Art Studies – Geometric Composition

In the previous chapters we talked about the elements of composition. We found that the composition or arrangement of figures and objects in the picture is designed by artists for two purposes: Firstly, to represent some subject; and, secondly, to represent it in such a way that the arrangement itself will be a source of pleasure. This second purpose is what makes the picture a work of art. And we found that the artist, in order to make his composition give pleasure to our sense of sight, relies upon the pleasure that we derive from repetition and contrast, and upon the instinct that we all have for keeping our balance. The elements of composition, in fact, are repetition and contrast in a state of balance, sometimes with the added charm of rhythm. We also found that one way in which artists contrive to make this balance of repetition and contrast is by playing, as we may say, upon the simple geometrical patterns of the rectangle, triangle, and circle.

Now let us study an actual example, and for the purpose I have chosen Raphael’s Disputa. It is painted on a wall of one of the ” Stanze ” or suite of rooms in the Vatican, the home of tile Pope, in Rome. Raphael painted many other decorations in these rooms, but this was his first one, executed when. as a young man of twenty-five he had been summoned from Florence to work for the powerful pope, Julian II. Raphael had been a pupil of Perugino, and he took one of the geometrical designs that his master had already used. The pupil, however, improved upon it.

Observe, first, the shape of the space that Raphael was called upon to decorate. It is known as a lunette or moon-shape. Now it was this space and no other, that for the time being, he had to decorate. What he put into it, must be suggested by, one may almost say, must grow out of, the particular shape of this space. In fact, the outside lines of the lunette, and the lines inside, must together form the pattern of the composition. Now observe how he did it. Briefly, he put into it a number of curved lines, that would repeat the curve of the outside, and some-times also be in contrast to it. Likewise he introduced horizontal lines, to repeat the bottom edge, and vertical ones in contrast. Let us examine it more closely.

Not quite in the center but nearly so, is a small circle, on which appears a dove. This circle arrests our eye, and its effect is to make us feel very certainly that part of the composition is above it and part below. It is repeated above by a much larger circle. This is not completed; for its regularity of shape is interrupted by the two figures, seated one on each side. The circle seems to pass behind these till it merges with the clouds below. Both the small and the large circles repeat the outside curves of the lunette. On the other hand the curve of the clouds, and the figures seated upon them form a contrasting curve, and there is another one higher up, formed by the two groups of floating angels. In the center, above the larger circle, is a figure with a nimbus that points up, carrying our eye toward an imaginary center, somewhere outside the picture, from which, start the radiating lines. So the impression of that part of the picture that we have been examining is of uplift. By successive steps the eye and, through it, the imagination, are invited to mount up.

And now for the part below the small circle, separated from what is above by an open space of clear blue sky.. Do you notice that the band of figures stretching across this part takes the form of a curve, repeating the curves of the circles but contrasted with the two important curves of cloud ? Its effect is to prevent one’s gaze from soaring altogether up-ward. This downward curve, as it were, tethers the composition to the ground firmly in the two corners. And now note that the central feature of this lower part is the altar, an equilateral, in strongest possible contrast to the curves and circles above it. That it may have still stronger emphasis, observe how its horizontal lines are repeated down to the bottom of the picture by the steps, so that the eye, as it were, mounts the steps to this central feature.

Further the equilateral is again enforced and also balanced by the vertical and horizontal lines, forming a suggestion of equilateral figures in the corners. The one on the right is actually a doorway ; the black part is the door. Some artists might have felt it was a drawback to have a bit thus cut out of the picture. Not so Raphael. There, as elsewhere in these rooms, he takes the doorway into his composition and makes it serve a very useful purpose of emphasising the corner, and then invents another structure to strengthen equally the corner opposite.

Now note the radiating lines of the pavement. In a general way they repeat the radiation of the lines at the top of the picture; but they are farther apart and bolder, as befits the bolder character of the lower part. Have you discovered the point from which these lines of the pavement radiate ? By using a straight edge to each in turn, you will find that all the lines, if continued would meet within the little circle of ornament that stands upon the altar. To this point also the gaze of many of the figures is directed.

Some of the figures, however, are standing so that though they gaze towards this center, the lines of their bodies lead our gaze upward as well as towards the center. Then again, beside the altar is a figure with its arm pointing upward, so that our eye and imagination are not permitted to stop at the little circle. For Raphael had to bind the lower and upper parts together and make one united composition. Very easily the stretch of the sky might have divided the whole into two parts. Lest it should, he has softened the contrast of the lower and upper curves by introducing on the one side a building, on the other a low hill with delicate trees springing upward.

Now let us pause for a moment, and observe the general effect of the lines, which we can do by turning to the skeleton drawing on transparent paper. It lays bare the plan of the composition, and we can see that it is a geometric composition of repetition and contrasts, of horizontal, vertical, diagonal and curved lines, balanced so as to unite into one single impression. To myself the impression is of looking into the interior of a circular building, with a vaulted roof. I remember just such a building in Rome; the Pantheon, built in honor of all the gods, but now, as in Raphael’s time, a temple of the Church. As you enter it an altar faces you across the stretch of pavement, and the lines of the architecture, as it circles round you and above you, are very similar to these lines, while overhead the ribs or radiating lines of the vaulted ceiling suddenly stop, for there is a circular opening at the top, through which you can see the sky, and the light strikes down through it in diagonal shafts of light.

I wonder if Raphael had the Pantheon in mind when he composed this picture? Very likely, for he must have seen it; and he had a wonderful gift for receiving impressions and making use of them. And this building, both for its unusual shape and particularly from that wonderful opening, carrying variety of beautiful thoughts, and how the simplicity of the design of the structure has been hung, as it were, with rich embroideries of detail, I must leave you to search out for yourselves. If you do, you will find that each figure represents some example of repetition or contrast, each a separate beauty and meaning.

In conclusion I will ask you one question. Do you perceive the rhythm that prevails in this balance of repetition and contrast: how from the bottom of the composition the successive waves of pattern flow upward, as the thoughts of the Faithful mount in successive waves of prayer and adoration?