Michael Pacher: St. Wolfgang Altarpiece [Northern Renaissance; Austria]

st wolfgang altarpiece 2
circumcision Michael_Pacher_-_St_Wolfgang_Altarpiece_-_Resurrection_of_Lazarus_-_WGA16832
Born and raised in the Tyrol section of Austria, painter and sculptor Michael Pacher took a trip to Padua, Italy at some point prior to 1471 that forever changed his style. From studying the frescoes of Andrea Mantegna, Pacher learned the rules of perspective, foreshortening and other Renaissance techniques and went on to fuse these principles with Northern Gothic realism to achieve a sublime hybrid style. In 1471, he received a commission from Abbott Benedict of the Mondsee Monastery to create an altarpiece for the monastery’s St. Wolfgang Church in Abersee. A decade later, Pacher delivered (and personally installed, according to records) the massive altarpiece, measuring nearly 40 ft. tall from tip to base, and more than 21 ft. wide. The St. Wolfgang Altarpiece, which remains in its original location, has two sets of moving hinges, permitting three separate views (see first image). Monday through Saturday, both sets of doors are closed and viewers see four painted scenes from the life of St. Wolfgang, flanked by carved figures of St. George and St. Florian, in armor. On Sunday, the first set of doors is opened to see eight painted scenes from the life of Christ, including the Death and Resurrection of Lazarus (see fourth image). On holy days, both sets of doors are opened to see a central sculpted scene of the Coronation of the Virgin, carved from lindenwood and painted (second image) flanked by four painted scenes: the Nativity, the Circumcision (third image), the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple, and the Death of the Virgin. The predella underneath is closed except on holy days. When closed, the predella shows paintings of four Fathers of the Church: Pope Gregory the Great, St. Ambrose, St. Augustine and St. Jerome. When the predella is open, the viewer sees a central panel with a carved scene of the Adoration of the Magi, flanked by two painted panels: the Visitation and the Flight from Egypt. Towering over all these sculptures and paintings is a carved Crucifixion scene, with Jesus, his mother and various saints and angels, that is visible at all times. Throughout the piece, whether in painting or sculpture, Pacher demonstrates his ability to depict substantial human figures who are moving in space and shown realistically from multiple angles, one of the achievements of Renaissance art. 

c. 1477-1482: Sandro Botticelli: La Primavera [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
primavera detail       
primavera detail 2
La Primavera, also known as Spring or Allegory of Spring, was painted by Sandro Botticelli using tempera on wood panels measuring 10 ft. wide and 6.67 ft. tall. The work was commissioned by a member of the Medici family. The references to Spring and love (Venus and Cupid especially) have led some scholars to believe that the painting was made for the May 1482 wedding of Lorenzo di Pierfrancesco, a cousin of the Medicis. On the far right, Zephyr, the March wind, is kidnapping the nymph Chloris (second image). After Zephyr marries Chloris, she is transformed into Flora, the goddess of Spring, who is shown in a floral gown scattering flowers (see third image). At the center, Venus presides, with her son Cupid flying above her. Next to Venus, the Three Graces are dancing dancing while Mercury provides protection. In addition to the mythological figures, Botticelli has accurately depicted 500 identifiable plants in La Primavera, including close to 200 (the numbers vary) different species (third image), and, of course, orange trees, the Medici family symbol (although the nature of the fruit is also debated among art historians). La Primavera is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

1481-1482: Sandro Botticelli: Punishment of the Rebels [Early Renaissance; Rome, Italy]
Botticelli - Punishment_of_the Rebels
In 1481, Pope Sixtus IV invited Sandro Botticelli, Pietro Perugino and other Florentine painters to come to Rome to paint frescoes on the walls of the Sistine Chapel. It was a difficult period for the papacy, with many challenges to the Pope’s authority and power, and Sixtus sought to use illustrations of Biblical stories to reinforce his papal legitimacy. As part of this assignment, Botticelli painted a fresco measuring 11.4 ft. tall by 18.3 ft. wide that is known by many names, including The Punishment of Korah, The Punishment of the Rebels, The Punishment of Korah and the Stoning of Moses and Aaron, The Punishment of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, The Chastisement of Korah, Dathan and Abiram, and Conturbation of the Laws of Moses. In the underlying story from the Book of Exodus, Korah, Dathan and Abiram led about 250 Hebrews to rebel against the authority of their leaders Moses and Aaron. They tried to stone Moses, but Joshua intervened to protect him. Moses suggested that every one who doubted Aaron’s authority as high priest should burn incense with Aaron, and God would choose the legitimate priest by accepting one of the streams of incense smoke into heaven. God affirmed Aaron’s power, and flames engulfed the rebels, except for the leaders, who were swallowed up by a crack in the earth. The fresco shows three aspects of the story: (1) on the far right, Joshua protects Moses from an angry mob; (2) in the center, Aaron, dressed in the Pope’s mitre, burns incense while Moses calls down God’s wrath on the rebels, their incense burners falling around them (see detail in second image); and (3) on the left, Moses again calls down God’s wrath on two of the leaders of the rebellion, while the earth opens up below their feet. In a show of mercy, the sons of Korah are saved from their father’s fate by a floating cloud. The scene appears to take place in contemporary Rome, with the ruins of Classical architecture on the right and the Arch of Constantine in the center, inscribed, “Let no man take the honor to himself except he that is called by God, as Aaron was.” A reference to Constantine was apropos, as legend held that he gave worldly powers to the popes. Perugino painted the same triumphal arch twice in his fresco of Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter, which faced Botticelli’s work on the opposite wall. The message to viewers was clear: the Pope’s authority is legitimate and can be traced all the way back to Aaron; to reject that authority or accept someone who does not have the same pedigree is to go against God himself. Botticelli’s Punishment of the Rebels is located on the southern wall of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican.

1481-1482: Pietro Perugino: Delivery of the Keys (Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter)
[Early Renaissance; Rome, Italy]
Perugino - Giving the Keys
perugino detail  
In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells Peter that he will give him (and through him according to Catholic tradition, to the Roman Popes) the keys to the kingdom of heaven, that is, the authority to be his representative on earth. Taking the Bible passage literally, Pope Sixtus IV commissioned Florentine painter Piero Perugino to paint a fresco on the wall of the Sistine Chapel showing Jesus giving an actual set of keys to St. Peter. Perugino’s fresco, called Delivery of the Keys (known by many other titles, including Christ Handing the Keys to Peter, Jesus Handing the Keys to Peter, Christ Giving the Keys to Peter, Christ Giving the Keys of Heaven to St. Peter and The Giving of the Keys to St. Peter), and measuring 10.8 ft. tall by 18.3 ft. wide, presents a master class in linear one-point perspective (see first image). The diagonal lines dividing up the foreshortened pavement tiles reach a vanishing point in the doorway of the central building, creating the illusion of depth and distance. The use of aerial perspective sustains the illusion of reality, leading the eye back to a distant horizon. The line (almost a frieze) of figures in the far foreground spreads out from the central pair of Jesus and the kneeling St. Peter; Perugino keeps them below the horizon line. The other apostles and various contemporary Roman figures are rendered with specificity and elegance, but with feet firmly planted on the ground (see detail in second image). Some experts believe that Perugino included a self-portrait in the fifth figure from the right edge. Unusually, Judas is pictured with the other apostles (fifth figure to the left of Jesus). Somewhat incongruously, Perugino sets out two other New Testament stories in the middle distance: The Tribute Money on the left, and The Stoning of Jesus on the right. The central building is an imaginary octagonal Temple of Solomon, flanked by two triumphal arches that would have been familiar to Romans as the Arch of Constantine (echoed by Botticelli on the opposite wall). Scholars believe that Perugino relied heavily on the work of Andrea del Verrocchio in painting the figures, and one expert has pointed out that the poses of the foreground figures one one side of the painting seem to repeat on the other side, only in reverse. Over the years, a legend arose that during the conclave to select a new pope, the person who slept in the room beneath Perugino’s fresco would be elected. Scholars who set out to test the legend were able to identify three cardinals who slept in the room during the conclave who were selected as pope. Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys fresco is located on the northern wall of the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican.

1481-1482: Leonardo da VinciThe Adoration of the Magi [Early Renaissance; Italy]

Leonardo da Vinci was in his late twenties in 1481 when he received a commission for an altarpiece depicting the Adoration of the Magi from the Augustinian monks of San Donato a Scopeto in Florence. He worked very hard on the preliminary drawings and completed an underdrawing for an oil painting on wood panels measuring 8.1 ft. tall by 8 ft. wide but he never finished the painting – the Duke of Milan made him an offer he couldn’t refuse and Leonardo left Florence. Someone, probably not Leonardo, according to the most recent research, added the groundwork layer of brown and yellow ocher paint to the underdrawing and in so doing altered some of the original design. What remains is an atypical Adoration of the Magi. The Virgin is the peak of a triangular composition that draws many features from Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden’s Entombment of Christ, from 1460. In Christian lore, the date of the Adoration, also the Epiphany, signaled the triumph of Christianity over the pagan world. This may explain the Classical building in the left rear (possibly based on the 4th Century Basilica of Maxentius, which legend has it would stand until a virgin gave birth), and the battle raging in the right rear (see detail in second image). Nothing in prior depictions of the event prepares us for the grotesque and emaciated forms of some of the figures. Some art historians believe that the young man on the bottom right is a self-portrait of the artist, copied from an earlier bust. After Leonardo left for Milan, the monks reassigned the commission to Filippo Lippi, who provided his Adoration of the Magi altarpiece, based largely on Leonardo’s design (without the grotesque elements), to San Donato a Scopeto in 1496. Leonardo’s Adoration of the Magi is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

1484: Michael Pacher: Altarpiece of the Church Fathers [Northern Renaissance; Austria/Italy]
Michael_Pacher_-_Altarpiece_of_the_Church_Fathers 2
Church_Fathers_-_St_Augustine_Liberating_a_Prisoner Church_Fathers_-_Vision_of_St_Sigisbert
Austrian painter and sculptor Michael Pacher created the Altarpiece of the Church Fathers (also known as the Altarpiece of the Early Church Fathers, and the Church Fathers Altarpiece) for the Augustinian monks of the Neustift Monastery near Brixen in northern Italy in 1484. The altarpiece is a triptych, with a center panel measuring nearly 7 ft. tall and 6.5 ft. wide and two side panels each measuring 7 ft. tall and 3 ft. wide. When closed, the outer painted panels show St. Augustine liberating a prisoner (second image), and St. Sigisbert having a vision (third image), but the true masterpieces are the interior panels from which the piece draws its name. Pacher has set up the four fathers of the Early Christian church in separate rooms, with projecting canopies and foreshortened floor tiles, creating a trompe-l’oeil effect of true depth (first image). Each church father is accompanied by a dove (the Holy Spirit) and a memento of one of his legends. From the far left: (1) St. Jerome, who was said to have taken a thorn from a lion’s paw, pets a lion; (2) St. Augustine sits with the boy from a story in which Augustine saw the boy on the beach trying to transfer the ocean into a small pool using only a clam shell; the boy told Augustine that it was as likely that he would move the ocean as it was that Augustine would understand the mystery of the Holy Trinity with his rational mind; (3) Pope Gregory I, who was so impressed by a story of Roman Emperor Trajan’s kindness that he prayed for Trajan to be released from purgatory to be baptized, here gets his opportunity as Trajan rises from the flames; and finally, (4) St. Ambrose, shown with a rocking baby who refers either to a story from St. Ambrose’s infancy, when a swarm of bees landed on his face, leaving a drop of honey, thus ensuring his sweet tongue for oratory, or to the child who told Ambrose that he must be made a bishop. Throughout the piece, Pacher’s painting shows many sculptural elements and combines elements of both Gothic and Early Renaissance styles. The Church Fathers Altarpiece is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

1483-1486: Leonardo da VinciVirgin of the Rocks (I) [Early Renaissance; Italy]

For reasons that are still unclear (although there are plenty of theories), Leonardo da Vinci painted two nearly identical versions of the Virgin of the Rocks. Virgin of the Rocks (I), which is now in the Louvre in Paris, was probably painted first and is considered the primary version. Painted with oils on wood panel, it was later transferred to a canvas measuring 6.5 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide. The painting shows the Madonna, the young Jesus, the young John the Baptist and an angel. The central event of the painting is John’s adoration of Jesus, who makes the sign of Benediction in return. Two paintings of angels playing musical instruments are associated with the work, although they are believed to be painted by Leonardo’s assistants; all three were commissioned for an altarpiece by the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in Milan. Virgin of the Rocks (I) is an excellent example of the sfumato painting technique, which Leonardo described as “without lines or borders, in the manner of smoke or beyond the focus plane.” It also has the triangular composition that Leonardo often used. Consistent with Leonardo’s polymath interests, scholars have determined that the geological and botanical details of the painting are scientifically accurate.

1486: Sandro BotticelliThe Birth of Venus [Early Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
Birth of Venus 2
Sandro Botticelli painted The Birth of Venus in 1486 for the Medici family of Florence, using tempera on a canvas measuring 5.7 ft. high by 9.1 ft wide. In Roman mythology, Venus was the goddess of love, beauty and sex. In one of her representations, Venus Anadyomene, she was said to have been born from the sea as an adult woman. This aspect of her myth was the basis for one of Hesiod’s odes, which was revised by Italian Renaissance poet Angelo Poliziano. Botticelli shows the wind gods Zephyr and Aura bringing a nude Venus to the shore, while she stands in a contrapposto pose on a seashell (symbol of female sexuality). She poses shyly in the famous Venus Pudicae stance, waiting for one of the Graces to cover up her nudity with a cape. Scholars have noted that Venus’s pose is impossible: she is putting too much weight on one leg to stay balanced, and her position on the seashell would cause it to tip forward. The Birth of Venus is now at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.

1487: Giovanni Bellini: Madonna degli Alberetti (Madonna of the Small Trees)
[Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy]

Giovanni Bellini was a Venetian painter known not just for his own Renaissance paintings but for his role as teacher to two later masters – Giorgione and Titian. In Madonna degli Alberetti (Madonna of the Small Trees), Giovanni Bellini creates a highly balanced composition, with Mary and the child Jesus in the foreground, with a tapestry or curtain behind them, and behind that, a landscape with trees and mountains. The foreground and background elements are a study in contrasts: Mary’s robes and the curtain behind her are painted with bold colors, while Bellini uses a more subdued palette for the natural landscape behind them. Of particular interest is the lighting. Mary and Jesus are lit from a source that is in front of them and to our left, as shown by the placement of Mary’s shadow on the curtain. The landscape, on the other hand, reveals no shadows, indicating a diffuse, possibly overhead light source. Bellini signed and dated the painting on the painted marble ledge at the bottom edge. Made with oil paints on a wood panel measuring 2.4 ft tall by 1.9 ft wide, the Madonna of the Small Trees is now located at the Gallerie dell’Accademia, Venice.

1487: Giovanni BelliniSan Giobbe Altarpiece [Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy]

bellini san giobbe detail
To satisfy his commission for an altarpiece for the San Giobbe (St. Job) Church in Venice, Venetian Renaissance painter Giovanni Bellini painted a sacra converzatione, that is, a portrait of Mary and Jesus surrounded by an informal grouping of saints (left: St. Francis, John the Baptist, Job; right: St. Sebastian, St. Louis, St. Dominic) (see first image). To create the altarpiece, which is also known as Madonna with Child, Saints and Angels, and Enthroned Madonna of San Giobbe, Bellini used oil paints on wood panels measuring 15.4 ft. high by 8.5 ft. wide. There is some dispute about the date of the work. While many date it to c. 1487, others say it was painted in the early 1470s, based in part on a 1581 document stating that the San Giobbe Altarpiece was Belllini’s first use of oil paints. The work was almost immediately recognized as a masterpiece. Bellini creates an illusion of depth to the space and substantiality to the figures. To enhance the realism – the illusion that there is an actual niche in the wall – he painted the columns to match the real columns in the church, and chose a light source that appears to be coming from the actual windows of the church. Art historians marvel at Bellini’s ability to paint reflected light and to show modeling and shadows so they give form and substance to the figures and architecture. Although all the saints with their colorful garments occupy the lower half of the painting, the stunning gold half dome above them creates a sense of balance and draws the eye up to see how it catches the light. On a human level, St. Francis (with the stigmata wounds) gestures for us to join the conversation, as does the Madonna. Even the musical angels are positioned so they form a triangle pointing up at Jesus and Mary (see detial second image). The San Giobbe Altarpiece is now in the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. Random Trivia: Bellini painted another portrait of St. Job onto the church garment worn by St. Louis (see detail in third image).  

1480-1488: Andrea del Verrocchio: Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni
[Early Renaissance; Venice, Italy]

Like Gattamelata, who was the subject of Donatello’s 1453 equestrian statue, Bartolomeo Colleoni was a condottiero who served as a military leader in the service of the Republic of Venice. Andrea del Verrocchio’s Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, from 30 years after Donatello’s Gattamelata, is made of bronze and stands 12.9 ft tall, excluding the pedestal. Del Verrocchio was the first sculptor to solve the mechanical engineering problems raised by depicting a horse with one foot off the ground. (Donatello had ducked the issue by placing his horse’s raised foot on a bronze sphere.) The Equestrian Statue of Bartolomeo Colleoni, also known as the Bartolomeo Colleoni Monument, stands in the Campo Santi Giovanni e Paolo in Venice, Italy.

1487-1488: Kamal ud-Din Behzad: Illuminated Bustan of Saadi
[Timurid/Safavid Period; Persia]
Saadi - Yusef_Zuleykha bizhad sadi bustan   
Kamal ud-Din Behzad (also known as Kamal al-din Bihzad or Kamaleddin Behzad) was a Persian painter born in Pakistan who worked in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran during the late Timurid and early Safavid periods. A master of painting miniatures, Behzad directed royal workshops in Herat and later in Tabriz that produced illuminated manuscripts according to his style. In telling a story, he created compositions that emphasized geometric architectural backgrounds as the settings for the actions of the characters. In landscape compositions, he was adept at using negative space to direct the eye to the relevant details. He is also known for his natural, expressive and sometimes even playful figures. In 1487-1488, Behzad and his workshop produced an illuminated manuscript of Bustan (also known as Bostan), a book of poetry by 13th Century Persian poet Sa’di (also known as Saadi and Saadi Shirazi). The first image above shows part of the story of Yusef and Zuleykha, with Zulaykha attempting to seduce Yusef in her palace. The second image from the book depicts a scene in which a dervish begs to be admitted to a mosque. The Illuminated Bustan is now in the National Library in Cairo, Egypt.

1477-1489: Veit Stoss: St. Mary’s Altarpiece (Altarpiece of Veit Stoss)
[International Gothic/Northern Renaissance; Poland]

veit stoss coronation of mary
veit_stoss_krakow_altarpiece closed
The gargantuan St. Mary’s Altarpiece in St. Mary’s Basilica in Kraków, commonly known as the Altar of Veit Stoss, after the Polish sculptor who created it, measures 42 ft. tall by 36 ft. wide when the doors of the triptych are fully open (see first image). At the time of its completion in 1489, it was the largest altarpiece known; some of the sculpted figures in the centerpiece are nearly 9 ft. tall. The figures are carved out of linden wood, while the rest of the structure is made of oak and larch. The center panel, which is carved and painted, depicts the death of the Virgin Mary, surrounded by the 12 apostles, below, and the Assumption of Mary above. The interior of the wings show six scenes of the Joys of Mary. On top of the structure is the Coronation of Mary in heaven, with Sts. Stanislaus and Adalbert (second image). When closed, the altarpiece shows 12 painted scenes of the life of Jesus and the life of Mary (third image). The style is primarily Gothic, but Veit Stoss, a transitional figure, had begun to adopt some of the naturalism associated with the Renaissance. The people of Poland attempted to hide the altarpiece from the Germans by distributing its sculptures in boxes, but soldiers discovered the valuable artwork and brought it to Nuremberg Castle in Germany, where it survived Allied bombing raids. In 1946, Germany returned the altarpiece and Poland conducted a 10-year restoration. The altarpiece was replaced in St. Mary’s Church in 1957, where it remains.

c. 1480-1490: Andrea Mantegna: Lamentation over the Dead Christ [Early Renaissance; Italy]
mantegna lamentation
Do artists paint for themselves or for others? Andrea Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ (also known as Lamentation over the Dead Christ), made with tempera on canvas measuring 2.2 ft. high by 2.7 ft. wide, raises this question. There was no known commission for the piece, which was found unsold in the artist’s studio after his death; it is not known if Mantegna ever showed the painting to anyone else. An atypical treatment of a commonplace religious subject, Mantegna’s Lamentation presents Christ’s body at a highly unusual angle that required a dramatic use of the technique of foreshortening, forcing the artist to bend the laws of perspective somewhat by, for example, reducing the size of Christ’s feet so they would not block our view of Christ’s body. Our eyes are drawn to Christ’s bare upper chest, his genitals (modestly covered by linens), and the holes in his hands and feet. The weeping Madonna and St. John barely make it into the frame, and unlike most lamentation scenes, none of the mourners is in physical contact with Christ’s body. Instead, Jesus’s body lies alone, untouched, on a cold marble slab, perhaps to remind Christians of the bleak reality of death. After Mantegna died and the painting was discovered, the artist’s son sold it to pay off some of his father’s debts. Mantegna’s Lamentation of Christ is now at the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan.

c. 1485-1490: Geertgen tot Sint Jans: John the Baptist in the Wilderness
[Early Netherlandish; Netherlands]

The John the Baptist described in the Gospels had little time to go somewhere quiet and think. He was occupied with baptizing his many followers and broadcasting the news that the Messiah was coming. But a popular book about the life of John the Baptist included an account of time he spent alone in the wilderness, which was probably the inspiration for Geertgen tot Sint Jans’s John the Baptist in the Wilderness, known by various names including St. John Meditating. Measuring 16.5 in. tall by 11 in. wide and painted in the Early Netherlandish style with oils on wood panel, the small painting was probably meant for private devotion, perhaps in a monk’s cell. Wearing a brown garment made of camel hair, St. John sits on a rock ledge, his attribute, the haloed Lamb of God, by his side, and leans his head in his right hand, looking pensive, even somber. A clue to the subject of his meditation is the position of his feet, which unconsciously imitate the position of Jesus’s feet on the cross. Although the ‘wilderness’ seems more like a well-managed park (within view of a city), the abundance of wildlife, particularly birds on the ground and in the air, gives a sense of hope, even salvation, to contrast with the doldrums into which St. John appears to have sunk. He even seems to have become a part of the landscape, as the folds of his blue cloak echo the curves of the topography. The painting is in the Gemäldegalerie, part of the Staatliche Museen in Berlin. 

1490: Domenico Ghirlandaio: An Old Man and His Grandson
[High Renaissance; Florence, Italy]

An Old Man and His Grandson is a painting by Florentine artist Domenico Ghirlandaio made using tempera on wood panel measuring  2 ft. high by 1.5 ft. wide (first image). Despite the title, which is not original, there is no direct evidence about the identity of the man and boy in the double portrait. Their clothes indicate that they come from the aristocracy, and the entire composition indicates that they have strong feelings of love for each other. Their eyes meet on a diagonal line, while the boy’s left hand reaches out to touch the old man in a moving gesture of affection. This connection between the two is reinforced by the red garments worn by both. The old man’s deformed nose is probably afflicted with rhinophyma, a non-fatal skin disease, according to physicians who have examined the painting. Ghirlandaio made a drawing of the same man, possibly after his death. The painting had been seriously scratched and otherwise damaged until a major cleaning and retouching in 1996 restored much of its former condition. It is now located in the Louvre in Paris.

c. 1490: Leonardo da Vinci: Lady with an Ermine [High Renaissance; Italy]

Leonardo da Vinci painted Lady with an Ermine, measuring 21 in. tall by 15 in. wide, using oil paints, which had only recently been introduced to Italy. The subject of the three-quarter portrait is Cecilia Galleriani, the 16-year-old mistress of Leonardo’s employer, Ludovico Sforza. Miss Galleriani’s simple clothes make it clear that she is not an aristocrat. The ermine symbolizes purity, for legend had it that it would rather die than dirty its white coat. As with many of da Vinci’s paintings, the painting follows a spiraling pyramid compositional structure. It is also notable for the detailed attention the painter paid to the subject’s hand, reflecting Leonardo’s interest in anatomy (see detail in second image). Lady with an Ermine is located in the Czartoryski Museum in Kraków, Poland.

1495-1498: Leonardo da Vinci: The Last Supper [High Renaissance; Milan, Italy]
last supper
last supper detail last supper perspective
viridiana last supper mash last supper
Just because a technique is new doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better. So when Leonardo da Vinci decided to forego the fresco technique, which limited his palette, and try something new when painting The Last Supper on the wall of the mausoleum of his patron Ludovico Sforza, the Duke of Milan, it turned out to be a big mistake. Instead of mixing pigment with wet plaster, as wall paintings had been done for centuries, Leonardo decided to prepare the wall with a mixture of gesso, pitch and mastic, add a layer of plaster and a brightening agent (white lead), wait for it to dry and then paint on the dry plaster using egg tempera paints.  Unfortunately for Leonardo, the Duke and art history, the mixture never set properly and bits of the mural began flaking off almost immediately after Leonardo finished the work in 1498. Add humidity, Allied bombs in World War I, angry anti-clerical French troops, a doorway cut out of the painting in 1583, and numerous botched restorations, and it is amazing there is anything left of Leonardo’s masterpiece. A comprehensive but highly controversial restoration project that ended in 1999 revealed a somewhat more subdued Last Supper, although it is not clear how much of it is the original. Measuring 15.1 ft. tall by 28.8 ft. wide, the painting adorns the end wall of what is now the dining hall of the convent of the Santa Maria delle Grazie Church in Milan. It depicts the moment in the Gospel of John when Jesus tells his disciples that one of them will betray him. The reactions of the various disciples, painted in groups of threes, are shown with vivid facial expressions and gestures. Without looking at each other, both Jesus and Judas are reaching for the same piece of bread (see detail in second image); when their hands meet a moment later, it will be a sign that Judas is the betrayer. The painting is a premier example of single-point perspective; all the perspective lines meet at a vanishing point on or just above Jesus’ head (see third image). Random Trivia: Leonardo’s The Last Supper has been much imitated and parodied, including tableaux vivant in the films Viridiana (Luis Buñuel, 1961) (see fourth image), MASH (Robert Altman, 1970) (see fifth image), and Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014). 

1498: Albrecht DürerSelf-Portrait [Northern Renaissance; Germany]
durer self portrait
German painter Albrecht Dürer painted his second of three adult self-portraits at age 26, after he had returned from a visit to Italy, where he felt that artists were treated with more respect than in his native land. Here, he presents himself in a haughty, self-confident pose, with the stylish clothing of an effeminate dandy, complete with silk gloves. The artist’s intent appears to be presenting himself to his home audience as a master artist worthy of their praise. The landscape outside the window has been analyzed in numerous ways – a reminiscence of Italian travels, a reflection of inner mental states, or a prediction of things to come. Dürer made the Self-Portrait with oil paints on wood panel measuring 20.5 in. tall by 16.1 in. wide. At various points in its existence, the work was owned by Charles I of England and Philip IV of Spain. The 1498 Self-Portrait is now located at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.

1498: Albrecht Dürer: The Apocalypse (The Apocalypse with Pictures)
[Northern Renaissance; Germany]

Dürer_Apocalypse_5 Dürer_Apocalypse_11
In 1498, German artist Albrecht Dürer published a new edition of the Book of Revelation, called Apocalypse with Pictures, in both German and Latin. The book contained 15 woodcut prints by Dürer illustrating the terror and calamity of St. John’s apocalyptic visions so dramatically that his prints soon made him famous throughout Europe. The timing of the book couldn’t have been better. It was 1498 and many Christians believed that the year 1500 might bring the Apocalypse predicted in the Bible. Dürer’s woodcut technique was astonishing – he defied the limitations of the process and created highly detailed, realistic monochrome images. Each book, which measured 15.2 in. tall by 11 in. wide, emphasized the illustrations by placing them on the right (or recto) page, with the text on the left (verso) side. While the entire set of prints received acclaim, the most famous was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, in which Dürer effectively uses parallel lines and strong diagonal motion to depict Death, Famine, War and Plague wreaking havoc (see first image, above). Other prints shown above are: (2) St. John Devouring the Book; (3) Opening the Fifth and Sixth Seals; and (4) The Woman Clothed with the Sun and the Seven-Headed Dragon.

1450-1499: Unknown Artist(s): Zen Garden, Ryoan-ji Temple [Higashiyama Period; Japan]

The Ryoan-ji Temple (Temple of the Peaceful Dragon) in Kyoto, Japan, is home to what is probably the finest surviving example of kare-sansui, or dry landscape garden design (see first image). The minimalist garden consists of 15 large rocks in groups of five, three or two, some surrounded by green moss, in a sea of smooth white pebbles that is raked every day by Buddhist monks into linear patterns (see second image). A low clay wall with a shingle roof surrounds the garden on three sides. On the fourth side is the veranda of the abbot’s residence, from which the garden is designed to be contemplated and meditated upon. The designers have constructed the garden, which measures 78 ft. long by 30 ft. wide, so that someone sitting on the veranda cannot see every stone at once. Attempts to date the garden exactly have been unsuccessful. The temple was founded in 1450, destroyed between 1467 and 1477 and rebuilt in 1488, but even though tradition holds that the garden was established in the first half century of the temple’s existence, there is no hard evidence to support the theory. Another theory states that the garden was designed in the early 16th Century, but again there is no evidence. The first documentary evidence of a garden in the current location comes from 1680-1682, in an account that describes only nine stones instead of today’s 15. Then, after a fire in 1779 destroyed temple buildings, the rubble was dumped in the garden. Garden designer Akisato Rito rebuilt the garden on top of the rubble in the late 1700s, and an engraving from his 1799 book shows the garden as it is today. The most cautious estimate, then, would place the construction of the garden in its current form in the 1780s or 1790s. To expand our definition, there is evidence of a garden with the same basic architecture as far back as 1680-1682. If we enter the realm of the possible, and not just the probable, there is no definitive evidence that the garden was not created as early as the founding of the temple in 1450.

1497-1499: Michelangelo Buonarroti: Pietà [High Renaissance; Rome, Italy]

Pietà refers to the pose of Mary holding the body of Jesus after his Crucifixion – Michelangelo Buonarroti’s late 15th Century masterpiece was the first Italian sculpture on the subject. Michelangelo depicts Mary as younger, calmer and less sorrowful than in other versions of the scene. Made of Carrara marble and measuring 5.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide, the Pietà was commissioned by Cardinal Jean de Bilhères and was originally intended for his funeral monument. The Pietà is located in St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. Random Trivia: The Pietà is the only work that Michelangelo ever signed, reportedly after he overheard someone attributing the work to one of his rivals, artist Cristoforo Solari.

To continue on to Art History 101, Part IIB (1500-1599), click here.

3 thoughts on “Art History 101 – Part IIA: 1400-1499

  1. michael garcia

    Hello, I have a painting on tapestry about 5′ by 3.5′ angel portrait about 300 years old. out of a castle from England. love to send photo via e-mail so it could be viewed.

  2. Pingback: 19/09/2019 – Pre-Production: Concept design and image research. – Jess's Blog

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