The following list is Part IIB (1500-1599) 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 five Art History 101 lists contain every work of art that was on at least two of the 18 ‘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. Much of the information in these essays comes from Wikipedia or from the website of the museum or other site where the artwork is located. Art History 101, Part I (Prehistoric Era-1399) is here; Part IIA (1400-1499) is here; Part III (1600-1799) is here. Part IV (1800-Present) is here.
1250-1500: Unknown Artists: Moai [Rapa Nui; Easter Island, Chile]
Between 1250 and 1500 CE, artists on the Polynesian island of Rapa Nui (Easter Island) carved 887 moai, huge human-like statues with oversized heads and no legs. Most of the statues were made from tuff, a rock made from compressed volcanic ash, which erodes easily; 13 moai were carved from basalt, 22 from trachyte and 17 from a delicate volcanic rock called red scoria. The average moai measures 13 ft. tall by 5 ft. 3 in. wide at the base and weighs 13.8 tons. The tallest moai is 33 feet tall and the heaviest statue weighs 86 tons. Almost half the moai are located at the main quarry at Rano Raraku, but hundreds were transported to various parts of the island’s perimeter, where they were usually set on stone platforms called ahu (see first image, above). (How Rapa Nui’s inhabitants moved these immense rock statues is a mystery.) Almost all of the moai faced inland to protect the people, but seven faced the sea to help sailors find the island. During clashes between rival clans, most of the moai were pulled down, but archaeologists have begun restoring them, complete with white coral eyes, pupils made from black obsidian or red scoria, and sometimes a large red scoria hat called a pukao (see second image, above). Scholars believe that the moai represented both living faces (aringa ora) or deified ancestors (aringa ora ata tepuna) and they would have possessed both political meaning and sacred religious power. Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is located in the Atlantic Ocean and is part of the nation of Chile.
c. 1300-1500: Unknown Artist: Statue of Coatlicue [Aztec; Mexico]
In Aztec mythology, Coatlicue, which means The One with the Skirt of Serpents, is the goddess who gave birth to the moon, the stars and the gods Quetzalcoatl, Xoloti and Huitzilopochtli. She is also the patron goddess of women who die in childbirth. The statue, which was made between 1300 and 1500, is made of andesite and stands 8.9 ft. tall (see front and rear of statue in first and second images, above). The statue depicts a myth in which Coatlicue became pregnant after picking up a ball of feathers and her children, fearing illicit sexual behavior, decapitated her, causing her to give birth to a god and also causing blood to gush from her neck in the form of two serpents. She wears a necklace of human skulls and hearts and a skirt made of snakes. Europeans discovered the statue during a building project in Mexico City in 1790; they found it gruesome but casts were made to show at exhibitions. When Mexican Indians began paying tribute to the statue, the Europeans buried it. In 1933, an almost identical statue was found, but with a skirt of hearts instead of snakes. The Statue of Coatlicue is now at the National Museum of Archaeology in Mexico City.
1500-1501: Hieronymus Bosch: The Temptation of St. Anthony (Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony) [Early Netherlandish; Netherlands]
The torments suffered by early Christian ascetic Anthony Abbott (the future St. Anthony the Great, not to be confused with St. Anthony of Padua, the finder of lost things) during his time in the Egyptian desert in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries CE were prime source material for painters of religious subjects, but none more than Flemish proto-surrealist Hieronymous Bosch, whose fertile mind teemed with nightmarish imagery. Located in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, Portugal, Bosch’s 1501 Triptych of the Temptation of St. Anthony, painted with oils on wood panels, measures 4.3 ft. tall by 7.5 ft. wide when open, with the center panel 4.3 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide and the wings 4.3 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide (see first image above). The left panel shows, among other things, an incident in which demons, after physically assaulting St. Anthony, toss him into the air, after which he falls to the ground. St. Anthony is later seen in the foreground, nearly unconscious, being supported across a bridge by two men, one of whom may be a Bosch self-portrait (see third image above). In the middle distance, a procession of impious characters, including a demon dressed as a bishop, marches toward a grotto created by a human’s backside. Among the dozens of profane scenes and depraved characters in the center panel, including a Black Mass, a kneeling St. Anthony directs the viewer’s attention to a darkened doorway where Jesus stands, pointing at his own Crucifixion (see second image above). The right wing shows the contemplation of St. Anthony, who ignores the many temptations before him, including a woman offering herself to him and a table with food and drink. Overhead, figures ride flying fish on the way to a Witches’ Sabbath. When the wings are closed, the exterior panels show two scenes painted in the monochrome tones of grisaille. On the left is the Arrest of Christ, with Christ Bearing the Cross on the right (see fourth image above). Both scenes from the life of Jesus parallel the sufferings of St. Anthony inside.
1501-1504: Giovanni Bellini: Portrait of the Doge Leonardo Loredan
[High Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
Giovanni Bellini was in his seventies when he received the commission to paint the portrait of the newly-elected Doge of Venice, Leonardo Loredan. The Doge was the Chief Magistrate of the Republic of Venice and he served for life; Loredan would serve from 1501 to 1521, two of the most turbulent decades in Venice’s history. Bellini’s portrait, although modestly proportioned at 2 ft. tall by 1.5 ft. wide, shows the viewer a commanding leader in the traditional pose of a Classical portrait bust. First, Bellini breaks with the tradition of painting secular portraits in profile and brings Renaissance humanism into the portrait gallery, with a full-faced view of the subject. Then, Bellini uses his expertise, including the technique of impasto, in which paint is layered on thickly to create raised sections that diffuse light, to create a sense of realism, depth and detail in the ceremonial robes and hat (the corno ducale) and the Doge’s skin. Crucially, he captures the Doge’s steely gaze as he begins his difficult journey as head of state. Even the blue background is shaded from dark down to light, to create the illusion that the sun is shining on the Doge’s face. The Portrait of Doge Leonardo Loredan is now in the National Gallery in London.
1501-1504: Michelangelo Buonarroti: David [High Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
Michelangelo carved his 17-ft. tall marble statue of the Biblical hero David from a block of Carrara marble that other artists had abandoned. Instead of showing David with the dead Goliath, as was standard, Michelangelo has depicted the hero in the moment after he has decided to fight the giant but before the actual battle. The David was originally commissioned to be one of several statues on the roof of Florence’s cathedral, and this upward looking perspective may explain why the figure’s head and hands are oversized compared to the rest of the body. After Michelangelo completed the work, cathedral officials decided it would be impossible to raise the 6-ton statue to the roof, and decided to place it in the public square outside the Palazzo della Signoria, where it was unveiled in 1504. In 1873, because of weather damage, the statue was moved to the Galleria dell’Accademia in Florence, where it remains (see two views of statue above). In 1882, a replica was installed in the original location. In 1991, a man smuggled a hammer into the museum and used it to destroy part of the David’s left foot, which was later restored.
1499-1505: Tilman Riemenschneider: Altar of the Holy Blood (Holy Blood Altarpiece) [International Gothic/Northern Renaissance; Germany]
Installed in the St. Jakob Church in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany, Tilman Riemenschneider’s Holy Blood Altarpiece is a late Gothic masterpiece by (see first image above). The altarpiece name comes from a rock crystal reliquary cross housed in it that is said to contain a drop of Jesus’s blood. The triptych’s center panel depicts the deeply carved figures of the Last Supper with Riemenschneider’s characteristic attention to inner emotions (see second image, above). The limewood figures are not painted, in a break from tradition. Also unusual is the placement of Judas, the betrayer (identified by his purse, carrying 30 silver pieces) at the center of the composition. Riemenschneider captures the moment that Jesus gives him bread, thus showing he knows that Judas will betray him. The wings are carved in low relief, with Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem riding on a donkey on the right (see third image above), and the agony in the garden of Gethsemane on the right (see fourth image above). Various other figures adorn the space above and below the central panels (see first image above).
1503-1505: Leonardo da Vinci: Mona Lisa [High Renaissance; Italy]
Italian Renaissance master Leonardo da Vinci painted his portrait of Lisa Gherardini (also known as Lisa del Giocondo or La Gioconda) on a 2.5 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide panel of Lombardy poplar with oil paints. The model’s pose is reminiscent of traditional Madonna paintings, with aerial perspective showing an idealized landscape. The composition is pyramidal, as with many of Leonardo’s works, but Leonardo creates a distance by inserting the arm of the chair between the subject and the viewer. The Mona Lisa, with the subject’s enigmatic expression, is considered the most famous painting in the world. It has been studied, copied, parodied and used in over 2,000 advertisements. Visitors to the Louvre in Paris, where it is located, view the painting for an average of 15 seconds each.
1505-1506: Raphael: Madonna of the Meadow (Madonna with the Child and St. John the Baptist) [High Renaissance; Florence, Italy]
Florentine painter Raphael’s Madonna of the Meadow (known by many other names, including Madonna del Prato and Madonna Belvedere) shows the Virgin Mary watching over her son Jesus and the infant John the Baptist in a lush green meadow. Jesus takes hold of a cross held by John, signaling his willingness to endure the suffering and death to come. He puts his other hand on his mother, who supports the unsteady toddler. Raphael adopts Leonardo da Vinci’s techniques of pyramidal composition and chiaroscuro to create the illusion of substantial forms, but he rejects Leonardo’s dark palette, choosing instead the lighter colors of his teacher Perugino. Mary is posed in contrapposto, with her right leg along a diagonal orthogonal; her body provides a barrier between the two innocent children and the world that stretches out behind her. She manages to look at both children at once, and all three figures are linked through hand and eye contact. The curves of the landscape behind them echoes the curves of Mary’s red and blue garments. Despite the aerial perspective, which gives an immensity and immediacy to the landscape, Raphael achieves a sense of calm and serenity in both the green meadow and the tender moment in the foreground. Madonna of the Meadow, made with oil on poplar panel measuring 3.7 ft. tall and 2.9 ft. wide, is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1507: Albrecht Dürer: Adam und Eve [Northern Renaissance: Germany]
Germany’s Albrecht Dürer was known as much for his engravings (and the widely-disseminated prints made from them) as for his sublime oil paintings. In 1504, Dürer used his developing theory of the perfectly proportioned human form to make an engraving of Adam and Eve (see 1504 engraving in third image above). Three years later, after his second trip to Italy, Dürer took on the same subject to create a pair of oil paintings, made on wood panels each measuring 6.8 ft. tall by 2.7 ft. wide, showing a slimmed-down, more natural-looking Adam and Eve (see first and second images above). Scholars believe these are the first two life-size nudes in the history of German painting. Dürer blends the realistic detail of Northern European painting with the Italian treatment of light and shadow to create two figures who emerge from the dark background as fully realized bodies. Their expressions and stances also tell a story. Eve, whose stance has been described as “almost dancing”, has barely taken the fruit from the snake when she is already looking over to Adam with a seductive look. Adam, on the other hand, seems a bit befuddled and is cast as the unwitting victim of Eve’s womanly wiles. Note also that while the paintings consist of two separate panels, the poses of the two figures balance each other as in a traditional diptych. The pair of paintings has had many illustrious owners, from Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II to Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus to kings Philip IV and Charles III of Spain, before arriving at the Museo del Prado in Madrid in 1827.
1495-1508: Leonardo da Vinci: Virgin of the Rocks (II) [High Renaissance; Italy]
Scholars have long debated why Leonardo da Vinci painted two versions of Virgin on the Rocks, which are now in the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery in London, respectively (see National Gallery version in image above). They do known that Leonardo accepted a commission for an altarpiece for the chapel of the Confraternity of the Immaculate Conception in the church of San Francesco Maggiore in Milan that was due in 1483. They also know that he delivered an altarpiece with a center panel of the Virgin on the Rocks to the church in 1508. Unanswered questions are: (1) Which painting came first? and (2) Why paint a second one? One theory is that Leonardo finished the commissioned work and then sold it to a private buyer, requiring him to paint another. Most scholars believe that the Louvre version was painted in 1483-1486 and the National Gallery version in 1495-1508, but a few experts believe the order should be reversed. Everyone seems to agree that the altarpiece wings, each depicting a musical angel, were painted by Leonardo’s assistants (second and third images). Virgin of the Rocks (II) (first image) was painted with oils on wood panel measuring 6.2 ft. tall by 3.9 ft. wide, and focuses on the adoration of Jesus by the infant John the Baptist in a rocky landscape with the Virgin Mary and an angel. Like many of Leonardo’s works, the composition is pyramidal. Art historians have pointed out a number of differences between this painting and Virgin of the Rocks (I) in the Louvre: (1) these figures are larger; (2) the angel’s hand is not raised and pointing, but rests on her knee; (3) the angel’s eyes are downturned, not looking at the viewer; (4) the rocks are painted more meticulously; (5) there is less sfumato; (6) there is very little use of the color red; (7) haloes and John’s cross-shaped staff are present here; (8) the flowers are fanciful and not botanically accurate.
1504-1508: Hieronymus Bosch: The Last Judgment
[Early Netherlandish/Northern Renaissance; Netherlands]
Early Netherlandish painter Hieronymus Bosch serves up another of his highly imaginative nightmares in The Last Judgment triptych, made with oils on wood panels (center panel: 5.4 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide; wings, 5.5 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide) (first image). The left panel shows God in heaven with the expulsion of the Rebel Angels, while below we see the creation of Eve, the temptation by the serpent, and the expulsion from Eden (paralleling the expulsion above). The center panel shows Jesus sitting in judgment, surrounded by saints and angels, but unlike the typical Last Judgment scene, which divides humanity pretty equally between saved and damned, Bosch’s vision is of a predominantly sinful populace who deserve to be punished. It is not clear if the events in the center panel belong to hell, purgatory or some nether region, but they consist mostly of gruesome tortures carried out by toad-like gremlins, sorted according to the Seven Deadly Sins (see detail in second image). The right panel shows hell itself, with Satan as a black grinning monster and the damned wailing and gnashing their teeth. The city of hell, at the top, is a horrific place of fire, decay and darkness. When closed, the triptych showed the portraits in grisaille of two saints, St. James, on a pilgrimage, on the left and St. Bavo, giving alms to the poor with his hawk, on the right (third image). Unlike grisaille paintings of the past, which did not attempt to paint a realistic setting, Bosch here places both saints in a natural landscapes populated with other people. The Last Judgment is at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna.
1505-1508: Tilman Riemenschneider: Hergottskirche Altarpiece (St. Mary Altar; Creglingen Altarpiece) [International Gothic/Northern Renaissance; Germany]
The altarpiece in the Herrgottskirche (Holy God Church). in Creglingen, Germany was designed to house a relic, a host found by a farmer in the 14th Century. For this reason, it is sometimes called the Corpus Christi Altarpiece, although it is also referred to as the Altar of Mary and St. Mary’s Altar due to the representation of the Assumption in the center panel. It is also called, more generically, the Herrgottskirche Altarpiece and the Creglingen Altarpiece. Carved by German sculptor Tilman Riemanschneider, the triptych measures 30.2 ft. tall and 12.1 ft. high when fully opened (see first image above).. The Assumption in the 6-ft. wide center panel shows Mary with the 12 apostles (see second image above). The left wing shows the Visitation and the Annunciation in low relief. The right wing, also in low relief, shows the Nativity and the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Above the main panels is a depiction of the Coronation of Mary. Below in the predella are the Adoration of the Magi, a non-biblical scene of a five-year-old Jesus giving a speech, and the reliquary, where the farmer’s host was kept until it was lost (or eaten). Throughout the piece, but particularly in the center panel, Riemenschneider’s linden wood figures possess a fluidity and motion derived from the flowing lines of their garments. Scholars are in some disagreement about the date of the piece. While some date it to 1495-1499, most believe it was made after the Holy Blood Altar in Rothenburg, and assign it dates of 1505-1508.
1506-1508: Giorgione: The Tempest [High Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
Measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide and painted with oil on canvas, The Tempest was created by Italian Renaissance artist Giorgione for the Venetian noble Gabriele Vendramin. Considered the most representative of Giorgione’s few surviving works, some have dubbed The Tempest the first true landscape painting. There is no scholarly consensus on how to interpret the painting, but the most common theories include: (1) a shepherd or a soldier ignores a Gypsy woman nursing a baby, while a storm brews behind them, which follows a 1530 catalog describing the painting as “the little landscape on canvas with a tempest, gypsy woman and a soldier…”; (2) after being expelled from Eden by God (represented by the lightning), Adam and Eve stop so that Eve can nurse her son Cain; (3) Joseph, Mary and Jesus rest during their flight into Egypt to escape Herod; (4) Giorgione paints a family portrait of himself, his wife and their child; (5) the goddess Demeter nurses one of the twins she had with Iasion, who stands and looks, unaware that Zeus is preparing to kill him with a thunderbolt; and (6) Paris the shepherd watches as his wife Onenone, the mountain nymph, nurses their son Corythus. Each interpretation has its own meaning for the lightning, the stork/crane and the broken columns. As one critic pointed out, “none of [the interpretations] is totally convincing.” The Tempest is now at the Gallerie dell’Accademia in Venice. Random Trivia: X-ray analysis shows that in place of the man at left, Giorgione had originally painted a nude female.
1506-1509: Giorgione: The Three Philosophers [High Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
The Three Philosophers, made by Giorgione with oils on a canvas measuring 4 ft. tall by 4.75 ft. wide, was commissioned by Venetian noble Taddeo Contarini. It was one of Giorgione’s last works; he was so ill at the end that Sebastiano del Piombo had to add the finishing touches. Scholars believe that significant portions of the painting were trimmed away over the years, leaving the composition unbalanced. The work received its name in 1525, during the cataloging of the owner’s art, when it was described as “Three philosophers in a landscape.” The true meaning of the scene is a mystery, although many have attempted an explication. Traditionally, the painting was said to show the three Magi standing before a grotto where Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus were staying, but the overwhelming weight of scholarship has rejected this interpretation. Some identify the turbaned man as the Muslim philosopher Averroes. Some say the cave that the sitting young man is measuring is Plato’s cave, from which we see the shadows of the Ideal Forms. Others argue that the men stand for three phases of life (young, middle aged and old) , three time periods (Antiquity, Middle Ages, Renaissance) or three religions (Christianity, Islam, Judaism). Some have tied the painting to astronomical events, noting that the bearded man is holding a scroll containing the word, “eclipse.” There is consensus on Giorgione’s masterful handling of light and delicate sfumato technique, as well as his bold use of color, all of which combine to create a fully-realized work of art, no matter what its meaning. The Three Philosophers is now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
c. 1508-1510: Leonardo da Vinci: The Virgin and Child with St. Anne [High Renaissance; Italy]
An unfinished masterpiece, The Virgin and Child with St. Anne remained incomplete upon Leonardo da Vinci’s death in 1519, when it was found in his workshop. It is now at the Louvre in Paris. Painted with oils on wood panels and measuring 5.5 ft. tall by 3.7 ft. wide, the work shows three generations of the Holy Family: St. Anne, her daughter Mary and Mary’s son Jesus. The baby holds on to a lamb, symbol of his suffering and death, and his mother tries to pull him away, while grandmother gazes at the child with a contemplative smile. Like so many of Leonardo’s works, the composition is pyramidal, here with a spiraling effect, and the various elements (figures, immediate landscape, distant mountains) are pulled together by expert use of the sfumato technique to create a subtle haze. Sigmund Freud believed he found the outline of a vulture in Mary’s robe, which he felt referred to a vulture Leonardo remembered from childhood. (Unfortunately for Freud, he remembered the story wrong – it was a kite, not a vulture.) The recent controversial cleaning and restoration of the painting, which some experts claim removed some of the sfumato and left the painting too bright, led to the resignation of two members of the Louvre staff in protest in 2011. (See restored version in first image and pre-restoration version in second image.)
c. 1490-1510: Hieronymus Bosch: The Garden of Earthly Delights
[Early Netherlandish; Netherlands]
Made with oil paints on oak panels measuring almost 13 ft. long and more than 7 ft. tall, Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights is a triptych with two side panels that close over the center (first image). The left panel shows God with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and the right panel shows the torments of Hell (see detail in third image). The ambiguous central panel may show either the temptations of earthly life or a lost earthly paradise (see detail in second image). The view when the side panels are closed is a transparent globe showing earth during the Creation before the creation of man, probably on the Third Day of Genesis, Chapter 1 (fourth image). Bosch’s unique vision has a long legacy. In particular, his fantastic creatures and contraptions proved inspirational for the Surrealists centuries later. The Garden of Earthly Delights is now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
c. 1508-1510: Titian: The Pastoral Concert [High Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
The painting known as the Pastoral Concert or Pastoral Symphony is considered by some to be the masterpiece of the Venetian Renaissance. It was originally attributed to Giorgione, but more recently, scholars have come to believe that it is an early work by Giorgione’s pupil, Titian. The meaning of the painting, with its two clothed males and two nude females, has been the subject of endless debate, but many scholars now interpret the piece as an allegory about poetry. The young man with the lute, dressed as an aristocrat, is a superior lyricist, while his companion, dressed as a peasant, is an ordinary poet. The two nudes are the muses of poetry, with the symbolic attributes of lyricism: playing the flute and drawing water. The women are part of the supernatural world, which explains why the men do not notice them, and why they are comfortable with their nudity. The shepherd playing the bagpipes… not sure where he fits in. The artist’s decision to depict the flute-playing Muse from behind was innovative, and very influential. It is said that Manet painted his Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe – another composition with two clothed men and two nude women – after viewing The Pastoral Concert in the Louvre in Paris (where it remains) in 1863. The painting was made with oil on a canvas measuring 3.4 ft. tall by 4.5 ft. wide.
1510-1511: Raphael: The School of Athens [High Renaissance; Vatican City]
Measuring 16.5 ft. high by 25 ft. wide, The School of Athens is one of several frescoes that Italian Renaissance artist Raphael painted on the walls of a suite of reception rooms in the Vatican Palace. The School of Athens, an allegorical painting on the topic of philosophy, adorns one wall of the Stanza della Segnatura (Room of the Signatura) and bears the inscription “Causarum Cognito” (“Seek Knowledge of Causes”). The frescoes on the other three walls represent Poetry and Music, Theology and Law. Painted with impeccable attention to the laws of perspective, Raphael shows an open forum that recedes into the background. At the center, at the perspectival vanishing point, Plato (holding the Timaeus) and Aristotle (with the Nicomachean Ethics) walk and talk together (see second image above). The remaining figures represent other philosophers, but there is some dispute about their identities. Most scholars agree that Socrates, Pythagoras, Euclid, Ptolemy and Zoroaster are among those pictured. As models for some of the figures, Raphael drew upon his fellow artists; art historians have found portraits of Leonardo da Vinci (as Plato), Michelangelo (as Heraclitus), Donatello (as Plotinus), Bramante (as Euclid or Archimedes), and Raphael’s own self-portrait (as Apelles) in The School of Athens., Michelangelo, Donatello, Bramante, and Raphael’s own self-portrait in The School of Athens. Random Trivia: Rock band Guns n’ Roses used two of the figures from The School of Athens in the cover art for their Use Your Illusion albums.
1508-1512: Michelangelo Buonarroti: Frescoes, Sistine Chapel Ceiling
[High Renaissance; Vatican City]
The Sistine Chapel, the Papal Chapel of the Vatican, was built between 1473 and 1481. Various artists painted frescoes on the walls between 1481 and 1508 (including Botticelli’s Punishment of the Rebels and Perugino’s Delivery of the Keys), when Michelangelo began work on the ceiling. Michelangelo, who was given permission to determine the content of his frescoes, painted nine scenes on the themes of the Creation of the World, God’s Relationship with Man, and Man’s Fall from Grace. He also painted various Biblical and Classical figures on the pendentives and around the windows. Contrary to myth, Michelangelo stood upright on scaffolding, not on his back, while executing the work, which required him to tilt his head backward for long periods. A major restoration from 1980-1999 revealed again the brilliance of the original colors although some critics attacked the restorers, saying they had gone too far. Shown in the images above are: (1) the Creation of Man; (2) the Creation of the Sun and Moon; (3) the Prophet Joel; and (4) an overview of the entire ceiling.
1512-1514: Raphael: The Sistine Madonna [High Renaissance; Italy]
The curtains open on a heavenly scene: at the apex is the Madonna, her blue robe still swaying as if she has just arrived on the cloudy platform, and holding an older-than-usual Christ child resting comfortably in his mother’s arms (first image). Below Mary are St. Sixtus, a former Pope, and St. Barbara. Still further down are two cherubs resting on a balustrade, which also supports the papal crown (second image). In the background, just barely visible, are the white faces of cherubs innumerable. Raphael was commissioned by Pope Julius II to paint a Virgin, Child and Sts. Sixtus and Barbara as an altarpiece for Benedictine basilica of the Monastery of San Sisto in Piacenza. Measuring 8.7 ft. tall by 6.4 ft. wide and painted with oils on canvas, the work soon became known as the Sistine Madonna. In 1754, Polish King Augustus II bought the painting and moved it to Dresden. During World War II, the Sistine Madonna was saved from Allied firebombing, but at the end of the war, the Soviets came into possession of the painting and brought it to Moscow, only to return it to Germany in 1955. The Sistine Madonna is now at the Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister in Dresden, Germany. Random Trivia: Since at least the beginning of the 20th Century, the two cherubs at the bottom of the Sistine Madonna have become cultural icons and have been used as decoration and on such items as t-shirts, postcards and wrapping paper.
1514: Albrecht Dürer: Melencolia I [Northern Renaissance: Germany]
In 1513-1514, German artist Albrecht Dürer created three copper engravings that have become known as the Master Engravings. One of these was the 1514 engraving Melencolia I, prints of which may be found in museums all over the world (see first image, above). Measuring 9.5 in. by 7.3 in., the monochrome print announces its title by means of a bat-like creature carrying a banner in the background, where a beacon of light and a rainbow over the ocean appear to bring hope. In the foreground, however, melancholy rules. A winged figure sits dejected, head in hand, next to a putto in the same state. The winged figure holds a caliper and is surrounded by the unused tools of mathematics, geometry and carpentry, including a magic square that adds up to 34 in every direction and gives us the date of the print (see second image, above). One scholar called the print a spiritual self-portrait of the artist himself. While medieval thought saw melancholia as the worst of the four humors, associated with black gall and often leading to insanity, Renaissance thought identified melancholy as the mood of the artistic genius. An influential treatise listed the creative imagination as the first and lowest of the three states of mind (beneath reason and spirit), which perhaps explains the “I” in the title. At least one art historian has noted the irony of Dürer identifying with a paralyzed and powerless artist when he was in fact at the peak of his artistic powers and productivity in 1514.
1509-1515: Matthias Grünewald: The Isenheim Altarpiece
[Northern Renaissance; Isenheim, France]
Altarpieces were painted and/or sculpted panels set behind the altar of a church that depicted religious scenes, often with multiple doors providing different views when open or closed. The Isenheim Altarpiece was designed for the hospital chapel of the Monastery of St. Anthony in Isenheim, France, where the monks specialized in hospital work. The altarpiece contains a sculpted scene by Niclaus of Hagenau when fully open (see fourth image above) but is best known for Grünewald’s paintings. The overall scheme is intended to relate the sufferings of Jesus and the saints to the work being done by the monks to heal the sick. The first view (first image), with the wings closed, shows the Crucifixion in the center, and two protectors of the sick, St. Sebastian (being martyred) on the left wing and St. Anthony on the right wing. The predella below shows the Lamentation over Christ’s Dead Body (see first image above). In keeping with the theme of healing the sick, the Crucifixion scene shows Christ’s twisted torso afflicted with plague-like sores (see second image, above). The center panel measures 9 ft. tall by 10 ft. wide and each wing is 7.5 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide, while the predella is 2.5 ft. high by 11 ft. wide. The second view shows the Annunciation, the Nativity (with a concert of angels) and the Resurrection (second image). The third view contains two paintings of events in the life of St. Anthony, with sculpted figures of St. Anthony, St. Augustine and St. Jerome in the center (third image). The paintings use the most recent Renaissance techniques, but they are used in service of an expressionistic Gothic realism that inspired 20th Century Expressionists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz. The Isenheim Altarpiece is now at the Unterlinden Museum at Colmar in Alsace, France. Random Trivia: German composer Paul Hindemith based a symphony and an opera, both called Mathis der Maler, on Matthias Grünewald and The Isenheim Altarpiece.
1514-1515: Raphael: Portrait of Baldassare Castiglione [High Renaissance; Italy]
Humanist, writer and diplomat Baldassare Castiglione would become famous in 1528 as the result of The Book of the Courtier, but at the time of this portrait, he and Raphael were rising stars in Urbino’s political and cultural circles. When Castiglione was assigned as ambassador to the Vatican in 1514, he left his family behind, but in a letter he implied that they could console themselves by looking at his portrait. The portrait to which Castiglione referred may be the one that hangs today in the Louvre in Paris. That portrait, painted in Rome during the winter of 1514-1515, shows Castiglione as the perfect courtier – understated, sensitive and humane. Shown in three-quarter profile with a direct gaze against a plain tan background, Castiglione seems very real. Raphael has used a pyramidal composition and a limited palette. His treatment of the gray squirrel fur has been singled out by art historians as remarkable, if counterintuitive. Many consider it the pinnacle of Renaissance portraiture. The Portrait of Badassare Castiglione was painted with oil on wood panels and transferred to canvas; it currently measures 2.7 ft. tall by 2.2 ft. wide, although at some point the lower portion may have been trimmed.
1515-1517: Andrea del Sarto: Madonna of the Harpies [High Renaissance; Italy]
Andrea del Sarto may have had difficulty following instructions. When the nuns of the San Francesco de ‘Macci convent asked him to paint the Coronation of the Virgin Mary with Sts. Bonaventure and John the Evangelist, he returned with a painting showing the Virgin Mary standing on a pedestal with gruesome harpies carved into it, and while he did include St. John, he painted St. Francis instead of St. Bonaventure (see first image and detail in second image). An inscription in the pedestal mentions the Assumption, but current thinking is that the picture is supposed to refer to Mary’s triumph over evil (symbolized by the harpies), as described in the Book of Revelations. The Madonna of the Harpies is considered Andrea del Sarto’s most important contribution to Renaissance painting. Del Sarto employed a pyramidal composition to paint with oils on wood panel measuring 6.8 ft. tall by 5.8 ft. wide. The work is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
c. 1400-1518: Unknown Artist: Codex Borgia (Codex Yoalli Ehecatl) [Mixtec-Puebla; Mexico]
What we know for certain about the Codex Borgia begins in 1805, when German scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt found a Mesoamerican book, or codex, among the possessions of the recently deceased Cardinal Stefano Borgia in Rome. A little detective work revealed that Borgia had obtained the document from the Giustiniani family, but where and when they obtained it is a mystery. The Codex Borgia is a document known as a screenfold that consists of connected strips of deer skins 35 ft. long, covered in a thin layer of stucco or lime plaster, painted and then folded into 39 sheets measuring 11 in. square sheets. All but two of the sheets are painted on both sides, making 76 pages in all. Scholars believe that the Codex was made by one of the Mesoamerican cultures of central Mexico using an artistic style known as Mixteca-Puebla. Because the Codex shows no evidence of European influence, scholars believe it was created before the Spanish arrived in Mexico some time in the 15th or early 16th Century. The Codex, which is based on the tonalpohualli, a 260-day religious calendar, is a tonalamatl, or ‘almanac of destiny’, that contains predictions and auguries. The pages depict numerous deities with their associated day signs and symbols. It shows sacrifices and contains a chart for predicting the success of marriage based on the names of the couple. The Codex also includes a long narrative about the god Quetzalcoatl’s journey through the underworld. The images shown above are: (1) Page 16, depicting nine deities associated with childbirth, each shown with four associated day signs; (2) Page 30, showing part of the narrative about Quetzalcoatl’s journey through the underworld that may refer to a solar eclipse in 1495-1496; (3) Page 66, showing four deities and 26 associated day signs; (4) Page 71, showing the sun god, Tonatiuh, receiving blood from a decapitated bird, surrounded by 13 birds that correspond to the 13 days of a calendar period called a trecena. The Codex Borgia is now in the Vatican Library in Rome.
1516-1520: Raphael: The Transfiguration [High Renaissance; Italy]
Raphael’s last painting, The Transfiguration is the crowning achievement of his short career; he died in 1520 at the age of 37. Commissioned by Cardinal Giulio de Medici as an altarpiece for the Narbonne Cathedral in France, The Transfiguration went instead to the church of San Pietro in Rome. An early modello indicates that Raphael’s original design was to portray only the transfiguration of Jesus on Mt. Tabor, but he eventually adopted the concept of another artist and divided the canvas in two, with the Transfiguration in the upper register, and the Miracle of the Possessed Boy in the lower portion (first image). The upper portion shows a floating Jesus framed by an illuminated cloud, while prophets Moses and Elijah fly up to meet him. On the ground below are James, Peter and John. (See second image for Raphael’s preparatory studies of Sts. Peter and John.) The composition may be understood as a series of intersecting triangles, as Romantic painter J.M.W. Turner explained in a lecture to the Royal Academy on the subject in 1802 (third image). Despite the theological importance of the story in the upper section, the lower register seems more alive. It shows the apostles unsuccessfully trying to cure a boy believed to be possessed with demons (although some scholars have identified the illness as epilepsy, which was widely misunderstood even in the Renaissance). The boy, surrounded by his family, is rendered with passionate intensity, while the apostles, on the left, seem at a loss (see second image, above). St. Matthew, at lower left, gestures to the viewer, to include us in the events. From a compositional standpoint, the kneeling woman in the figura serpentina pose in the foreground, plays a crucial role – she links the apostle group with the boy and his family, and her closeness and intense reflection of light draw the viewer’s eye to her (see second image, above). From the point of view of art history, Raphael’s work anticipates both Mannerism, which was about to begin, and the Baroque style of a century later. The Transfiguration is painted with oil on wood panels measuring 13.25. ft. tall and 9.1 ft. wide. After being removed to France by Napoleon in 1797, the painting was returned to Italy in the Treaty of Paris in 1815 and is now located in the Pinacoteca Vaticana in Vatican City.
1520-1522: Hans Holbein the Younger: The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb
[Northern Renaissance; Germany]
The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is a macabre study of the humanness of Jesus and the horror of death. Lying on a stone slab within a claustrophobic wooden box (first image), rigor mortis setting in, flesh beginning to rot, Jesus’ dead eyes look toward heaven and his open mouth seems about to speak (second image). Scholars do not know what the unusually long, narrow piece – it is 1 ft. high by 6.5 ft. long and painted with oils and tempera on limewood panel – was intended for: the predella of an altarpiece, the top of a tomb or a stand-alone piece for gruesome meditation? No one knows. We do know that, according to legend, Holbein’s model was a body fished out of the Rhine. We also know that Fyodor Dostoyevsky was so obsessed with the painting that his wife had to drag him away from it for fear that it would trigger an epileptic seizure; he later had a character in The Idiot comment that the painting could make someone lose his faith. The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb is in the Kunstmuseum Basel in Basel, Switzerland.
1520-1523: Titian: Bacchus and Ariadne [High Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
Titian painted the Classical story of Bacchus and Ariadne for the Alabaster Room of the Ducal Palace in Ferrara, Italy, for which the Duke of Ferrara, Alfonso d’Este, had commissioned mythological-themed paintings by Titian and other well-known artists. In the story, Theseus has abandoned his lover Ariadne on the island of Naxos, when Bacchus, the god of wine, meets Ariadne and falls in love with her, eventually turning her into a constellation. Titian’s painting, made with oils on canvas measuring 5.75 ft. tall by 6.25 ft. wide, shows Ariadne shortly after Theseus has sailed (his ship is visible at the far left) and she is both mourning the loss and calling him back. At the same moment, Bacchus and his motley crew of revelers emerges from the forest, with the god in front with his cheetah-drawn chariot. Bacchus takes one look at Ariadne and leaps out of his chariot in a passion, while Ariadne, frightened by the sudden intrusion, turns in a contrapposto pose to look at Bacchus, who has one foot suspended in the air. There is an electricity in their eyes meeting that bridges the gap between them. Titian foreshadows the end of the story by showing Ariadne’s constellation in the daytime sky in the left corner. As one commentator noted, each figure is engaged in at least two contradictory movements. Details include a King Charles Spaniel that appears in other Titian works, a character reminiscent of Laocoön, who is fighting with a serpent, and a gold urn inscribed with Titian’s signature. The cleaning and renovation of the painting has been controversial. Removal of the varnish, which had grown very dark, revealed the bright Venetian colors beneath, but also dislodged some paint, which had to be repainted. As a result, some experts claim that the blue sky is now flat and pallid and the painting is tonally out of balance. Bacchus and Ariadne is now in the National Gallery in London.
1524: Parmigianino: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror [Mannerism; Italy]
Parmigianino’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror operates on a number of levels. It is, first of all, a virtuoso performance that demonstrates the 21-year-old painter’s talent, and he hoped it would earn him commissions. Parmigianino looked into a convex mirror, which distorts reflections so that objects change size and sharp edges become curved, and painted exactly what he saw. To increase the effect, he had a woodworker create a concave wooden platform on which to paint. Not coincidentally, his hand – the painter’s most important tool – is exaggerated by the mirror into monumentality. On a deeper level, however, the painting raises issues about the act of seeing. Parmigianino has created a painting that appears to be a mirror – complete with round frame – and asks us to look at it, as if we are looking into a mirror, but instead of our own reflection, we see his. The painting matches the Mannerist philosophy nicely, for Mannerists welcome distortion, even celebrate it. The painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Random Trivia: In 1975, John Ashbery published an award-winning book of poetry titled Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror – the title poem reflects on the meaning of Parmigianino’s painting:
“As Parmigianino did it, the right hand
Bigger than the head, thrust at the viewer
And swerving easily away, as though to protect
What it advertises.” – John Ashbery
1526: Albrecht Dürer: The Four Apostles [Northern Renaissance; Germany]
As the Protestant Reformation swept through Northern Europe in the 16th Century, everyone had to make a choice whether to adopt the new faith or stay with the Roman Catholic church. For artists, the Reformation had significant consequences for their ability to make a living. The Roman church was the primary source of artistic commissions, while the new Protestant churches were wary of religious imagery. German artist Albrecht Dürer’s paintings of Four Apostles were made without a commission and then presented to the Town Council of Nuremberg. The two panels show John and Peter (on the left, first image) and Mark and Paul (on the right, second image), with their attributes: John (open book), Peter (keys), Mark (scroll) and Paul (Bible). In his representation of the apostles, Dürer has taken care to emphasize Protestant values over Roman Catholic ones. John and Paul were favorites of Martin Luther, so they are placed in front. Peter, the apostle who most represents the Roman church, is depicted as old and somewhat out of touch, as he reads along from the Gospel of John in John’s Bible. The focus on reading the Bible reflects Luther’s belief that individuals should maintain a personal relationship with God by reading Scripture, preferably in their native language. To that end, quotations from the Bible in German taken from Martin Luther’s translation are displayed on the bottom of each panel. Dürer used oil paints on lindenwood panels, each one 7.1 ft. tall by 2.5 ft. wide. The paintings are now in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
1519-1526: Titian: Pesaro Madonna (Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro)
[High Renaissance; Venice, Italy]
When Venetian Renaissance painter Titian received a commission from Jacopo Pesaro, a Bishop and the pope’s naval commander, to paint an altarpiece with the Madonna and Child for the family chapel in the Franciscan church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice, the artist knew exactly where the painting would be hung – on the left side of the church near the entrance – and so he made an historic decision. Because most viewers would approach the painting from the left, Titian decided to place Jesus and Mary in the upper right portion of the canvas, thus breaking hundreds of years of religious painting tradition in which the Madonna and Child were placed in the center. This decision not only changed art history, but it opened up numerous possibilities for Titian and those who came after him. In the Pesaro Madonna (also known as Madonna of the Pesaro Family, Madonna with Saints and Members of the Pesaro Family and Madonna di Ca’ Pesaro), Titian creates a series of scalene triangles, one beginning with Mary, another with St. Peter, below her on the staircase, in contrast to the isoceles triangles of earlier paintings, that connect the kneeling donor (on the left) with the saints above him. Consistent with the off-center composition, the perspectival vanishing point is far to the right. Using the postures and gestures of the saints, and the placement of St. Peter’s keys and the banner held by the soldier (who holds a captured Turk – a reference to Pesaro’s 1502 victory over the Turks), Titian creates a series of diagonals that impart movement and energy. In particular, the contrasting positions of Mary and Jesus link the viewer to both the donor on the left (through St. Peter), and the donor’s family on the right (through St. Francis). In contrast with the energetic gesturing of the saints, the Pesaro family inhabit a more mundane world, pictured in profile (but for one curious child) and a little flat. The Pesaro Madonna was made with oils on a canvas measuring 16 ft. tall by 8.8 ft. wide and possesses the bright colors for which Venetian painters were famous. The large columns in the center of the painting are unprecedented, but x-ray analysis indicates that they may be a later addition and not painted by Titian. The canvas remains in the Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice.
1525-1528: Jacopo Pontormo: The Deposition of Christ (The Deposition from the Cross)
[Mannerism; Florence, Italy]
The Deposition of Christ (also known as The Deposition from the Cross) is Florentine painter Jacopo Pontormo’s masterpiece. It was painted with oils on wood panels measuring 10.25 ft. tall by 6.3 ft. wide, as the altarpiece for the Capponi Chapel in Florence’s Santa Felicità Church, where it remains. Portormo painted in the Mannerist style – the figures seem flatter than in the High Renaissance; there is less attention paid to strict perspective or simple, direct compositions like da Vinci’s pyramids. Instead, the figures in the Deposition form a swirling, dancing mass, going several directions at once, and they do not have the weight and substance of figures from the recent past. Other breaks with the past include Pontormo’s decision to remove many of the trademark objects and symbols of a typical deposition, such as the cross or a ladder. (The absence of a cross has led some to interpret the painting as the entombment of Christ instead of his deposition.) Similarly, the landscape and backgrounds are reduced to a minimum. What we see is movement, strong (even histrionic) emotions and bright patches of color.
1526-1528: Hans Holbein the Younger: Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling
[Northern Renaissance; England]
German painter Hans Holbein the Younger spent a good portion of his career in England, where his knowledge of the Northern Renaissance had a significant influence. During his first trip to England, from 1526-1528, he painted the portrait known as Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling (sometimes referred to as Portrait of a Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling) (see first image, above). Using oil and tempera on an oak panel measuring 1.8 ft. tall by 1.3 ft. wide, he painted the subject, a young woman, with exquisite attention to detail, taking care to differentiate between three different white garments: her fashionable white ermine cap, her white shawl, and the white cambric showing on her chest and wrists. Some scholars have speculated that the portrait was part of a husband-wife pair, of which the husband’s portrait is missing. Some have attributed the highly-detailed realism of the portrait to Holbein’s Gothic roots, although the substantiality and naturalism of the figure seem to be derived from the Renaissance. The starling and squirrel were probably added later, and at least one expert believes that Holbein painted a man’s hands (perhaps an assistant’s) to show them holding the squirrel. Although both starlings and squirrels were popular pets in England at the time, recent scholarship suggests that the animals may provide clues to the sitter’s identity. Some scholars suspect that the subject of the portrait is Anne Lovell, wife of Sir Francis Lovell, whose family coat of arms includes three squirrels, all crouching and eating a nut, as in the painting (see second image, above). Furthermore, starling may be a pun on the Lovell homestead at East Harling. Art historians have focused a great deal of attention the squirrel’s tail. One expert notes that its curve echoes the vines in the background; another suggests that the placement of the tail implies a hidden sensuality beneath the sitter’s straight-laced appearance. Lady with a Squirrel and a Starling is now in the National Gallery in London.
1527-1528: Parmigianino: The Conversion of St. Paul [Mannerism; Italy]
The Conversion of St. Paul, also known as The Conversion of Saul, was a common subject for religious paintings. According to the New Testament, Saul was persecutor of the early Christians when, while traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus, he was struck blind by a light, fell to the ground and heard the voice of Jesus instruct him to stop persecuting him and follow him instead. After the incident, Saul, who regained his sight after several days, changed his name to Paul and became a Christian. Parmigianino (the pseudonym of Francesco Mazzola) received a commission to paint the Conversion from Gian Andrea Albio. The artist’s Mannerist treatment of the subject emphasizes the supernatural and irrational aspects of the story. First, the entire composition is tilted on edge so that the horizon line goes from the lower left to the middle right, indicating that Saul’s stable world view has shifted dramatically. Saul is on the ground, blind, turning his ear toward the sound of Jesus’s voice. The horse from which Saul has fallen takes up the bulk of the space; its body proportions are intentionally distorted and the color and pattern of its hide recall a marble statue. Instead of a saddle, the horse has a leopard skin around its middle, a symbol of Saul’s cruelty. The Conversion of St. Paul, made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.8 ft. tall by 4.2 ft. wide, is now at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1529: Albrecht Altdorfer: The Battle of Alexander at Issus [Northern Renaissance; Germany]
German artist Albrecht Altdorfer received a commission from Duke William IV of Bavaria to paint eight works to hang in the Duke’s Munich residence, the most highly regarded of which is The Battle of Alexander at Issus, also known as Alexander’s Victory and The Battle of Issus. This masterpiece depicts the 333 BCE battle in which Alexander the Great defeated Darius III of Persia. The work, which measures 5.2 ft. tall by 4 ft. wide, is a prominent example of a world landscape painting: by ignoring the normal rules of perspective, Altdorfer shows us the details of a battle (see detail in second image), but also a grand overview of the known world. The dramatic sky is significant on metaphorical and symbolic levels. Although Altdorfer’s grand scale, level of detail and official banner inscription all suggest an intent to depict the historical event accurately, the painting contains numerous inaccuracies and anachronisms, some of which are surely deliberate. For example, Alexander’s men wear 16th Century armor and Darius’s troops are dressed as 16th Century Turks. These elements lead scholars to believe Altdorfer intended to compare Alexander’s victory over the Persians with the contemporary struggle between Europe and the Ottoman Empire, as exemplified by the Siege of Vienna in 1529 (the year of the painting), where an outnumbered collection of Europeans repulsed an attack by Suleiman the Magnificent and his Ottoman warriors. The Battle of Alexander at Issus is now at the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.
c. 1530-1532: Correggio: Jupiter and Io [High Renaissance/Mannerism; Italy]
Jupiter and Io is a voluptuous late Renaissance oil painting by Italian artist Correggio (born Antonio Allegri da Correggio) illustrating a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses in which Jupiter, the king of the gods, takes on the shape of a smoky gray cloud to seduce Io, a mortal river nymph (first image). Jupiter and Io was one of a series of paintings on the subject of The Loves of Jupiter, as related in the Metamorphoses, that was commissioned by Federico II Gonzaga, Duke of Mantua. The series of paintings was initially intended for a private room in the Duke’s palace, but they were given instead to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V during a visit to Mantua. Other paintings in the series include: Danaë (c. 1531) (second image), Ganymede Abducted by the Eagle (1531-1532) (third image); and Leda with the Swan (1531-1532) (fourth image). Jupiter and Io, the most highly regarded painting in the series, has a dreamlike sensuality. Jupiter’s face emerges from the cloud to give Io a kiss on the cheek, while Io, her substantial body twisted in the throes of ecstasy, pulls Jupiter’s cloud-engulfed hand closer around her waist. Jupiter and Io was made with oils on a canvas measuring 5.4 feet tall by 2.3 feet wide and is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1533: Hans Holbein the Younger: The Ambassadors [Northern Renaissance; England]
Ostensibly a double portrait of two French diplomats, most likely Jean de Dinteville, a landowner (left), and Georges de Selve, the Bishop of Lavaur (right), German painter Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors contains many mysteries. The table between the two men, in the center of the composition, contains numerous symbols of religion and science or commerce, including two globes, a quadrant, a torquetum, a polyhedral sundial, an Oriental carpet, a Lutheran hymn book, and a lute with a broken string (a symbol of discord). A half-hidden crucifix hangs in the upper left and the floor tiles bear a pattern that English viewers would have recognized from Westminster Abbey. (Holbein spent much of his working life in England, where The Ambassadors was painted.) Most bizarre is an anamorphically-rendered skull in the bottom center, which can only be seen properly if the painting is approached from the side. The skull represents death and mortality, which lurk unrecognized in our midst, but it may also be an example of Holbein showing off his grasp of technique. The entire ensemble raises more questions than it answers, but appears to ask the viewer to enter into a debate about the interaction between science and religion, between the concerns of the rising scientific and merchant class and those of the clergy – are they in conflict or can they coexist? The Ambassadors is now in the National Gallery in London.
1535: Parmigianino: Madonna of the Long Neck [Mannerism; Italy]
Originally titled Madonna and Child with Angels and St. Jerome, Parmigianino’s Mannerist masterpiece soon acquired the nickname Madonna of the Long Neck for the extra vertebrae he added to Mary to give her neck a swanlike undulation. Elongated figures such as Mary’s are a hallmark of Mannerist art, which rejected the naturalism of the High Renaissance in favor of works that took Renaissance trends to their logical conclusion, even if that meant a tribute became a critique. Here, for example, the artist’s commission required a portrait of St. Jerome. The result (in a portion of the piece Parmigianino’s did not finish due to his untimely death) is a parody of perspective, with a distant Jerome looking tinier than the gigantic Pieta-posed Christ child (who somehow stays balanced on Mary’s double wide lap). Because Jerome needs the right side, Parmigianino crams all the angels into the left, ignoring symmetry, while eroticizing them in ways that must have scandalized or perhaps titillated contemporaries. Measuring 7 ft. tall by 4.3 ft. wide and painted with oils on wood panel, the Madonna was commissioned by Italian noblewoman Elena Bacardi for her family chapel in a Parma church. Madonna of the Long Neck is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
1538: Titian: Venus of Urbino [High Renaissance/Venetian School; Venice, Italy]
Venetian master Titian painted the canvas known as Venus of Urbino (measuring 3.9 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide) for Guidobaldo II Della Rovere, Duke of Urbino, probably for his 1534 wedding, to adorn a cassone, or bridal chest. To achieve the naturalism of the piece, Titian applied 10-15 thin translucent layers of oil paint. In determining the subject and pose, Titian drew from Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus (1510), which Titian finished, but with dramatic changes. Titian’s Venus is no ideal goddess or allegory of Beauty (there are no Classical indicia, for example): she is a real woman, sensual, alluring and comfortable with her body. She gazes directly at the viewer, confident in her physicality while exuding amorous feelings. Venus carries posies in one hand – a gift from her lover – and shyly hides (or casually draws attention to?) her genitals with the other. The love being celebrated is marital, Titian reminds us, by including the dog (symbol of fidelity) and the maids looking for clothes in a cassone. The maid scene balances the composition, given Titian’s bold decision to bisect the painting with a featureless screen, which serves the purposes of emphasizing Venus’s light head and torso against a dark background and also creating a private space for Venus and those who dare to meet her gaze. Venus of Urbino is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
1539-1540: Maqsud of Kashan: Ardabil Carpets [Safavid Dynasty; Persia/Iran]
In about 1539-1540, during the reign of Shah Tahmasp I, of the Safavid Dynasty in Persia, Maqsud of Kashan (along with 8-10 assistants) made two carpets, probably in Tabriz in what is now Iran. Each carpet had a silk foundation, with a wool pile, 300-350 knots per square inch, and measured 34.5 ft. long by 17.5 ft wide. The subtle, almost abstract design includes a central medallion, at the center of which is a roundel shaped like a geometrical pool from a traditional Islamic garden. Maqsud signed and dated each carpet and added a couplet from a ghazal by poet Hafez Shirazi. After completion, the carpets were taken to the shrine of Shaykh Safi al-Din Ardabili (d. 1334) in the town of Ardabil, where they remained for at least 300 years. After an earthquake in the 1870s, the shrine sold the carpets. By 1890, when British carpet broker Ziegler & Co. bought the carpets, they were in horrendous condition. The carpet broker decided to cannibalize one of the carpets to obtain material to repair the other. When he had completed the job, he sold the restored carpet to the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. The other carpet, which was now missing its border, was sold on the private market until finally J. Paul Getty bought it and eventually donated it to the Los Angeles County Museum in 1953. Random Trivia: For years, scholars were puzzled by the difference in size between the two lamps in the rug pattern. Eventually, they realized that it was a trick of perspective: when one looks at the larger lamp from the position of the smaller lamp, both lamps appear to be the same size.
1534-1541: Michelangelo Buonarroti: The Last Judgment (Fresco, Sistine Chapel Altar Wall) [High Renaissance/Mannerism; Vatican City]
Twenty-five years after painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo returned to paint a giant fresco of The Last Judgment on the altar wall. The fresco, which measures 45 ft. tall by 39 ft. wide, shows Christ’s second coming and the division of the saved from the damned (first image). At the top of the composition, angels bring the symbols of Christ’s passion, including the cross and crown of thorns (second image). Due to Michelangelo’s reputation, he was able to negotiate a significant amount of artistic freedom in exercising the commission from Pope Paul III. Nevertheless, the nudity of many of the figures in the fresco alarmed some clerics. Even before the painting was complete, the Pope’s master of ceremonies, Biagio da Cesena, called the work “disgraceful” and said that it was more appropriate for the “public baths and taverns.” In response, Michelangelo painted Cesena’s face on Minos, judge of the underworld, giving him donkey ears and wrapping a serpent around him to cover (and bite!) his genitals (third image). When Cesena protested, the Pope reportedly quipped that he could do nothing because his jurisdiction did not extend to Hell. After Michelangelo’s death in 1564, the Vatican ordered Daniele da Volterra to paint over many of the figures’ genitalia. Many of these fig leaves were removed over 400 years later during the extensive cleaning between 1980 and 1994. Restorers relied heavily on a copy of Michelangelo’s The Last Judgment commissioned by Cardinal Allesandro Farnese and painted by Marcello Venusti in 1549, before the fig leaves were added. (Venusti’s copy, which is now in the Museo da Capodimonte in Naples, is shown in the fourth image.) Unfortunately, the restorers found that in some cases Volterra had scraped off the offending material and painted on fresh plaster instead of merely painting over the original, thus permanently marring the masterpiece.
1539-1544: Hans Baldung Grien: The Three Ages of Man and Death
[Northern Renaissance; Germany]
The Three Ages of Man and Death (also known as the Ages of Man and Death) is an allegorical painting by German artist Hans Baldung Grien made with oils on canvas measuring 4.9 ft. tall by 2 ft. wide. Three figures stand on a bleak, desolate landscape. At the far right, Death carries his hourglass and broken spear. He leads an old woman by the arm to her demise. The old woman grabs hold of the beautiful young woman next to her. Is the older woman trying to avoid death by clinging to youth, or is she trying to drag the young woman with her? Below them on the ground is a sleeping infant, oblivious to his fate, and, an owl, symbolizing something. Above in the sky we see Jesus on the cross, flying to the sun. The painting may allude to a traditional German belief that young beautiful women are a symbol of death. Other scholars have noted that the emphasis of the painting on the fragility of human existence and evanescent quality of beauty and youth bring it into the vanitas genre, in which viewers are intended to reflect on the fleeting nature of our mortal lives. There is some dispute about the date of the painting. While most sources indicate it was made between 1539 and 1544, some say it is significantly older, from 1509-1510. The Three Ages of Man and Death is now at the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
c. 1545: Agnolo Bronzino: Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time [Mannerism; Italy]
Florentine Mannerist Agnolo Bronzino painted Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time for a wealthy patron to give to Francis I of France. Measuring 4.75 ft. tall by 3.8 ft. wide, the allegorical painting has spawned multiple theories (and titles), particularly about the identities of the peripheral figures. All agree that the central figure is Venus, with her son Cupid engaging her in an incestuous embrace, the transgressive act that elicits such a strong reaction from the others (see detail in second image), who may include Folly (right center), Time (right top), Jealousy (left center), Oblivion (left top); and Pleasure or Fraud (between Venus and Folly, with honeycomb). Bronzino posed the three central characters in the twisting figura serpentinata posture so popular in Mannerism. Venus, Cupid, Folly and Time (also known as An Allegory with Venus and Cupid, Allegory of the Triumph of Venus, Allegory of Love with Venus and Cupid and Allegory of Lust) is now in the National Gallery in London. Random Trivia: Terry Gilliam used Cupid’s right foot (reversed) in the animated intro to the Monty Python TV series (third image).
1551: Pieter Aertsen: Butcher’s Stall (Butcher’s Stall with the Flight Into Egypt)
[Northern Renaissance/Northern Mannerism; Netherlands]
Dutch painter Pieter Aertsen was one of the originators of the inverted still life, in which a narrative in the background is almost obscured by the still life in the foreground. The painting, which has acquired an overabundance of titles, including Butcher’s Stall, Meat Stall, Butcher’s Stall with the Flight into Egypt, Meat Stall with the Holy Family Giving Alms, Meat Pantry of an Inn, with the Virgin Giving Alms, and Meat Still Life, presents at first glance a close-up view of fresh raw meat hanging in a butcher’s stall, with the flayed head of an ox eyeing the viewer blankly (first image). The still life, which appears chaotic but actually forms a coherent composition, speaks of abundance and invites us to indulge. Behind the sausages and pretzels, however, are other stories. In the background to the right we see a woman of ill repute and a man who may be her customer (some experts say he is the Prodigal Son from the Bible story) outside a tavern, where the ground is littered with oyster shells, a reputed aphrodisiac. To the far left, citizens go to church. Left of center, we see a man with a woman on a donkey – despite the lack of divine attributes, we know it is Mary, pregnant with Jesus, and Joseph on the way to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (second image). Mary is giving alms to a needy boy out of her meager possessions. The message is clear: when there is so much abundance, no one should go without. The example of the holy family should be heeded, particularly by those who have more. Butcher’s Stall, made with oil on wood panels measuring 4 ft. tall by 4.9 ft. wide, is at the Museum Gustavianum, University Art Collections in Uppsala, Sweden.
1545-1554: Benvenuto Cellini: Perseus with the Head of Medusa (Perseus) [Mannerism; Italy]
When Florentine sculptor and goldsmith Benvenuto Cellini proposed a large bronze sculpture of Perseus with the Head of Medusa to Duke Cosimo I de’ Medici, the Duke recognized a political opportunity. The marble statues of David and Hercules in the Loggia dei Lanzi, in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria, were symbols of the Republic, which the Medicis had overthrown. Placing a statue of Perseus in the Loggia holding up the head of the snake-headed Gorgon Medusa, which turned all who looked upon it to stone, and facing it toward the statues of the Republic, would make a political statement as well as a clever joke. Cellini’s masterpiece stands 18 ft. tall, with three separate parts. At the top is Perseus, sword in hand, weight on one foot, holding up the Medusa’s head while bowing his own (first image). The hero is nude but for his winged cap, winged sandals and sash. He stands on Medusa’s headless body, which gushes blood from the neck, and the reflective shield that allowed him to outsmart the Gorgon. Directly beneath Medusa’s body (her arm hanging down links the two registers) is a four-sided marble base with four niches, containing bronze statuettes of Jupiter, Athena, Mercury and Danaë (second image). Carved in the marble are goats’ heads, to represent the Duke’s zodiac sign, Capricorn, while on the corners are carved images of Diana of Ephesus. The marble base continues below the niches, where Cellini has installed a bronze panel containing a relief sculpture of Perseus rescuing Andromeda from Cetus (third image). Scholars believe this is the first time since Ancient Rome that the base of a sculpture included figurative sculpture integral to the work as a whole.
c. 1555-1558: Pieter Bruegel the Elder (?): Landscape with the Fall of Icarus
[Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
Debate rages among art historians about the attribution of the painting titled Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which is located in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique, in Brussels (first image). While some believe the work was painted by Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder between 1555 and 1558, others are convinced that it is a later copy of Bruegel’s lost original. One of the clues to the mystery is that the artist of Landscape with the Fall of Icarus used oil paints on canvas, while all other Bruegel canvas paintings are made with tempera. On the other hand, a recent high-tech analysis suggests that the work was originally painted on wood panels and transferred to canvas later, which would be consistent with Bruegel’s practice. The debate over attribution overshadows the painting itself, which is full of surprises. The ostensible subject is Ovid’s story of Icarus, who disobeys his father Daedalus, inventor of flying wing, and flies too close to the sun, melting the wax holding his wings together, causing him to fall and drown. In the story, Ovid mentions a ploughman, a shepherd and a fisherman who witness the tragedy. In Bruegel’s version, the three peasants take center stage, but instead of bearing witness, they mostly go about their business, supporting the Flemish proverb that, when a man dies, the farmer continues to plow. Icarus, meanwhile splashes into the water unnoticed (see detail in second image). The shepherd does gaze into the air, but does not see Icarus, whose legs are visible in the water below and just in front of the angler. Another painting, which purports to be a copy of Bruegel’s original, shows Daedalus in the sky at the point where the shepherd is looking; it is possible that overpainting caused the loss of this detail. Other unusual details are a knife and what appears to be a dead body in the bushes, ignored (like Icarus) by the hard-working peasants. Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, which measures 2.4 ft. high by 3.7 ft. wide, is the only one of Bruegel’s paintings with a mythological theme. He uses aerial perspective to show the distant landscape, although the proportions of the ship and figures are not correct. The painting inspired ecphrastic poems by both W.H. Auden (Musée des Beaux Arts, 1938) and William Carlos Williams (Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, 1960).
1559: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: Netherlandish Proverbs (The Blue Cloak)
[Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
The Dutch language used in much of the Low Countries (present-day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg) in the 16th Century was filled with proverbs and idioms, so much so that a cottage industry had developed of scholarly collections and popular illustrations, as well as multiple references by Rabelais in his novel Gargantua and Pantagruel. Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder saw this interest in proverbs as an opportunity to highlight his theme of man’s moral weakness and foolishness. In Netherlandish Proverbs (also known as The Dutch Proverbs), made with oil on wood panels measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide, Bruegel painted literal illustrations of over 100 proverbs, all dramatized by the citizens of a typical Flemish town and their possessions (see first image above). The subject was a popular one, as witnessed by the 16 copies of Netherlandish Proverbs painted by Bruegel’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. Some of the proverbs are the same as or similar to those familiar in 21st Century America, such as “banging your head against a brick wall” and “armed to the teeth”, while others would not be familiar, such as “shear them but not not skin them”, meaning don’t press an advantage too far, “there is more in it than an empty herring”, meaning there is more to it than meets the eye; and “having the roof tiled with tarts”, to describe someone who is very wealthy. (For a list of many of the proverbs, indicating their meaning and location in the painting, go here.) For many years, the painting was referred to as The Blue Cloak, or The Topsy-Turvy World, which refers to a saying that a woman cheating on her husband is said to be putting a blue cloak on him – the illustration of this proverb lies near the center of the painting (see second image above, showing detail). Scholars have noted Bruegel’s expert use of color to draw attention to the many scenes, particularly red and blue. Netherlandish Proverbs is now in the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.
1559-1562: Titian: The Rape of Europa [High Renaissance/Venetian School; Italy]
One of series of ‘poesies’ Titian painted for Philip II of Spain on mythological themes, The Rape of Europa (originally titled Europa) is based on Ovid’s story of Jupiter’s love for the mortal princess Europa, which leads the god to transform himself into a white bull. When Europa climbs onto his back, he swims away with her (despite the desperate calls of her handmaidens) to the island of Crete, where he impregnates her with a child who will become Minos, the founder of Cretan civilization. Titian attempts to show both Europa’s terror at this abduction and sexual assault, including the fear of sliding off the bull and into the water, while at the some time showing her erotic arousal as a result of this close encounter with the seductive power of the king of the gods. Note how she turns in a figura serpentina pose to expose her breast to Cupid’s arrows, a sign of submission, yet she is also unblalanced and fearful. The color of the sky, in particular, accentuates Jupiter’s passion, as well as the element of danger, while the bull’s leering eye tells us what is to come. The idea that a rape can be a sexually fulfilling experience for the victim is contrary to our current understanding, but Greco-Roman mythology did not see the two as mutually exclusive, at least when the encounter involved a god and a mortal. In order to heighten the drama, Titian shows us two vicious fish threatening, although a putti appears to have tamed one of the creatures. Note the rhyming curves between Europa’s arms and legs, her pink scarf, the bull’s tail, and Cupid’s bow. The Rape of Europa, made with oil on a canvas measuring 5.8 ft. tall by 6.7 ft. wide, was painted in Titian’s late style, with blurred lines, swirling colors and vibrant brushstrokes that prefigure the Baroque. It is now at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston.
1562: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Triumph of Death [Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
In The Triumph of Death, painted with oil on wood panel measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 5.3 ft. wide, Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder links north and south by combining the Northern European tradition of woodcuts of the Dance of Death with Italian depictions of the Triumph of Death. On this canvas, an army of marauding skeletons destroys human life in myriad ways, while foolhardy humans respond either ineffectually or obliviously (see first image above). Destruction is everywhere and indiscriminate, as peasants, soldiers, nobles, clerics and kings all fall before the triumphal march of Death. The presence of numerous Christian crosses and the circle of skeletons around a church house (second image) make the artist’s point that mortality of the human body is inevitable and only belief in Jesus Christ can save the soul from eternal death. The Triumph of Death is now in the Museo del Prado in Madrid.
1562–1563: Paolo Veronese: The Wedding at Cana (The Wedding Feast at Cana)
[Mannerism; Venice, Italy]
Measuring 22 ft. tall by 32.5 ft. wide and weighing 1.5 tons, The Wedding Feast at Cana (also known as The Wedding at Cana) is the largest painting in the Louvre (first image). Veronese received a commission from the Benedictine Monastery of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice to paint the Gospel story in which Jesus changed water into wine. Veronese painted the work in the Mannerist style of the late Renaissance. Veronese combines ancient and contemporary details; some of the 130 guests are intended to represent current religious and political figures such as King Francis of France, Queen Mary of England, Emperor Charles V and Ottoman leader Suleiman the Magnificent. Presumably because the Benedictine monks took a vow of silence, no one in the painting is speaking. The only guest looking directly at the viewer is Jesus, who sits at the center (second image). The painting hung in Venice from 1563 to 1797, when Napoleon looted it and brought it to Paris. The Louvre began restoring the painting in 1989, but two mishaps occurred in 1992 – a leaking air vent spattered the canvas with water, and then a support collapsed and the metal framework tore five holes in the canvas. The restored Wedding Feast at Cana remains in the Louvre in Paris.
1563: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Tower of Babel [Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
The story of the Tower of Babel comes from the Book of Genesis: God’s people, led by King Nimrod (possibly pictured in lower left) decide to join together to build a tower in Babylon that will reach the heavens. This attempt to challenge God incurs his wrath, and he creates the many languages of earth, which force groups to disperse. In this work, using oils on wood panel and measuring 3.7 ft. high by 5.1 ft. wide, Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder shows the tower being constructed. Having recently visited Rome, Bruegel chose the Colosseum for his model, which Christians of his day would have seen as a sign of overarching pride and persecution by the Roman Empire. Bruegel’s eye for detail and knowledge of construction techniques blinds us at first, and we believe that all is well. But on further inspection, it becomes clear that there are serious flaws in the tower’s design: (1) there are no stable horizontals, but only a winding spiral; (2) the arches are perpendicular to the ground, which causes instability (in fact, some have already collapsed); and (3) the lower floors were not completed before work on the upper floors commenced, a sure sign of trouble to come. The messages are clear: don’t play God, and pride goeth before a fall (or, here, a collapse). The Tower of Babel is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1544-1564: Titian: Danaë (series) [High Renaissance/Venetian School; Italy]
Between 1544 and 1564, Titian painted a series of five canvases of the mythological princess Danaë. According to Ovid, Danaë was locked in a dungeon after it was prophesied that her firstborn child would kill its father. Nevertheless, Zeus became infatuated with Danaë and appeared to her as a shower of gold coins, after which he seduced and impregnated her. In all Titian’s versions of the painting, Danaë is portrayed as a sexual being, with the curvaceous, fleshy body of a courtesan. In the first version, made with oils on a canvas measuring 3.9 ft. tall by 5.6 ft. wide, youthful Eros gazes at the shower of gold, while Danaë, knees up and legs apart, appears to be a willing participant in the seduction (first image). This version, known as Danaë or Danaë with Eros, is in the National Museum of Capodimonte in Naples. In later versions, the cloth covering Danaë’s thigh is absent and Eros is replaced by a old woman. In the version in the Museo del Prado, from 1553-1554 and known as Danaë with Nursemaid or Danaë Receiving the Golden Rain, Danaë pets a dog and a dark cloud threatens to rain on her golden shower (second image). Other versions include Danaë, from 1553-1554, in the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (third image), and a 1564 version made by Titian with significant help from his workshop, also called Danaë, which is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna (fourth imag).
1565: Tintoretto: The Crucifixion [Mannerism/Proto-Baroque; Venice, Italy]
Tintoretto (born Jacopo Comin) was a Venetian painter whose style combined aspects of Mannerism, the Venetian School (esp. Titian) and the work of Michelangelo. The Crucifixion is a massive canvas (measuring 17 ft. tall by 40.2 ft. wide) that hangs in the Scuola Grande di San Rocco in Venice, along with many other Tintoretto paintings (first image). The extremely busy and energetic composition focuses attention on a muscular and engaged Jesus and the cluster of grieving followers, but the artist fills in the many minor characters, from the two thieves about to be crucified to the soldier about to bring Jesus a vinegar-filled sponge, to the workers performing various tasks (see second and third images, showing detail of the work at left and right, respectively). Above it all is the holy light, ready to take Jesus to heaven.
1565: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Hunters in the Snow [Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
Flemish artist Pieter Bruegel the Elder painted The Hunters in the Snow (also known as The Return of the Hunters) with oil paint on wood panel measuring 3.8 feet tall by 5.3 feet wide (first image). It is one of a series of paintings by Bruegel depicting either the months or the seasons commissioned by Niclaes Jonghelinck, a wealthy Antwerp merchant. This and other paintings depict the terrible winter of 1565, part of the Little Ice Age that befell Europe from 1400-1850. The craggy Alpine peaks in the distance seem out of place for the Netherlands (second image). Together with the birds, the crags hint at a symbolic undertone to this highly detailed and realistic slice-of-life scene. The Hunters in the Snow is now in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1566: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem [Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
Painted by Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder with oils on oak panel measuring 3.8 ft. tall by 5.4 ft. wide, The Census at Bethlehem (sometimes called The Numbering at Bethlehem) appears at first glance to be a contemporary winter scene in a Flemish village, seen from above, with folks going about their business and children playing in the snow. Upon closer inspection, however, we see people lined up to pay the tax collector and a young couple – the man carrying a carpenter’s saw and the woman in blue sitting on a donkey – just arriving. According to the Gospel of Luke, the Roman emperor wanted a count of everyone in the empire, so Joseph and his fiance Mary, who was pregnant with Jesus, traveled from Galilee to Bethlehem, Joseph’s family seat, to be counted and pay a tax. The artist’s innovation was to place the Biblical scene in a familiar context, to which his viewers could relate, and to depict the main characters as just two ordinary people in a crowded village square – Bruegel positions Joseph and Mary off center and does not draw attention to them. Bruegel managed to insert some political commentary as well: at the time, Protestants in the Netherlands were rebelling against the strict Catholic rule of Spain and the Hapsburgs. By placing the two-headed eagle of the Hapsburgs on the door of the tax collector, Bruegel was commenting on the ongoing political troubles. The census was not a frequent subject for artists, and winter landscapes were also rare. Perhaps as a result, this painting spawned over a dozen copies, including several by the artist’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The Census at Bethlehem is now at the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels.
1567: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Peasant Wedding (The Peasant Wedding Feast)
[Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
Scholars tell us that Bruegel’s The Peasant Wedding (also known as The Peasant Wedding Feast) is a fairly accurate depiction of life among farm workers in mid-16th Century Belgium and The Netherlands (first image). According to tradition, the contented bride sits against a green curtain, with a paper crown on her head (and another hanging above) and does nothing (see detail in second image). It’s not clear which man is the groom – he could be the man pouring the beer or the one asking for more. The food is bread, porridge and soup, which is being carried on a door taken off its hinges. Two men play pijpzaks, a version of the bagpipes. The room is a barn or threshing floor, and there is a season’s worth of grain stacked up, creating the back wall. There is a significant amount of drinking going on – probably beer, although art historians who read this as an updated story of the Marriage at Cana believe the plentiful liquid is wine. The figures in conversation at the far right of the table may be the Franciscan priest who married the couple and the wealthy landlord. While many see the painting as a celebration of peasant life and reward after hard work (shown by the rake and corn), some interpret it as a screed against gluttony. To create The Peasant Wedding, Bruegel used oil paints on wood panel measuring 4.1 ft. high by 5.4 ft. wide. Bruegel’s painting is in the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna.
1565-1567: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Massacre of the Innocents
[Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
The year 1567 was a significant one for the people in the Low Countries (present day Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg), particularly those in the north who had converted to Protestantism and declared independence from Spain and the Hapsburgs. The same year, Philip II of Spain sent 10,000 troops under the Duke of Alba to repress the rebellion and restore Catholicism. Therefore, when Pieter Bruegel The Elder painted the Gospel story in which King Herod, fearing a prophesied rival, has all the male infants in the Bethlehem area murdered (an event known as The Massacre of the Innocents), he not only depicted in detail the grisly horror of the killing of dozens of infants, but he added a political message. Bruegel’s setting is not Bethlehem but a Flemish town in winter and the troops carrying out the slaughter were clearly identified as Philip II’s Spanish soldiers and German mercenaries. The painting was so popular that the artist’s son, Pieter Brueghel the Younger, made a number of copies. Another kind of tragedy struck the original painting in the form of Rudoph II of Prague, the Holy Roman Emperor, who purchased the work in the early 17th Century and out of squeamishness, political censorship or both, had almost all the infants repainted as bundles, groceries and livestock (though their shadows sometimes remain) (first image). He also had identifying marks removed from the soldiers. The result is a permanently marred masterpiece that requires several layers of deciphering. What appears to be merely a plundering is truly a massacre: each bundle, jar, ham or goose is painted over a small child. The villagers’ tears are not wept over livestock or parcels, but over their children, and the soldiers’ spears pierce human flesh. In one tiny portion of the canvas, a woman covers her face and another wrings her head covering while a soldier with striped pants spears a baby painted over as a dog; another soldier tears a baby painted over as a red bundle from its mother’s arms; and, in the background, five soldiers thrust their spears into a group of babies, who have been painted over as a pig and some fowl (second image). The Massacre of the Innocents, made with oil on oak panel measuring 3.6 ft. tall by 5.2 ft. wide, is now part of the Royal Collection Trust in the UK.
1568: Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Parable of the Blind (The Blind Leading the Blind) [Northern Renaissance; Flanders]
Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s painting known as The Parable of the Blind Leading the Blind, The Fall of the Blind, or The Blind Leading the Blind has its origin in a statement by Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, referring to the Pharisees: “If one blind person guides another, they will both fall into a ditch.” In this work, Jesus’s prediction appears to be coming true: the blind guide (in a feat of foreshortening by the artist) has tumbled onto his back into a ditch, and his five followers seem about to follow him. Bruegel increases the tension of the scene by composing on a steep diagonal, while the roofs of the houses in the background add to the overall sense of falling. Bruegel does not portray the blind men with sentimentality, but renders them in exact detail. Ophthalmologists who have studied the painting note that each of the five men whose faces are visible has a different medical cause for his blindness. They also praise Bruegel’s accuracy in showing the men with their heads up, the better to use their senses of hearing and smell. The presence of a Catholic church (Sint-Anna) has caused much dispute among art historians wondering if Bruegel intended some comment on the contemporary rebellion of Protestants against Catholic rule in the Netherlands. Bruegel, who normally used oil paints, employed a much older technique, called tüchlein, for this painting. He painted with distemper on linen canvas measuring 2.8 ft. tall by 5.1 ft. wide and limited his palette to a relatively subdued palette of gray, green, brown, red and black. The Blind Leading the Blind is now in the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples.
1574-1583: Giambologna: The Rape of the Sabine Women (Rape of a Sabine)
[Mannerism; Florence, Italy]
Born Jean de Boulogne in Flanders, Giambologna acquired his professional name after he moved to Italy in 1550. In 1581, his patrons the Medicis provided him with a large block of marble, from which he sculpted three nude figures in vertical composition as a showcase of his talent, without a prescribed subject. It was only after the sculpture was complete and Francesco I de’ Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, decreed that it be put on public display in the Loggia dei Lanzi in Florence’s Piazza della Signoria that the subject was declared to be The Rape of the Sabine Women, referring to the story from Ancient Roman history in which the Romans solve their disputes with the neighboring Sabine tribe by forcibly abducting their young women and marrying them, thus creating blood ties between the groups. The Rape of the Sabine Women (also known as Rape of a Sabine) stands 13.4 ft. tall and presents no obvious front view; the viewer must look at all sides (see two views in first and second images) to appreciate the complex composition. At the peak, a young woman struggles to escape from her powerful young abductor, while below them, an older man crouches in fear. The piece is an exemplar of the Mannerist style with its twisting figures and dynamic diagonals. The statue joined other famous sculptures in the Loggia dei Lanzi, including Benvenuto Cellini’s Perseus with the Head of Medusa.
1586: El Greco: The Burial of the Count of Orgaz [Mannerism; Spain]
Born on the island of Crete, Doménikos Theotokópoulos (known as El Greco) spent most of his life in Spain, where he painted his most-praised work, The Burial of the Count of Orgaz (also known as The Burial of Count Orgaz). Made with oils on a canvas measuring 15.7 ft. tall by 11.8 ft. wide, the painting depicts a 14th Century Spanish legend in which St. Stephen and St. Augustine descend from heaven to bury Don Gonzalo Ruíz, a Toledo noble and knight who had been generous to the Church (see first image above). El Greco was commissioned to paint the scene in the side-chapel of the Virgin in his parish church of Santo Tomé in Toledo, Spain. The painting was famous in El Greco’s lifetime for its accurate portrayals of many Toledo notables (including a self-portrait in second image and a portrait of his illegitimate son, Jorge Manuel, in third image). Painting in the Mannerist style (with elements that hearken back to the Byzantine), El Greco divides the canvas between the heavens and the earth, but does not ground the scene by providing a horizon line or a perspectival vanishing point, omissions that serve to emphasize the supernatural quality of the events depicted. Scholars have particularly praised El Greco’s adept use of color in the work, from the black and gold of the nobles’ clothing to the grays and ochres in the heavenly scene, and the touch of bright red contrasting with Mary’s deep blue cloak. The painting remains in the Santo Tomé Church in Toledo.
c. 1585-1590: Nicholas Hilliard: Young Man among Roses [Elizabethan; England]
Nicholas Hilliard was renowned as a miniaturist (including painting illuminated manuscripts), goldsmith and portrait painter. He worked for the courts of Elizabeth I and James I and painted the miniature portraits of many in court circles. Young Man among Roses (see image above) is an oval miniature portrait, a common medium at the time for giving as a calling card or as a personal memento to the object of one’s amorous feelings. Such miniatures were painted in watercolor on vellum, which was then mounted on a card, sometimes a playing card. Young Man among Roses (also known as A Young Man Leaning Against A Tree Amongst Roses) is actually somewhat larger than the average miniature, at 5.3 in. tall by 2.9 in. wide. The man pictured in this miniature is believed by some experts to be Robert Deveraux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who was romantically linked with Queen Elizabeth I. By showing the subject surrounded by five-petaled eglantine roses, Elizabeth’s personal symbol, some believe the Earl (if it is he) is boldly declaring his love for the Virgin Queen herself. The Latin quote above the subject’s head provides another intriguing clue. It translates as “… a praised faith/Is her own scourge, when it sustains their states/Whom fortune hath depressed.” No matter the subject or his object, scholars agree that the miniature captures the charm and freshness of Hilliard’s best work, which, though conservative by continental European standards, embodies the spirit of Elizabethan England. Scholars have noted the influences on Hilliard’s work of Hans Holbein’s portraits and French art, via Hilliard’s visits across the Channel in the late 1570s. Young Man among Roses is now located at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
c. 1550-1593: Giuseppe Arcimboldo: The Seasons: Winter (series) [Mannerism; Italy]
Giuseppe Arcimboldo was an Italian artist of the late Renaissance who painted his share of religious and mythological themes, landscapes and traditional portraits, none of which are remembered today. Instead, Arcimboldo’s legacy is what might be considered a novelty act, if it did not reach beyond novelty to the sublime: he painted human heads and faces (even the occasional bust) whimsically constructed from various organic materials: flowers, fruit, branches, roots, leaves, even sea creatures. The figures look human but they are meant as allegories for specific aspects of nature, one of The Four Seasons, or The Four Elements, in Arcimboldo’s two most famous series. Experts have noted that Arcimboldo’s confabulations actually fulfill one of the goals of Mannerism – to connect human nature with nature itself. They point out that the materials used are not randomly selected but relate thematically to the subject of the painting. The Four Seasons was so popular that Arcimbold made a number of copies, each with minor variations. Of the representations of the four seasons, Winter has a stark solidity that even the evergreen leaves of hair cannot dispel – the craggy roots and fungal lips remind us of death or the temporary coma that winter imposes on nature; the straw mat is as much cloak as shroud. The four images above depict Arcimboldo’s Winter as depicted in four different sets of The Four Seasons: (1) oil on wood panel measuring 2.7 ft. tall by 1.9 ft. wide, c. 1550-1593, now in the Bayerische Staatsgemäldesammlungen in Munich; (2) oil on limewood panel measuring 2.2 ft. tall by 1.7 ft. wide, 1563, now at the Kunsthistorisches Muesum in Vienna; (3) oil on canvas measuring 3 ft. tall by 2.4 ft. wide, 1572, now at The Menil Collection in Houston; and (4) oil on canvas measuring 2.5 ft. tall by 2.1 ft. wide, 1573, now at the Louvre in Paris.
1592-1594: Tintoretto: The Last Supper [Mannerism/Proto-Baroque; Venice, Italy]
Italian artist Tintoretto (born Jacopo Comin) consciously sought to unite the Florentine use of line with the Venetian use of color, but he was also a Mannerist, in that he explored compositions and techniques that broke the rules of the High Renaissance. When Tintoretto painted The Last Supper (using oils on canvas measuring 12 ft. tall by 18.7 ft. wide) for the Basilica di San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice, which was designed by Andrea Palladio, he ignored past precedents. In the famous Last Supper in Milan, Leonardo da Vinci used single-point perspective focused on a central Jesus at a table that paralleled the picture plane and used diffuse, even, natural lighting. Tintoretto’s disjointed composition uses a diagonal table with perspective lines that never quite meet; Jesus, pictured at the moment of the Eucharist (“this is my body…”) is off-center, and the right side of the canvas is filled with minor characters, including a curious cat and a maid whose face is completely in shadow. The only light sources in the dark room are a mystical lamp overflowing with flame and smoke, and the powerful glow of Jesus’ halo. The existence of haloes on Jesus and the apostles (except Judas) is another break with recent tradition and in some ways a return to medieval iconography; even more of a departure are the swarms of translucent angels hovering around the ceiling. High Renaissance humanism sought to depict the spiritual realm using only the elements of the natural world; Mannerists like Tintoretto felt comfortable depicting mystical phenomena directly. Tintoretto’s The Last Supper remains in the San Giorgio Maggiore church in Venice.
1590-1595: El Greco: The Agony in the Garden [High Renaissance/Mannerism; Spain]
In keeping with the Mannerist philosophy, El Greco’s depiction of The Agony in the Garden, made with oils on canvas measuring 3.4 ft. high by 3.8 ft. wide, breaks many of the rules that Renaissance artists cared about. The figures and landscape swell and sway in unnatural ways; there is little attention paid to the rules of linear perspective or to ensuring the substantiality of the bodies or the land masses. Apostles Peter, James and John sleep in a cave but look more like seeds in a pod; the swirling clouds turn the moon into an eye; the rock behind Jesus both frames him and seems to lift him up. Instead of the rules, El Greco’s focus is on representing Jesus’s turmoil over his upcoming suffering and death by embodying that emotional truth in the shapes and colors on the canvas. Scholars have pointed out the inevitability of Jesus’s fate is traced by a diagonal from the angel through Christ to the soldiers at the far right, on their way to arrest him. El Greco kept returning to this subject, and he and his workshop produced a number of versions in both vertical and horizontal format but art historians believe the version of The Agony in the Garden now located in the Toledo Museum of Art in Toledo, Ohio is the original, or at least the prototype of the horizontal copies.
c. 1595-1597: Caravaggio: Bacchus [Mannerism/Baroque; Italy]
Milan-born artist Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, known simply as Caravaggio, came to Rome in 1592 to make his fortune but it was not until 1594, when he painted The Cardsharps, that he attracted the attention of a true patron of the arts, Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte, the center of a large circle of art-loving (and, just as importantly, art buying) friends. Del Monte commissioned a number of chamber pieces from Caravaggio, including a painting of Bacchus, the god of wine. The results were unexpected: Caravaggio’s Bacchus is not idealized; he is a fleshy teenager with dirty fingernails who looks like he’s gotten into his parent’s liquor cabinet. His shirt has fallen off one shoulder, and he holds out a glass of wine with a come-hither look on his immature face. He seems less like a deity and more like a young artist’s model enjoying a game of dress-up. Although Caravaggio deliberately ignores the background, he revels in the grime of real life in the foreground, paying attention not just to the dirty fingernails, but the stained sheets and the soiled mattress underneath. Upon closer inspection, the fruit in the bowl is bruised or overripe fruit – perhaps a ‘vanitas’ reminder that all earthly things will eventually spoil. Caravaggio has also inserted two bravura examples of his expert technique: (1) Bacchus’s face is reflected in the surface of the wine in the glass; and (2) Caravaggio and his easel are reflected in the glass of the wine carafe. Experts have speculated that Caravaggio may have used a mirror to avoid making a preliminary drawing, which would explain why Bacchus seems to be holding the wine glass in his left hand, when the odds favor a right-handed model. Caravaggio made Bacchus using oil on canvas measuring 3.1 ft. tall by 2.75 ft. wide; it is now in the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
1596-1599: El Greco: View of Toledo [Mannerism; Spain]
The history of Toledo, Spain is rich with cultural heritage, religious intensity, and political significance. From the Romans to the Visigoths, the Moors (who tolerated a large Jewish community) and the Christians, each group left its mark. Between the 5th and 7th Centuries CE, the Christian church convened approximately 30 synods in Toledo to address various religious controversies. In the 16th Century, Toledo was the capital of Holy Roman Emperor Charles I. Toledo was also the adopted home of Doménikos Theotokópoulos, better known as El Greco, who lived and worked there from 1577 until his death in 1614. It is not surprising then, that when El Greco needed a landscape for the background of his painting of St. Joseph and the Christ Child (c. 1597-1599), he painted a version of the Toledo skyline (second image). What he did next was surprising, though. He reworked the background into an independent landscape, one of only two he ever painted, and possibly the first Spanish landscape ever, View of Toledo (first image). Rather than an accurate documentary rendering of his beloved city, El Greco painted an emblematic landscape, or spiritual portrait, that captured the essence of the city. The artist includes the Castle of San Servando, the Alcázar, the Cathedral, the Alcántara Bridge, the Tagus River and other landmarks, but he has has made some adjustments to accommodate the viewpoint he has chosen (looking from the north at Toledo’s eastern section) – valuing emotional truth over cartographic. The dramatic contrast of hills and sky creates an emotional reaction that opens us up to the mystical qualities that El Greco wants to convey, of what one commentator called his “Byzantine memories.” View of Toledo was made with oil on canvas 3.9 ft. tall by 3.6 ft. wide; it is now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. (Note: While most sources identify the dates of the painting as 1595-1600, with many focusing specifically on 1597-1599, some have dated it to 1604-1614.)
To continue on to Art History 101, Part III (1600-1799), click here.